Why are you sleeping on our doorstep?

Florida Housing Coalition President Jaimie Ross recently published an article in The Miami Herald where she cited shocking evidence from Enterprise Community Partners.

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Image from The Miami Herald

According to Ross, “36 percent of renters” in South Florida “spend more than half their income on rent” (Miami Herald). In my work with PACT (People Acting for Community Together), I have found that there are families paying up to 70 percent of their income just on rent. That is tragic.

When families pay 50-70 percent of their income just on housing, what do they have left for medical expenses, childcare, car payments, and groceries. Is it moral that we live in a world where “hundreds of senior [citizens have to sleep] in their cars just to get on a waiting list for a chance to apply for an affordable place to live” (Miami Herald). How can we expect our students to succeed when thousands are left homeless in South Florida. It is unacceptable and immoral that anyone is homeless, especially because we live in a country of abundance.

Back in September of this year, Pope Francis visited the United States of North America. It was a miraculous trip! He was actually able to unite Republicans and Democrats, though momentarily. To say the least, Pope Francis had everyone drinking right out of his water cup–that statement is more literal for some.

Pope Francis left a lasting impact for many reasons, but his treatment of the homeless was most striking. According to Religious News, the Pope dined with America’s forgotten, and he called for serious policy change, because:

“We can find no social or moral justification, no justification whatsoever, for lack of housing… we know that God is suffering with us, experiencing them at our side. He does not abandon us.”

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Image from Religious News

There is no moral justification for homelessness, and I’d like to add that there is no justifiable reason why anyone should be paying more than 30 percent of their income on housing, which is the percentage the Federal Government recommends.

This last Saturday, the weekend of Art Basel, when Miami-Dade was buzzing with people and capitalism, I spent 20 minutes discussing homelessness with Benjamin Bethea.

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Benjamin Bethea waving from his home, my office doorstep.

I heard about the 57-year old before I ever met him. [There’s a homeless man who sometimes sleeps in our yard if we leave the gate open], I was told when I started my job in January. In my early months, I never saw a homeless man in our yard, but around March I started to notice a man on the front steps of the office downstairs. We share our office with DART (Direct Action and Research Training), the network that PACT is a member of. He never bothered me, and I felt no reason to fear him. In truth, on nights when I left the office passed 9:00PM, I was thankful for Benjamin–I felt safer knowing he was there.

It was not until May that I began to have small talk with Benjamin, often asking if he needs anything, and getting a polite no. When we first spoke, I noticed that his voice is strained. Questions about his health, how he became homeless, where his family is, and whether or not he is mentally stable continued to present themselves.

How did Benjamin end up homeless 

“Some troubles, some things—I got involved with some people and some things happened. I was doing very good. I always kept a job, but I got tied up in some things and I lost a job. I use to work for Miami-Dade water department.”

Some troubles, some things. Was he addicted to drugs? Did he go to Jail? Benjamin worked for Miami-Dade for two years, had good benefits–what sort of troubles messed that up?

What sort of troubles  

Benjamin spent the first 18 years of his life living with his mother in Brownsville, an area somewhere between Liberty City and Hialeah, both located in Miami-Dade, Florida. Upon becoming an adult, he found his own apartment where he lived with a girlfriend, but troubles soon came.

“Doing stuff, drugs—you know. Not only that, but I was dealing and it messed up my job.” 

Around 21, Benjamin started smoking and dealing Marijuana. He dealt drugs for 10 years before everything came crashing down. A decade is quite the career for a drug dealer, but Benjamin managed because he knew a lot of people and had connections with people who trusted him.

“I went to Camp Belle Glade in Palm Beach. They close it down now. They use to shoot movies and everything in the prison, but it’s over now. Thank God I learned my lesson. 

Thank God I learned my lesson 

Throughout our conversation, Benjamin thanked God for the life he now has. He will turn 58 on December 27th and shows no signs of illness. Earlier, I mentioned that Benjamin has a strained voice. A few years back, he had surgery to remove a tumor that formed because of the many years he spent smoking cigarettes.

I want to go back to something Benjamin said about prison, “thank God I learned my lesson.” Prison is meant to be a corrective experience. Benjamin even talked about receiving a “life skill” class before he returned to society after his two-year sentence. However, upon release he found it difficult to re-adjust.

“When you got a record, it knocks your ability–the opportunity for a job.”

