Bernard Harris hails from Chicago, Illinois. He is an accomplished entertainer, living on the streets of Los Angeles.

Determined to Rise Above Homelessness

Bernard, a self taught pianist, lyricist and composer, is a highly motivated person who is very determined to rise above his current state of homelessness. He was born in 1965, and after completing high school, attended a college where he studied accounting. He had the opportunity to travel to Finland where he worked as an entertainer at various establishments, then came back to America for a while and lived briefly in Chicago before leaving the US again for a 6-year stint in Switzerland.

On his return from Switzerland, Bernard lived with family in Chicago. But he became disenchanted with their money-grabbing attitude toward him, so he left for California. For a while he floated about, living in shelters and churches, where he found it difficult to adjust to the rigors of that lifestyle and did not like the conditions of treatment he and his fellow shelter clients had to endure.

Bernard suffers from an injury to his ankle and has had to undergo several surgeries. In spite of this, he resorted to sleeping out on the streets between shelter tenancies. Things had taken a turn for the worse for him, and as a form of avoidance, he took to drinking. But eventually, in a bid to improve his lot, he worked off a student loan, moved into a shelter downtown, then enrolled in a travel management course at a local vocational training center. His goal was to obtain employment in the travel industry as a flight attendant, or work in a hotel. But after all he went through to get into the school, the management at the shelter terminated his residency, telling him he had to go, to leave the shelter, because he was going to school. Apparently they wanted him to work, draw public benefits and do their program.

An Unjust Decision by Shelter Management

Bernard tried in vain to justify his training. In his opinion, the shelter was there to assist him, he was doing all he could to better himself by going to school every day, and was looking forward to an improved life, only to have his enthusiasm killed by the decision to put him back on the street. He likened his situation to that of a flower that just before it was ready to blossom, had its soil removed from around it and its water supply cut off. He was effectively thrown out on the streets, without a referral, with nowhere to go.

He feels the decision was unjust, but since he was resolute about finishing his course, he was left with no option but to move out with all his property and belongings. He was suddenly without the transportation service that he had previously depended upon the shelter for, and had to acquire bus fare by playing chess. He resorted to having “bird baths” in restaurant restrooms, wandering the streets all night, avoiding police that threatened to arrest him for loitering or trespassing. During the day he hid his bags in the bushes. Little by little, his property diminished, as it was being stolen piece by piece. He now deals with the embarrassment and challenges of being slovenly, unkempt, tired and hungry. He has had to lie when he really didn’t want to when people ask him where he lives; he doesn’t want to tell them that he is homeless, because he fears they would treat him differently. He currently has no place to go, just like other homeless people,and just hangs out. He has been homeless now for four months.

Bernard thinks that changing laws can improve things. Instead of stiffening vagrancy laws, he is of the view that there is room for improvement in the social service delivery system. Having limited or no income is a barrier that closes doors. Without medical insurance, people like him who have medical issues are not eligible for a lot of care and their health rapidly deteriorates.

Social service workers need to adopt a different, more nurturing approach and be more sensitive to the plight of the homeless. More encouragement and support to foster personal development is necessary to motivate the homeless to aspire to transcend their circumstances.

Remedy the Cause Instead of Treating the Symptoms of Homelessness

Sometimes people hire Bernard for some gigs and he sings. He composes what he terms as “New Jazz” derived from growing up listening to B.B. King; The Gap Band; Sam Cook; the old-school type of R&B; and Finnish, African, Swedish, Algerian, Moroccan, Turkish and Russian folk music. He has sold songs for a TV show, so there is no doubt about the quality of his productions. Right now though, all he can do is wake up and play his music in parks and go to see buddies.

Through it all, Bernard Harris remains optimistic that he shall have a breakthrough, that things will get better, and that all that is needed is a better thought-out system; that like in the countries he has lived in, is centered around addressing and remedying the causes, rather than treating only the symptoms of homelessness.

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