Writings :: Essays :: Punching Down at Homeless People

Most of us have seen the Jimmy Kimmel segment, Celebrities Read Mean Tweets. Sometimes amusing, sometimes appalling, the tweets reflect our obsession with, and disgust for, certain celebrities. Even as celebrities read tweets so mean that they, were they directed at me, would destroy my very soul, it’s hard to feel sorry for them. They’re rich, famous, generally beautiful (or used to be), and overall happy — or so I assume.

I assume that it’s this segment of Jimmy Kimmel that inspired a video that I recently watched of homeless people reading mean tweets about — homeless people. The premise is cruel, and it’s almost as difficult to forgive the documentarians who decided that this was a good idea as it is to forgive the thoughtlessness of Tweet Nation. Although, upon reflection, I realized that the homeless people already know that society regards them as worthless.

The most heartbreaking is the last tweet, the pithiest one, which reads, “If home is where the heart is, do homeless people have hearts?” Obviously, the person who wrote that tweet, the people who laughed at and then forgot about it, favorited it, or re-tweeted it, never thought homeless people would ever read it. Homeless people don’t really have access to Twitter, even if they had the interest in it, so “real” people are free to be as venomous as they feel.

Also in the video, there’s a young mother sitting on an old mattress reading the tweets, while her child, a small blonde boy, toddles around, amusing himself, as children do. The image is disturbing on a lot of levels, but mostly because my little brother was tiny and blonde, and because my mom was homeless for a while — although she didn’t have her children with her at the time.

When I was seven years old, my little brother (five) got hit by a car and died. I’ve been doing stand-up comedy for about a year now*, and this is one of the first things I wrote about. My joke on stage is, “Even though he only died once, my mom freaked out.” and then I roll my eyes as though she over-reacted. I’m still not sure if this is funny, or if it just gets a reaction, but it’s something I think would have made her laugh, so I still do it. My mom DID freak out, did some drugs, and long story short, she ended up in a mental hospital, while my older brother (eight years old) and I ended up in foster care.

When she was released from the institution, she and her boyfriend lived in his car for a while, and then my mom tracked down a former landlord and basically demanded that he help her. This is one of the reasons I think of my mom as a badass. The steel vagina it took for my mom to do that still astounds me. But my mom didn’t think of herself as brave. She thought of herself as desperate. My mom hated asking for help from anyone. She prided herself on the fact that throughout the tenure** of her homelessness that she never stooped to panhandling. She preferred to steal food and clothing, and she and her boyfriend would even occasionally break into a motel room, in order to take a break from the claustrophobic car.

So she hated asking for help. But in order to get us back, my mom needed a place to live and a steady income — the catch-22 of homelessness being that you need one in order to have the other. She was forced to ask for help. Our old landlord set my mom up with an old office building he hadn’t been able to rent out because it was so torn up. My mom and her boyfriend re-modeled it and got it ready for me and my brother. It took my mom 18 months to get us out of foster care and then we lived in that old office building for 7 years.

Every time I walk down the street and see a homeless person, regardless of their age or gender, I see my mom. Sometimes I stop and give them a couple of dollars. More often, I don’t. I don’t have a lot of dollars. But I always see them. They might be crazy — people seem to think that homelessness is fitting punishment for not being able to at least pretend to be sane. My mom was crazy. Like, diagnosed schizophrenic, bi-polar, OCD, severe depression, paranoid — nutbag. But she was also the strongest, smartest, funniest, and most charming person I ever knew, and when she was homeless, she wasn’t any less those things. She had value, whether people treated her like she did, or not. I was tucked away in foster care, missing her every second, and wondering where she was. And now that she’s dead, that’s how I feel all the time.

I work at a comedy club, so I sit through a lot of open mics, watch a lot of shows. This is great. I love comedy. I’m actually still pretty destroyed over the loss of my mom and my brother and the cruelty that I experienced in foster care. Humanity can be a nightmare. Stand-up has been a distraction from that fact, or, at least with the best comics, an exploration of the worst and best we are capable of. On a really good night, I walk away with a better understanding of my fellow man, and a hopefulness that eats away at my seemingly eternal supply of despair. On the other hand, and far more often, I hear a lot of earnestly racist, sexist, homophobic joke, and jokes about homeless people, and when I do, I sit there wondering why these comics are punching down, not up? It’s a comedian’s job, or any artist’s really, to question and defy the status quo, not enforce it.

Also, in my mind, when comics use a homeless person as a punchline, they’re not talking about some random, smelly, worthless person; they’re talking about my mom. And I wonder why they despise her so much.

However, Twitter isn’t only a place for the most jaded of us. I did come across a charity called #HashtagLunchbag that encourages people to make and hand out sack lunches to homeless people all across the country, and then tweet about it. I was taught not to flaunt my generosity, but I think I was taught incorrectly. We’re so quick, as a society, to share and warn against the worst we have to offer, but we need something to balance it, and one of those ways is to openly celebrate and share when we get something right.


* I don’t do stand-up anymore.

** Several months.


(This was published in an online magazine, illegitimatetheatre.com in April of 2015. Ownership changed hands a while ago and I can’t find the article anymore, but it was there, I swear! This was initially a Facebook post that a friend convinced me to turn into an article. She even specifically told me to submit it to IllegitimateTheatre.com .)