“Homeless people are not animals! Also, feed the damned animals, what is wrong with you?!”
I’ve decided not to write about my epic saga of homelessness or related adventures anymore, or at least not for a little while. While my finances are still terribly precarious, and my PTSD is still quite T, I am a much happier and healthier person than I was when I started this blog a year ago.
It’s easy to get stuck in past traumas. Hyper-vigilant people don’t necessarily stop hyper-vigilating just because they’ve reached safe harbor. Sometimes you have to locate your own off-switch and firmly instruct your brain that it’s time to think about other stuff now.
This is me, doing that. Or fixin’ to do it, as they say in Raleigh.
Before I leave the topic behind entirely, there are a handful of sentiments about homelessness that I need to get off my chest. These are things that I learned while I was homeless, the stuff that surprised me or took me off guard. Stuff that I wished folks understood about people like me, and stuff I wish my friends understood about the homeless people I encounter now.
1.) Homeless people are exactly like you.
Think about the images the following words create in your mind: homeless guy, bag lady, bum.
The people you’re seeing in your imagination when you hear those words, are they completely human? Or are they are a little more like animals? Maybe, at best, they’re a clumsy stereotype of age, mental illness, criminality, drunkenness, addiction, poor hygiene?
When I was homeless, I showered almost every day. I laundered my clothing as often as I ever had. I spent my days writing, working, and playing on the internet, just like I do now. The only difference between me now and me then is that back then I was also exhausted, starving, and in constant fear for my safety.
Homeless people are you, just with less money and fewer friends. No one wants to admit that the partition between a privileged existence and being treated like a pigeon or a rat is that thin, but I promise you, it is paper thin.
2.) Being homeless takes incredible courage.
My homelessness was the Diet Coke of homelessness. I had a car to sleep in, a door to lock behind me. That’s unthinkable luxury to a person sleeping on the street.
My greatest fear was losing the car. I put gas in the tank instead of buying food, because I couldn’t risk the car breaking down and getting towed. At my lowest, I promised myself that if I lost the car, I could just die. Suicide was a relief, a reprieve from having to sleep on the street.
I watched the people who paced between cars at stoplights with cardboard signs asking for money. I remembered all the times as a kid I’d heard adults say that we couldn’t give those people money, they’d only buy drugs or alcohol. I tried to imagine myself standing there, facing that kind of mockery and indifference, and I couldn’t. It was a humiliation that went deeper than I could stand. Better to die, I thought.
I don’t know if people who survive on the streets are tougher, stronger, or smarter than me. All I know is that they’re living my greatest fear, which as far as I’m concerned means they have super powers.
3.) Don’t presume to judge how the homeless spend their money.
I chain-smoked when I was homeless. If I had $10, I’d spent $6 on a pack of cigarettes and spend the other $4 on food. Why? Because $10 worth of food wasn’t going to keep me from being hungry in eight hours’ time, and the cigarettes suppressed my appetite, calmed my nerves, and kept people from looking at me suspiciously when I was loitering.
I was told more than once during this period that no one would want to help me if they saw me smoking because they’d be disgusted by my purchasing priorities.
Listen to me right now: unless you have known what it is to be gruelingly poor, desperately poor, poor to the point of food insecurity and having to choose between toilet paper or sanitary products, you cannot possibly understand the peculiar economics of blistering poverty.
The person you give your money to at the stoplight might very well spend it on beer. Why should that bother you so much? You complain that you need a beer just because you spent a long day at your office tech support job. You know what that person would like more than beer? A roof over their head. There’s nothing wrong with their priorities. But in the absence of what they need, they’ll take the comfort they can get. That is natural, normal, and sane, and not in any way a sign of degeneracy or laziness. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.
4.) There is nowhere for the homeless to go and very little for them to do.
Have you ever been stuck someplace and got bored? Maybe you went along on a friend’s shopping trip and you got stuck in a chair outside the waiting room for hours? Think of doctor’s waiting rooms, the line at the post office. Now imagine that this is your entire life. The line never moves along. Your name never gets called by the nurse.
