“Most people are here to be loved not to be tied down to an ambition.”
52 year old Dan Neel is talking in marketing tag lines punctuated by the rising and falling of his voice in a theatrical monologue. Occasionally he is yelling to make sure I’m awake and following his meaning.
It’s a bit like watching Robin Williams when he did stand up. His dialogue moves quickly and if you miss a piece of it, you’re lost. It’s complex, funny and dangerous.
Neel is performing on Haight Street in front of the Goodwill store as he quickly pushes me through his tutorial, occasionally taking off in his wheelchair yelling, “Come on, follow me!”
People are staring. I’m running after this man with the wild hair I’ve just met through the crowded streets of San Francisco’s famed Haight Ashbury. He parts the crowded sidewalks like Moses and I’m breathless keeping up as he throws out words like bait over his shoulder pulling me in line by line.
On this day I’m in San Francisco to cover homelessness from the perspective of those living it. I’ve been doing this for a couple of months. I started in Seattle and I’m working my way south.
The number of people who do not have a regular address is growing in statistically significant ways, especially on the west coast where all of the major cities have declared a crisis around homelessness. In San Francisco, which has always had a high homeless count, now has 795 homeless people per 100,000 residents. 71% of homeless people were housed and living in the city when they became homeless.
As tent cities spring up, more money is devoted to ending homelessness to no avail.
Dan Neel says he knows why: in a word it is perspective.
“We live in a society of delayed endings. Homelessness is a place to stop, an ending that allows people rest and to be themselves and pursue what they want.”
His blue eyes hone in as he looks above the reading glasses fixed on his tanned nose. His grey blonde hair is sticking up in spikes and waves. He has a trimmed beard. He is electric in his presentation.
Neel is an insiders outsider. Even now he is running as a write in candidate for supervisor after sleeping for five years in the district–outside in Golden Gate Park. Married and successful in New York for more than twenty years, Neel worked in the advertising business. Then a “tragic divorce” which left him “Financially ruined” changed everything. “I flew home to San Francisco because it was home.” But when he couldn’t stay with friends any longer and still hadn’t found work, life changed-dramatically. “I went to the park.” And for five years he stayed- sleeping in the grass at night and roaming the streets by day getting to know other people in his same situation.
“I met a woman who had lived homeless for twenty years and she showed me the ropes.”
I ask him about being in a wheelchair and sleeping outside. “There’s nothing negative about it. I get around better now.” His doctors tell him he has developed arthritis in his knee. “Don’t feel sorry for yourself. That’s a measure of a man.”
Neel is a freedom junkie. If you give him more than a minute, he’ll get that measured silence before the soliloquey snap in his eyes and take you into his own Lewis Carroll style world where the reality you knew has vanished into a smiling cat with a secret. “People are afraid something will happen if they become homeless. Nothing happens. You are set free. Your schedule, your wishes, what you want.”
But, he is not suggesting everyone become homeless. He is suggesting that it happens to a lot of people, more now than ever, and it’s okay to find a positive aspect, even a solution within that reality.
There’s not enough room at the top.
He calls it a baseline. He makes a graph with his hands, “This is the baseline.” He points to the bottom of his hand, ” These are poor people who are homeless.” He points to the highest part of his fingers with his other hand. “These are the people higher up on the graph. There are not enough jobs and homes for everyone. There are going to be people at the top, fewer of them, and people at the bottom.”
Neel says if we accept homelessness or people on the baseline as a reality then we can figure out ways to realistically and productively work with it and with them. If you make them the problem, Neel says, and don’t see the reality that they are homeless because there are not enough houses, jobs and resources to put everyone above the baseline, you create worse problems. Problems which cost money and still have people homeless.
“People who look at it [homelessness] as a problem don’t see it’s solutions.”
This is where he gets dangerous. “You don’t have to compete for a job-there aren’t enough jobs. You don’t have to wait to retire. It’s right in front of you. Homelessness is a solution. I discovered it by living it.”
Hanging on to bad relationships for fear of being homeless, chasing jobs he wasn’t going to get and still being homeless can break you, says Neel. “There’s not enough for everyone. So let the people who need the jobs and houses have them. Let the people who don’t stand a chance of having those things stop working for something that’s impossible.”
“We’re a society that can’t accept loss.”
When I ask him about the things people fear about being homeless such as not sleeping, being cold, smelling bad, run ins with police-he says without flinching, “You will face all those things. That will happen.”
But Neel explains as he is now sitting quite still and listening and speaking carefully, “There is no such thing as a man made necessity.”
He leans back in his chair and gives me time with that sentence. I start listing things: food, water, health,safety–then I find one–shelter! He nods his head no. He takes umbrage with what he used to consider necessary. “We have houses full of souvenirs we don’t need.”
An ironic bit of news comes up as he scoots his chair away from the table where we are sitting at a small coffee shop, the sun pouring in with all its memories of the former glory of The Haight, the old hippies and new ones strolling by, “I’ve had an apartment for two months. I got a bad blood infection and when I was in the hospital they moved me up the list. It took me a while to adjust. There was a level of pride in being baseline and needing so little. I stay outside as much as I can still.” I ask him why he took the place and he said it’s because it’s nice to have a place to write and work out his ideas at night where there is light.
I tell him he’s a dangerous man. “We’re just former children wanting to be loved.”