“But don’t they really WANT to live that way?”
As a street minister who (in part) serves the poor and homeless, I find the above question repeated (almost verbatim) frequently when talking about homelessness in conversation with the white, middle-class, American church. It’s not everyone’s question, but it comes up a lot. “Don’t these people actually desire their lifestyle?” (Perhaps I have never heard it put quite like that, but it’s the same question.)
There are two main answers to this question, and depending on who you talk to, you will get one or the other. Either, YES, they want to live like this or No, they don’t. Each answer tends to come with some qualification, if the one you ask is thoughtful about it, but that seems to be the main options. By the way, I find many of the homeless themselves will answer YES to this as well, and that goes to the heart of my post.
But first, I want to say that we are not in court under cross examination here. The prosecutor is not asking if you have stopped beating your wife, YES or NO! and boxing you in with that loaded question. We can think outside of this box, and I will do that presently with this question. Yet I will do so by way of “Alexander Supertramp.”
My guess is that by talking about Alexander Supertramp, I will highlight differences in homelessness. Some people are homeless who live in a car, others in a shelter, others in tent city, others in RV’s or storage sheds. Some “live in a van down by the river.” Others live under a bridge, in storefronts, or back alleys. Some sofa-surf with family and friends.
To my way of thinking, living in a college dorm or military barracks qualifies – and if not outright qualification as homeless, those kinds of living situations blur the lines. But at least by pointing this kind out, I open the door for wilderness-adventure seekers too. (By the way, I have argued elsewhere that the POTUS also is homeless in a very technical sense due to the fact that his extended stay at the White House uproots him from “home” in a very real sense.*)
Alexander Supertramp was the pseudonym adopted by Chris McCandless, the wilderness adventurer made famous by the book Into The Wild (and the movie of the same name). That book and movie tell a story BASED ON A REAL LIFE person and events, but a lot of it is conjecture, and some important parts of that story are hotly disputed by researchers. I definitely am NOT qualified to settle those arguments at all. But I can critique the depiction of McCandless from the movie and the popular notion(s) about the man it promotes, and that is a worthwhile endeavor since the book’s and movie’s depiction is both the most well known and so dearly beloved by readers/audiences. Whether historical fact or fiction, Alexander Supertramp was a myth. And he was homeless. AND… he wanted to live that way.
This makes for an interesting case study.
Whether McCandless actually wanted to be destitute and to “live off the land” in the most stark circumstance or whether that is puffed up poetic license, the notion is well accepted by many and even admired by some. Thus, rather than speaking to historical fact, I speak to that popular notion regardless of it’s historical veracity.
Having recently watched the movie (again) to hold fresh in my mind the story of Alexander Supertramp as told, I find it to be quite an emotional ride. The love of nature and the dread of “society” and societal evils makes for quite a Romantic impulse, as I understand that term. McCandless could almost hardly be more Christian except he did not orient his rejection of “the world” around Jesus. In fact, there is very little in the movie that even hints of Christian faith. But the choices to give up all worldly goods and to trust in nature to provide parodies religious faith so palpably that you have to be in utter denial not to feel it slap you in the face!
McCandless even gets a new identity. “Alexander Supertramp.” He erases every bit of his former way of life and embarks on adventure in ascetic dependence on the kindness of strangers and of nature itself. He completely rejects his home, his family, his belongings, his money – all of it. He walks away from his education and the opportunities and potential all of that provides. In the movie, he abandons his car and even burns his ID cards and his cash and sets out walking across the desert (almost like a wandering Jew of old).
Along the way, Supertramp makes new friends – acquaintances really… people whose company he enjoys briefly, but as those relationships begin to develop expectations of obligatory reciprocity, he pulls away. Some of these friends, becoming endeared to him, try to argue him into putting down roots with them. There is something mystical driving him away which they all respect, but which cuts into their hearts as he insists on his solitude and rootless adventure. It is deeply sacrificial to live this way, but Supertramp definitely desires it!
