My first few days I didn't think much about him; I simply waved and said hello as I went on my way. About a week into my clerkship though, he noticed the International Arbitration book I was holding as I happened past him. "International Arbitration? I was involved in a UNCITRAL arbitration proceeding before the U.N. once."
He what?!! I stopped dead in my tracks. "Really?!" I said turning back toward him.
"Yeah" he answered matter-of-factly. "I went to law school in the 70's and used to work abroad." I'm sure my face betrayed the look of someone who'd just had his assumptions thrown right in his face. In hindsight, I figure he was probably used to this though. "Here's my card," he said handing me a crude makeshift business card. "Check out my blog."
I thanked him and went on my way, trying to process all of this new information as I walked to the Hart building. Once at my desk, I jumped on the internet and went straight to Peter's blog. It's one convoluted magic carpet ride. Written in the third person, it's basically a long running post of elaborate conspiracy theories. I began reading through it, but my mind quickly wandered as it became rather cryptic, bordering at times on incomprehensible. Peter, however, still intrigued me more than ever.
I made a point of arriving early the next day I worked so that I would have time to sit and chat with Peter instead of scuttling off to my Senate office. He seemed genuinely pleased that I wanted to talk. We first discussed his blog. I learned that he doesn't actually publish it himself. He dictates the content to a young man who posts it for him. Apparently very interested in what I thought of the blog, Peter kept asking if I'd visited it, and, if I had, what my impressions were. I told him I did visit the site, and that I thought the conspiracies it detailed were very interesting; he took issue with this description though because everything had been based on "solid fact." I also suggested he split his running post and make each update a new and seperate post, but he prefers simply "updating" the one post because it encourages new readers to read the entire narrative as a book or story (for the rest of the semester he took great pleasure in letting me know how many "pages" his blog had grown to).
We then talked about his past. As a child growing up in Michigan, he struggled with polio and a severe speech impediment. He said this helped him in his studies though because he lost himself in books. After getting a Bachelor's degree in History from Western Michigan, he attended law school at the Thomas M. Cooley Law School. He left law school a year early and continued his studies "unofficially", gaining what he called the equivalent of "five or six Doctorates." He even claims to have studied for a time in the Vatican. Meanwhile, he married and divorced once and bounced around from job to job. By the mid-nineties he found himself driving a cab in Michigan. He moved to DC in 2001 to follow up on "some work" and is now in trying to get enough money to purchase a boat on which to live. He views himself as a sort of freelance journalist who is exposing corruption at all levels of government. When I asked if he had tried to find other work so he could maybe get a place to live while he wrote, he said it wasn't worth it. He said he's been offered teaching positions, but "those don't pay more than $48,000 a year and that's simply not enough to live on in this area." It would also pull him away from "what he's doing now." While I in no way understand his logic here, he seemed pretty adamant about it so I dropped the issue.
Instead we finished up talking about me and my studies. Upon seeing the "Legal Ethics" textbook in my arms, he joked that that was an oxymoron if he'd ever seen one. He also told me to keep studying arbitration because "it's better than litigation." By this time I needed to get going, so I excused myself. He thanked me for stopping and went back to greeting all the passerbys. I left as perplexed about him as I'd been before we spoke. He had shattered all of my preconceptions about the homeless.
My question is this: How does one end up like Peter Bis? Although he's got some strange ideas, he's pretty personable and appears well-educated (Especially if you take him at his word. Only 24.4% of Americans twenty-five and older have Bachelor's degrees and only 8.86% have Graduate degrees). How did he end up on the streets? He seems to have had a lot of opportunities in life and also seems somewhat capable. I know I really don't know about much about him, but he almost plays living on the streets off as a conscious choice. Was there a single moment in which he simply accepted it as his lot? Or did a "sometime" thing just end up becoming an "all the time" thing? Furthermore, just how many homeless are like Peter?
I know there are a lot of factors that are said to contribute to homelessness, including drug addiction, mental health, and cycles of poverty, but I still struggle to understand the problem. More than that, I'm also at a loss with how to address the problem. How do you help someone like Peter?