by William Morder
Now, for those of you who feel a little resentment against somebody like myself, who is “mooching off the government” yet has the nerve to complain about it —
My message to you is, I am not the enemy. I am not the one who is trying to take away everything you have.
If, for some reason, you do not “fit in,” then you may at last know what it feels like to be homeless like me. It may be for some trivial cause which you do not fully appreciate, but which is, of course, obvious to those who have the power to terminate your employment.
They may not like some of us because we are unable to change the color of our skin. Maybe our tastes are different, or they find our so-called “lifestyle” offensive. We may have expressed controversial opinions, or do not vote for the same politicians. Others told us that they respected our strength and candor for speaking the truth as we knew it; but their unbounded admiration did not stop them from giving us the boot. The ugly truth is, they just plain don’t like us.
Since you, dear reader, also stand a good chance of becoming homeless in the near future, I decided I ought to provide a user’s guide, as a public service. What follows, therefore, will not be news to homeless people themselves.
Until two years ago, I had never known homelessness, and studiously avoided getting acquainted with homeless persons. Even after becoming homeless, I managed, for another year or so, to live in the semi-comfortable illusion of couch-surfing with friends. But as even this became less and less tenable, I ended up sleeping outdoors.
About a year ago, I was sleeping in a toolshed up in the mountains in southern California; this was at the beginning of winter, when we had a lot of snow and freezing rain. I used to get up at 4 in the morning to take my shower with a garden hose. In October and November, we already had frost and sometimes ice on the ground. I was twice cut off from food stamps, because they could not believe that I really had nowhere to live. I managed to survive, barely, by having breakfast most mornings at the local Salvation Army.
Then things got a little better, for a while, when some local musicians heard me playing guitar, and asked if I wanted to join their band. I was okay playing rhythm guitar (though country music isn’t really my bag), but a couple fingers in both my hands had turned numb from sleeping outside; it was like wearing mittens while I played, so I made mistakes, but over all, we got along. I still have permanent numbness in some fingers, almost a year later. The band broke up due to personal reasons — as is usually the case — but also because the band leader started having serious financial problems.
Even though she had played with some of the biggest names in the business, and got paid royalties for some of her work; even though her younger brother was a singer who charted with a hit song a few years back, and had also been the star of a television series, as well as an award-winning Hollywood producer: none of these things could help her. She owned the apartment building in which we lived, but her bank had sold the mortgage to another financial institution, and now they were playing legal games with her escrow account. It was time for me to move along, due to forces beyond everybody’s control. Last I heard from her, she was in danger of losing everything: the apartment building itself, her parents’ house, the family farm … everything.
Eventually I made my way to San Francisco, which had been my intended destination all along, and that is when I became really homeless, out in the street, because I didn’t know a soul in the entire city. A friend helped me by sending money to put me up in a hostel for a few days, until I could find my way around; but I didn’t really fit into that crowd. My money ran out, so one night I packed my things, walked out the door, and started wandering the streets, sleeping a couple nights on benches in public areas. I am lucky, I suppose, that I did not get arrested for trespassing.
Whenever you feel afraid of homeless people, or disgusted, or angry, I beg you to consider why. Homeless persons are seldom intimidating, and are more to be pitied than anything else. I submit to you, therefore, that you are aware, on some level, that you can see your possible future in us.
Occasionally street people can be pushy, may exhibit attention-seeking behavior, or are overenthusiastic in their sales pitches. Since I have nothing to spend, however, they leave me alone. And I have made more friends among homeless persons than I ever had as a homeful person a few years ago.
Most homeless persons I have known usually are rather shy. They are also often tired, because sleep is a rare and precious commodity. Being homeless is time-consuming; worse than a full-time job, because at least with a job we can get some rest. A homeless person can never really rest; he or she must be thinking all the time how to make the next move, what to do to get out of this mess. We wrench our guts, too, over small matters, such as whether to spend our last five dollars on toothpaste, deodorant and soap, or on food and clothes.
If we seem listless, dazed or unresponsive, it may well be the result of shock and trauma from what has happened to us, combined with sleep deprivation. And while nobody should ever go hungry in San Francisco (of all places), many do. Often, while waiting in line for a bed over a couple weeks, I simply did not eat; because that meant getting out of line, and I would lose my place. So I often subsisted on only two or three meals, and maybe 20 hours of sleep, in an entire week.
What I said about food and drink applies equally to other bodily functions. Where does one go, when one really has to go? I stopped drinking liquids nearly altogether for the better part of a month, but this did not quite solve the problem. At least twice a day, nature would call, never at a convenient time and place. As might be expected, this can have some serious detrimental effects on one’s health.