Finally, Alexander Supertramp makes his way to the wilderness of Alaska! Alone! Ten pounds of rice, a hunting rifle, a book on nuts and berries and such things from the local area which can be scavenged, the clothes on his back, and a few assorted odds and ends which a man can carry. Supertramp, a novice survivalist, disappears INTO THE WILD.
We know some of his adventures after that because he left a diary and a few snapshots on his camera. But in the fall of 1992, hunters found his body dead, likely of starvation, in an abandoned bus, thus subsequent reports linked him back to his family (who were worried sick for him) and to the writer(s) who developed his story. And according to that story, his life ended, likely with at least some regret, in what appears to be a total self-sacrifice.
He wanted this. But maybe, he didn’t quite know what he had bargained for.
Nobody wants to die. Even suicidal people want to survive their own attempts (with rare exception). There is no reason to believe Supertramp wanted to die, but every reason to believe he miscalculated his ability as a survivalist or nature’s willingness to provide. Whatever the case, he “died doing what he loved” – “died doing what he wanted to do.”
This makes Alexander Supertramp, in my estimation, THE PREMIER HOMELESS PERSON WHO WANTED TO LIVE LIKE THAT. If that question above and that YES answer are ever really true, then to the extent they are true, Alexander Supertramp provides the ultimate example. Even if the popular myth of the man and his mythical pseudonym departs significantly from the real Chris McCandless of living history, there is little doubt that McCandless wanted to live something like this, and no doubt that he rejected home to have it.
And it killed him.
It is at this point that I say, there is something wrong with his wantin’. His wanter is broken. (Yeah, I know. Not a real word, but you get the idea.)
I am on the verge of splitting hairs here, I know that too. Alexander Supertramp didn’t just simply go camping. He didn’t simply go for and extended wilderness trek or hike. Those things are quite common and do not make a person homeless. There is a huge difference between spending a few nights in a motel and paying rent at one for months on end! One makes you a traveler (most likely) and the other homeless!
Alexander Supertramp wanted something that doesn’t fit in creation the way God makes it. That is too much solitude and not enough Jesus. And THAT, I say, creates something of a different category of thought. We are outside the box now where the homeless are concerned.
If I ask homeless people from the streets if they WANT to live like this, some (more than a mere few) will say YES. There are ulterior motives for answering that way on the one hand, but for those who actually desire it, there is something wrong with even wanting to live that way.
There is a whole OTHER side to all of this too, though. There is something of a counterweight as well. And that is this: there is also something wrong with WANTING to live in giant mansions all alone. There is greed about having and using private jets (especially a fleet of them) for your own personal use in a world where children starve to death. There is something very selfish about grand houses with “guest rooms” which go empty night after night while bums tough it out in the rain and cold.
Yes, we Christian types have known for a long time that our desires can, and often are, ungodly and when they go unchecked bring pain upon ourselves and our world. The part that I think we have a hard time seeing is where we love our neighbor as ourselves. At least Alexander Supertramp’s “friends” along the way tried to talk him out of his desire. They sense something wrong with it. They wrongfully respect it and send him off with a blessing.
Oh, how sad to be one of them reading the book or watching the movie!
When my affluent church friends, though, ask whether the homeless WANT to live like that, they believe they have stumbled upon some respectable desire in the homeless and treat it as though they should back off and let that be. But even THAT, I think, is a cover for contempt. I think the contempt for the poor, in that instance, masquerades as respect, and allows the church to write off the poor with no further concern. Wanting to live in shame and lack on the streets isn’t what anyone ultimately WANTS. Even to the extent they do, something is wrong with wanting that.
That, I challenge.
Deep down, we all want love. It appears that love might have been so far removed from McCandless’s ideals (due to family disfunction growing up) that he just had no understanding of what he should have desired instead.
That, I challenge the church to consider.
*I made this argument after reading Bouma-Prediger and Walsh’s book Beyond Homeless.