Let me remind you, Benjamin went to prison for selling Marijuana, an experience many black men have had because of unfair policy. He luckily only served two years, but he grew up in a time when black men men got 10, 20, or even 25 years for charges affiliated with Marijuana. Nonetheless, he was in the wrong, he did something illegal and served his time. He came out of Belle Glade a changed man.

Despite having paid his debt to society, Benjamin hasn’t lived in stable housing for 30 years. Our doorstep has been the place he calls home for many years now. He spoke with excitement when he described having known the neighborhood.

“Another guy–we use to hang out, before they open the paint store there that was a lawyer office. I knew the lawyer office before they remodeled it. They use to have a porch. Before they made it a paint store, it was a lawyer’s office—I use to clean up. I been in this area for over 20 something years. Everybody know me, I’m cool with everybody. 

What is next for Benjamin 

I worry about what is next for Benjamin. I worry because the PACT and DART offices are moving. Our neighborhood is on Biscayne, an area of the county that is going up in value as Miami-Dade continues to face gentrification. PACT is a small non-for-profit and as South Florida continues to mark the charts as one of the most unaffordable areas in the states, my organization can no longer afford to operate in such a hot-shot location. So, I worry about what will happen to Benjamin if our building is knocked down and replaced with a multi-million dollar condo. He assured me that he will be fine, he always is, and God is on his side.

Benjamin just got a new job and estimates that he will be able to afford a residence for $400.00 per month.

“Like the people that do landscaping and garden fancy houses. They got all types of pearl stones. My job is—it’s 40 pounds—the people order by the pound—but it’s a 40 pound bag. I make the 40-pound bag and I seal it, I seal it with the machine.”

Final words from Benjamin

Our interview was cut a couple minutes short as Benjamin began to experience a coughing fit, something I imagine happened from straining his voice talking. However, before we ended, I asked him what he would say to his younger self and whether or not he is happy.

If Benjamin were a time traveler, he would tell his younger self to:

“Be a real man, stay strong, and use your head. A real man is standing up to your responsibility. Being strong is to carry on–to keep going–don’t let what is no good for you come next to you.”

I wondered if I would come off rude asking a homeless man if he were happy, but I asked anyway:

“No, but I am happy I am still alive, you know and I can breathe. Some people didn’t make it. Some people—I am sick—but I say thank God it’s not a pain. Some people are sick and they are suffering from pain. I praise him for all that.

Benjamin is not happy, but he is grateful. In his solemn thankfulness, he left me with some words that are all too ironic for a man who has already served his time for sins committed in his youth, wrongs he has served over three decades paying the consequences for.

“It’s the end. My day has come. The judgement. Justice is coming to serve me.” 

Justice is coming… I can only pray that righteousness looks like Pope Francis’ treatment of the homeless.

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Men become what we socialize boys to be…

“When I was eight I made a pie from scratch, with fruit from our backyard, for my grandfather, my father’s father, and we took it to my granddad, my dad drove me there. My grandfather he took it, and was very quiet for a second, smelled it, said it smelled really good but he said ‘thank you sweetie.’ He was trying to be supportive but that was never language he used with my male cousins, that’s how he spoke to my female cousins… it was very indirect, but that’s when I began to understand there were male and female roles.

–Mark Freeman—

Seven months ago, I moved into a new space. This space came with a gorgeous black lab and two men in their thirties. Upon discussing my new living arrangements with people, they often had a head-tilt reaction. What could a 23-year old woman possibly be doing living with two men.

In a world where parents have to hear stories about their daughters being cat-called on the street and are left having to compare a woman’s virginity to some treasure chest that needs to be buried deep, I understand the rationalization behind the concerned head movements.

However, I can’t help but wonder why men think certain behaviors are okay and why is it that when a young woman outlines her non-traditional living situation she is met with concern for safety, thoughts about whether sex will become an issue, and that infamous head-tilt that begs for answers to questions that might be rude to ask.

My take is that men are not born men. Like everyone else, they were once little infants ready to absorb ideals, morals, lessons, and whatever else life has to offer. As they grow into manhood, boys receive messages, and before we know it they become versions of what society (family, friends, classmates, media) tells them they should be.

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Meet Tony Morales, Sally, and Mark Freeman, my roommates. They aren’t normally this geeked out, we recently had a Back to the Future themed party to celebrate Tony’s birthday (actually, that is pretty geeky). Let’s take a look at what kind of men they were socialized to be as boys…

Being a man 

Tony: Being a man is an extension of a being a good person. I was always taught that as a man you have to be the head of the family, respect your partner, be a provider, and a good example for those around you. 

