When I was a young adult, I was a social Darwinist. I despised homeless people as shiftless, useless. Excess population, living on the streets by choice. I turned my head or sneered when they asked for help.
My career was in political field work. First I gathered signatures, then worked in offices. Finally I ran campaigns. Sometimes I agreed with the legislation that I promoted, usually not. I was very good at what I did, and paid well. I’d become a gun for hire. My ethic was greed, and I valued that.
I had a house in San Francisco, with an apple tree, a lemon, a fig. Roses.
In my thirties, my undiagnosed PTSD began to ramify. Seeds planted in childhood had grown and were bearing their bitter fruit. My mind and body began to react to minor stresses as if they were life threatening. I was on alert, hyper-vigilant, all the time. I had no idea what was happening to me.
As things got worse, I drank more and more to deal with the symptoms. To be able to relax. To be able to sleep. I became unemployable. I lost everything.
Having become homeless, I was shocked: The social safety net that I’d thought people were refusing to use didn’t exist, in any meaningful form. I came to rely on others for survival, and learned to be relied upon.
During the five years that I lived outside, I heard, and said this: “Mines yours.” Heard, and said it many thousands of times. Strangers shared sleeping bags, food, booze with me, to stave of exposure, hunger, withdrawls. I’ve done the same for others, many, many times.
It turns out that the social safety net does exist, sort of. It just took me five years of deprivation, cold, depredation, and violence to navigate its convolutions and institutions. I could have died, many times over, but for the kindness of people whom I had found despicable before. People who had almost nothing. Thanks to them, I survived to have a roof again.
My politics have changed. The ethic of “Mines yours” has become a permanent part of me. It appears that I’ve become communist, not in the sense of Stalin or but in the way that the early christians were. Now, if I have more than I need, and you are in need, mine is yours.
My priorities are very different than before. I work at a soup kitchen when I am able, trying to keep my brothers and sisters alive. I write, so that you might know that homeless people are human. I no longer turn my head when asked for help. I have, and will again give my last few dollars to someone who needs them more than me. The people who shared sleeping bags with me and taught me how to survive on the street did much more than save my life. They helped me find my heart again.
I’m no longer for hire. My politics are personal, now, existing in my actions. I feel that I’m earning my soul back.
© 2013, Samuel Bacome.