Being homeless, when it isn’t terrifying, is fucking boring.
I remember the day that what I’d lost in losing my home really came crashing down on me. I was sitting in my car on a Sunday afternoon. There was absolutely nowhere to go. Everything in my tiny town shut down at 2 p.m. on Sundays. And it was raining. There wasn’t a single place on earth I was welcome at that moment. Nowhere I could go to read a book or stretch my legs or lie down. My world was my car, and not even that was completely secure; I had to be constantly on the look out in case I parked somewhere it turned out I wasn’t allowed.
Ask yourself these questions: when the cops wake up a homeless person on a park bench and move them along, where are they expecting them to go? When a building’s owners plant spikes over the flat surfaces beneath a sheltered overhang, where do they expect the homeless to sleep?
The conclusion I came to after I’d been homeless for a bit is that they really would just prefer for you die. Ideally, of course, you’d just wink into the ether without leaving a messy body to clean up, but mostly, they just want you to stop existing, because when you’re homeless, your existence is a problem and everyone just wants you to go away.
5.) Even if you don’t become a victim of physical violence, homelessness is traumatizing in itself, and a massive danger to your mental and physical health.
Let me re-emphasize that I had the VIP homelessness experience.
In a lot of ways, homelessness is the very best demonstration of how privilege works to protect the people who have it. Homelessness reduces you to the skin you wear, the contents of your head, the strength in your body, and the goodwill (or lack of it) that your appearance engenders in other people.
I am young. Able-bodied. Educated, white, clean, and sober. These facts made me an object of compassion rather than revulsion to just about everyone I met when I was homeless. And I could sense, with harrowing clarity, just how different that situation would be if you took away one or more of the attributes that protected me. If I wasn’t white, if I’d had a chronic illness, if I wasn’t educated and able to talk to people in a way that matched their expectations of respectability.
You can’t ask for a softer experience of abjection than I had, and still I sometimes think that I’d rather die than do it again.
No one is better off homeless, at least not in this country. Homelessness is so damaging that unless someone is willing to help you by giving you the chance to recuperate in safety, your chances of getting back on your feet and avoiding instances of homelessness in the future are pretty thin.
6.) If you know how to build websites, consider building an online resource for the homeless in your city.
Homeless people use the internet. They use it a lot. Sometimes, like me, they have a laptop of their own. Otherwise, they use library computers.
Here’s a huge problem: websites are not designed with the needs of the homeless in mind. Resource websites for shelters, free clinics, soup kitchens, etc. are designed to make the people who donate to them feel good about themselves.
I became homeless because I have PTSD. My anxiety was so crippling that I couldn’t even talk on the phone, let alone travel to an unfamiliar location and hang around in a crowd of strangers all competing for the same resources. I combed Google for the information I needed: detailed descriptions of the kind of services a place offered, their hours of operation, application forms that could be filled out and filed online, etc. I was disappointed in virtually every attempt.
I swore then that if I ever became anything other than excruciatingly poor, I would create an central information clearinghouse for homelessness resources in Baltimore. Unfortunately, my income is presently about $6000 a year, so I haven’t cleared that requisite hurdle. It’s still on my to-do list, but if you care about the homeless and you have the resources to help them in this way, don’t feel like you’re stealing my thunder.
Let me just leave you with the following observation from Augustine:
“Since you cannot do good to all, you are to pay special attention to those who, by accidents of time, or place, or circumstances, are brought into closer connection with you.”
Meditate on this the next time you feel so overwhelmed by poverty as a concept that you fail to make eye contact with the dude with the cardboard sign heading down the curb toward your car. Consider treating “the poor are always with you” as an opportunity rather than an excuse.
And with that, I close the book, at least temporarily, on this particular aspect of my recent history. I wonder what sort of content will come flooding into this blog to fill the vacuum?