Mark: To me, it’s very individual, but there are some social pressures and social values on what it is to be a man. The social pressures of what are considered typical male traits, values, abilities–it’s still socialized that men win the resources, men go out and get the better paying jobs, men support their family. 

It seems that though Tony grew up in Jinotepe, Nicaragua, where family values are more traditional, and Mark in South East Portland, Oregon, where his parents followed a hybrid family model, they both have grown up to understand that men should be the primary bread-winner and head of the family.

Tony’s boyhood shoes 

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Unlike Mark, who grew up with both his mother and father present in the home, Tony did not.

Tony: My mom and my sisters were great examples, my dad passed when I was 12. I grew up with my three sisters, mom, and grandma in Nicaragua which is a family oriented society. I think all of that is a unique way to grow up. 

However, Tony did not spend his entire childhood in Nicaragua. His family emigrated to the United States early in his life because of the revolution. Before Tony’s father passed, he spent a lot of time at work. Although he was away from his wife and children, Mr. Morales always made sure they knew how much he loved them.

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Tony: Last time I was in Nicaragua for Christmas, my mom pulled out some letters. When my dad was traveling outside for work, he took the time to write to her and tell her how much he missed her and the kids. He had to make the sacrifice to be away from us, but he took the time to let us know he wished he could be with us. 

Mr. Morales had a masters in chemical engineering, but in times of war and economic hardship, those things cease to matter. Despite the sacrifices he had to make to keep his family safe, he left a lasting impression on young Tony. Mr. Morales showed Tony what it means to be a man, to love one’s family, and how to be a good person. What is most striking about the relationship Tony had with his father is how young he was when Mr. Morales was killed in their home during an invasion, but also how much of him Tony still holds on to. Although, Mr. Morales wasn’t there to have father-son conversations with Tony when he began to wonder about the opposite sex, Tony’s memories of his father were a reference and remain so.

Tony: My parents had the philosophy to not go to bed angry, to always communicate if they were fighting and try to end up laughing instead.

When I continued to probe about where else he looked for inspiration when he felt an attraction to the opposite sex, Tony referenced media.

Tony: That was tough, I mostly kept it all internal. I tried talking to my friends but found that they were a bit more macho. My best friend between the ages of 12 and 18, who most people would confide these things in, was female. I also relied on the example of my mom and dad, and romantic comedies. 

He laughed, commenting on how sad it was that he turned to romantic comedies for love advice, but that virtual realm affirmed Tony’s respect for women.

Tony: When I was in that stage of development and thinking of women [as potential partners], my example was my mom who was pretty much a single mother raising four kids, going to work full-time, taking care of the house, taking care of us, putting my family through college and school and everything. I always saw a great amount of strength in her, so growing up, I was always attracted to strong women. 

Tony never saw a women as something to be conquered.

Tony: I wouldn’t say conquer though I like strong women, so I like a challenge. I like the chase, it’s not a conquering–it’s more like this person is worth the effort.

Mark’s boyhood shoes 

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Mark: I grew up in a household where both of my parents were working and contributing in very equal but also very different ways. The household chores were still primarily done by my mother, but my dad would cook and that was a rarity amongst our friends. 

In his Oregon town it was not uncommon for Mark to be around other young boys who engaged in fights, hunting, and playing in the mud.

Unlike Tony, Mark was fortunate to have his father around. Mark describes Mr. Freeman as a masculine man who hunts, got into fights in his prime, and was the main breadwinner, although his mother also worked. Mark also remembers his father cooking delicious meals in the kitchen and lending a hand when he could. However, Mark learned a pivotal lesson about masculinity from his grandfather.

Mark: When I was eight I made a pie from scratch, with fruit from our backyard, for my grandfather, my father’s father, and we took it to my granddad, my dad drove me there. My grandfather he took it, and was very quiet for a second, smelled it, said it smelled really good but he said ‘thank you sweetie.’ He was trying to be supportive but that was never language he used with my male cousins, that’s how he spoke to my female cousins… it was very indirect, but that’s when I began to understand there were male and female roles.

That exchange with his grandfather has stayed with Mark, because it was the point in his formative years when he learned that there were things that boys do and things that girls do. Fortunately, Mark excelled at what he was supposed to do as a boy; “playing sports and doing all those gross things like playing in mud,” so he didn’t remain too occupied with the thought. However, there is one formative experience that Mark held onto for many years. At age 14, a girl asked him out…

Mark: My response to her in that exact moment was ‘maybe, let me talk to my mom,’ that’s not a classic male response.  