Until one has done it, standing in line for 17 hours a day, in hopes of getting a shelter bed, is unimaginable. Once one learns where to get a bed for the night, that will be our reality for at least a few weeks, sometimes months. On average, only one of six homeless people will manage to get a bed at night. Until they figure out how the waitlist system works, they will be lucky to get an occasional bed. Due to the system’s complications, they will generally not be able to get to the shelter until 10 or 11 pm, which is after lights-out. They arrive late, bang around in unfamiliar circumstances, and annoy the regulars — who are generally mistrustful and suspicious of “one-nighters.”
Lights come on at 5:30. If there were no fights or loud conversations to keep us awake during the night, we might have managed five hours of sleep in a shelter, on those nights when we are lucky enough to get a bed. And next day, we start all over again, getting up to go wait in line for another 17 hours. I usually got a bed about three nights a week; the other four nights, I slept on the sidewalk. And this, I might add, is only if we are both smart enough to figure out the system, and lucky enough not to become a victim of crime, accidents or violence.
To get a one-night bed, we are told to show up between 7 and 8 a.m. In practice, however, this means 5 a.m., which means that you have to get up at 4 a.m., after getting to sleep (if you were lucky) at 11 p.m. Twice I was told by security guards, when checking in late, that I would have to throw out the bag containing my laptop computer, my research, my personal information and business…. No explanation was given, but I turned around, and went back out to sleep in the street.
To escape the endless loop of one-night beds, the next step is to get a 90-day bed. Only then can one begin to get even the smallest bit of control over one’s life again. And to do this, one learns, the best way to increase one’s chances is to stake out one of the drop-in centers for as long as it takes. You show up by at least 10 or 11 p.m., and spend the night there in order to be first in line in the morning. This is the only way to place high enough in the waitlist for a chance at a bed. To do this means, of course, giving up any chance of one-night beds in the meanwhile, and going back to sleeping outside, but the goal is worth it.
Along the way, I have been advised that I would stand a better chance of getting a bed, or even supportive housing, if only I had a drug or alcohol problem. Medical problems, mental illness, or physical disabilities can also sometimes be to our advantage in getting off the streets. But to be healthy and reasonably well adjusted is actually an obstacle to getting off the streets. Case workers want to hear that homeless people have problems; problems which, for the purpose of statistics, funding and so on, fit into convenient categories.
If you are sharp enough to figure out the system, amid the mess that is your own life, can keep clear of confusion all around from other people’s lives — then perhaps you will manage to get a 90-day bed, and eventually move on up and out of the shelter system again. This assumes, of course, that you also have enough street smarts to keep from getting killed or injured, that you can get along with different personalities, that you understand the principle of respect that is essential to survival out there in the streets; and, that you can keep an open mind and heart. Not everybody, it must be understood, has the requisite skills to navigate the labyrinth of the shelter system, social services and government agencies.
Poverty grinds us down, makes us lose our will to keep on pushing ahead. As I write these words, I am within an inch of losing practically everything I own — at least, everything that really matters to me. I cannot afford to pay the rent for my storage space; and to make matters worse, the storage company is trying to jump the gun, and get into my stuff even before they are legally entitled to do so. I ought to have until the end of the month, but they are trying to seize everything in the next couple days. They say that they will cut my lock, and auction off my things: my library of 8000 books, my computer equipment, my bikes, my vinyl records, all my family photos, the only pictures I have of my parents, children and grandchildren. And part of me is tired of fighting, just wants to give up.
Over the past two years, this has become a recurrent pattern. Many things have been taken from me — stolen mostly by persons in positions of authority — and there were many more failed attempts, where I managed to escape by a hair. This makes for constant stress, because we want to cling to the life we once had; but homeless people, it seems, have no right even to their own possessions.
Knowledge is the only force that can trump both money and power. To pull ourselves up out of the gutter, we have to know a few tricks about surviving, the sort of things they never taught in school. We also need to cultivate the will to keep on pushing, and it is easier when somebody out there cares about us.
And there, you see, is my point. I am one of the lucky ones; I am just talented enough to get treated a little better than many others. I managed to find my way off the streets and into a shelter. Now I am working to get my own place again, where I can come and go as I please, where I can get back control over my own life. It is difficult to hold down any kind of job, even as a volunteer, unless we can control our time, unless we have a key to our own place. There are many obstacles in our way, and the game seems designed to confuse us.
What happens to those people who aren’t quite so lucky? What if their entire lives have repeated a pattern of abusive relationships? By habit they get themselves involved in the underworld of prosititution, gambling, drugs, grifting, or some other sort of hustle. And the worst part is that social services and government agencies implicitly assume that everybody has “other,” undeclared income. (Honestly, who can possibly survive on $59 a month?)
Those are the people who get swept aside and ignored, because the media tend to focus on success stories. They are the ones whom we see sleeping barefoot under a thin blanket in winter. They will die on the streets, and nobody will bother to write an obituary.
And remember, dear reader: if you should become homeless yourself (which is becoming increasingly likely), the ugly truth is, you stand a much better chance of dying outdoors of hypothermia than you do of becoming a media success story.