When Mark went on to ask his mother, she said that he was not ready to date. There was no further discussion or talk. Mark struggled with that for awhile especially because his friends were exploring with dating.

Mark: I was a really emotional kid and it was good for my mom to at that point say, ‘I don’t think you’re ready,’ but it really hurt to hear that even though I understood. 

Who were Mark and Tony socialized to be

From the stories shared, it’s understood that Mark and Tony were both socialized to be the kind of man who knows his role in the home, provides for his family, listens, sees more in a woman than a sexual body, and is open to respectfully exploring the boundaries of normalcy.

It is important to point out that both Mark and Tony had strong women who contributed to their growth as men. Their model of what a man is supposed to be was influenced by their fathers, but when it came to getting answers to questions about how to treat a woman, the women in their lives held the chalk to the board.

As I rounded up my conversations with both men, I asked them what came to mind when they thought of the phrase, Men become what we socialize boys to be, and this is what they shared…

Tony: I do agree, not just boys or men, but people in general absorb a lot of what society puts in front of them when they’re growing up. You absorb so much information and that’s why good role models, I think, are very important… It’s sad to see that there are not many good role models and that kinda also inspired me to join the Big Brother Big Sister Club so I can be there for anyone who doesn’t have someone to look up to as a male figure.

Mark: That’s heavy man, I like that. I have thought a lot about part of this. That is, I recognized in my dad a conflict where he very much is masculine in those traditional senses and very much can be macho and very patriarchal in some negative ways, but also in some positive ways. He always seemed to be frustrated that he had to take on certain roles. I was always aware of his disappointment in having to make certain decisions, quote-on-quote as a man should, versus being able to allow his partner be able to handle certain responsibilities and still maintain his manhood.

As I grew up and became whatever a man is, I started to say ‘hey, you know what, there is more fluidity to this than people think there is,’ and my dad was confused and frustrated about the lack of power he felt to flex whatever his manhood was. Maybe I have the freedom to explore what being a man means for me, and I am bumping to a lot of men this way and a lot of women this way.

Tony: The fact that I grew up surrounded by women, I understand that I might be on the edges of what is normal. There has to be a balance, I’m a little bit toward the sensitive side.

Living with Mark and Tony these last seven months, I have learned a great deal about being kind, listening, and living in community with men. It is important that I point out that they are two pretty awesome human beings, and represent a small sample size. I do believe that they have both grown to be respectful men because of how they were brought up, so that proves my reflection to be correct in this scenario. However, I have not spoken to enough men from varied backgrounds about their boyhood experiences to draw a conclusion that it is correct that all Men become what we socialize boys to be.

It would also be unfair to say that those who do the head-tilt have unfounded concerns. After all, we do live in a society where women are sexualized and abused, but it is important to recognize that all men weren’t socialized the same way as boys.

As a woman with men in her life who I admire and love, I hope to socialize them to understand that it is normal to be sensitive and kind, and that it is normal to have a woman walk into your life and want to offer her a relationship or connection that doesn’t include sex though it may. The fact that I feel the need to write that sentence shows that our society is speaking loud messages to young boys and men that lead them to believe otherwise. If someday, I am blessed with young boys, I hope to raise them with the same level of respect and fluidity that I have found in Tony and Mark.

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Author’s Note: This post raises a lot of complex questions that I could not possibly answer in one blog. It honors two men who respect women and understand that we have more to offer than our bodies. There are still important questions left to answer about why men over-step their bounds and cat-call or do far worse. 

Social Media: It’s a Must, Not a Mystery

The Back on Track Network career support ministry is proud to present this presentation on Social Media. It seems that every year a new social media platform pops up, making it harder to understand the ever-changing world and relevancy unattainable. Whether it’s Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or blogging, you can learn to master social media platforms and make the experience your own.

Flose Boursiquot is a Community Organizer working with PACT (People Acting for Community Together). Before moving from the Northeast to the Sunshine State, she graduated from Syracuse University in 2014 where she majored in Public Relations and Sociology. Flose has experience working in public relations for A&E Television Networks in New York City, is an avid consumer of social media, and has recently started her own blog letitflose.wordpress.com.

Please join us for this practical seminar Tuesday, October 6, at Coral Gables Congregational United Church of Christ, Havighorst Hall Meeting Room, 3010 De Soto Boulevard, Miami, FL 33134

Please visit http://www.backontracknet.org for a complete list of our other events.

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