I want to discuss my personal experience with what people call homelessness. My view on it is not standard issue. It is not a regurgitation of statistics or a statement of noble philosophy. It is just the observations I made and things I learned while homeless.
I am a disabled vet, and for 23 years I had remained static, living in Maine as a single father raising 2 kids. The kids grew up and I found myself drifting. My disability makes me unfit to hold a job and the kids had been the focus of my life. Now, I was unsure what to do with myself.
In 2012 I visited my daughter in the Berkeley area. I had never been further north on the west coast than LA. The experience was eye opening for me, not in so much the inherent natural beauty and fine weather, but in the newness of all things. I had not realized how much I missed that. Everything was new, birds and trees, weather and wind patterns, animals and human activities, it was a whole new world again. It was more than a breath of fresh air to me, it was like an anti-depressant, and something in me long asleep, awoke.
“Why exactly was I still residing in Maine, dealing with ice and snow and a tea party mindset?”
In my youth I had traveled often, as a child, as a young adult, and in the military. I always had to see what was over the next hill. Now I revisited old ideas I had formed in my youth, the way I envisioned my life might be in the years years after my children were grown. My health would not tolerate me living off the back of a Harley and camping, drifting between my friends and families homes for visits and exploring places I had not seen. Once upon a time that had been my dream.
However I might be able to do it in a van, an RV was out of the question. Not only would it eat way too much gas and make me very Eco unfriendly, the damn thing would bankrupt my budget. My health requirements have me on a restrictive diet, so I had no need of cooking or refrigeration. I had no need of bathroom facilities as restaurants and rest stops would be adequate. I needed a mobile bed on wheels; I chose an HHR. In my car the entire inside folds down, and with the addition of memory foam, I had a fold down mobile bed.
I made a detailed list of all the things I wanted for the HHR, to make it a stealth RV, the kind of car I could simply pull into a shopping mall and park, and no one would take any notice of it while I slept behind tinted glass and sunshades. I tested it for a weekend at a friends house in Vermont and found it would work fine for camping . To make it truly a home would take me about three years with all the mods I had in mind, like a Thule for the roof, full spare tire and rack for that off a tow bar, dual deep cycle battery system for on board power with a stepped up alternator to juice that up, and so on.
A confluence of events transpired in rapid succession which shot that dream in the head. Due to sudden and unforeseen real estate issues involving the apartment they resided in; my daughter’s entire family of four needed to relocate from their apartment ASAP, something they did not have funds to do. As a pensioner I did not have capital to aid her, but I did have an excellent relationship with my own landlord. So I accelerated my vague 3 year plan and figured I could tough it out in the meantime. I could not let my grandchildren be homeless. So I gave her my apartment, left things in storage there, and took off for Philly to visit my son who had relocated there 6 months prior.
I legally resided at my daughters, but I myself had no fixed address other than my PO box. I had a large digital footprint, which I kept active via phone and laptop. Although I did not realize it, I was now technically homeless. Mind you I had bank accounts, internet connection, netflicks and e mail but in the eyes of the law no fixed address is homeless.
I saw it as an adventure, visiting my kids and old friends on a shoestring, the only thing I can afford. I drove down to Philly and had a fine reunion with my son who asked me to stay for awhile, since I had no plans other than to save as much cash as I could. All was well.
Over the next few days by observation at first, and then through conversation and investigation I learned a few things. My son had just been laid off after a work injury and was still recovering from that. His fiance was only working part time. His roommates, a couple, were only half employed and that was also part time. My son and his fiance were not on the lease and spent all their income on rent every week while living on Ramen. His roommates were in similar straights, and they had been for a long while.
None of them was on the lease or would qualify for the income requirements for the lodgings they occupied. The place had been rented by his friends mother and her friend; who were both professional people. Neither of them remained, each leaving the domicile for a relationship in the last year, leaving her kid holding the lease. No one had talked to the rental office at all, just dropped off checks. This group of 20 somethings were in way over their heads and had no idea how much in arrears they were.
A visit to the office was a reality check for them as they were a mere five days from actual eviction for arrears by the lease. They did not have the money, neither did the kids Mom, but her and her new boyfriend were quick to offer her child shelter at her new fiance’s home on the other side of the state. My son and his fiance however, with no nest egg, were about to homeless on the streets of Philly.
So I asked my son “Would you rather be homeless here in Philly, or all three of us homeless together in California?” So a couple of days later, car packed to the brim like the westward expansion we lit out for California.
Three months I spent living in the HHR saving all I could for a place. My son found a job within a couple days and used the Shelter system there for sleeping and showers. His fiance did they same but was able to transfer her Job before we left, so she was employed the second we hit CA. Boom, we were homeless. This was enormously stressful for my daughter in California, who wanted to aid us, but was restricted both by lease and funds herself. She and her husband did all they could feeling like they were not doing enough while I felt guilty for even asking to use a shower. Men are supposed to be self sufficient and I was not fully so.
In that time we three saved like misers, and I drove them back and forth to work. They lived in the shelters, I lived on the streets in the HHR. My California Daughter felt guilty for not having enough resources to just fix things herself. It is painful to not be able to help those you love.
We worked through all that and got a place in NOR CAL, a place that had been on my bucket list to see and which I fell in love with on sight. My son and his wife are doing well now, he is pushing for that 4.0 and she is excelling in environmental work. I did learn a lot about the homeless population during that time, when I thought I had understood the problem back in Maine. I met a great many people in these situations in this time, and had more conversations with them about how they came to be Homeless than I can readily recall. I will attempt to share what have learned and how that this has affected how I interact with the homeless.
To start with, there is no such thing as homeless, and most people in this situation detest this label as it carries a lot of negative implied baggage with it. It quickly pigeonholes people into a “less than” category. All homeless people have a home, it is on the street somewhere. The street is home, where your going to sleep tonight is problematic. I refer to them as “Street People”.
Calling people “homeless” categorizes them in our minds as that one thing and is very prejudicial. Soon as the term is used people have an image in their mind, often of a screaming schizophrenic, or a slovenly alcoholic, or something else “less than” their own personal self image. It is so uncomfortable to think “that could be me”, that it is unthinkable to people. My experience showed me otherwise. The majority of people I met were ordinary folks with very bad breaks, often combined with another feature or difficulty.
I also met a rather large number of people who qualify as homeless, but I would never call them that. I would call them modern nomads. There is a significant minority of youth who choose this life as a lifestyle. Philosophically they cannot see the value in working a job they hate for low wages, to live in an area they do not feel safe in because it is what they can afford. They see no value in going thousands or tens of thousands or more in debt to garner an education to allow them access to a “better” job; which then pans out the same as the others, for more pay, which must be used to pay back the debt. So they live in tents, out of vans and cars and in RVs, and they travel for work, both legal and not. They do arts and craft items for sale, like deadheads in the 70’s. For these folks homelessness is a lifestyle choice, and the rest of us are saps for “playing the game”.
Dual diagnosis is so prevalent as to say it is everywhere. A dual diagnosis is when a person has some form of mental illness and an addiction; which they used as a vain attempt to deal with the mental illness often before they understood they had a mental illness. Now they have two monkeys on their backs. All sorts of mental illness are represented from the most simple depression to the worst form of psychosis and schizophrenia, when you combine a more serious mental illness with something like Meth or Crack addiction you have a recipe for disaster.
Even the most simple forms of this can become an endless hamster wheel for the person in it. Depression is so universal as to say it is situational, that is being homeless is depressing. If you already have an underlying chemical depression or untreated mental illness which you have nonetheless managed in your life, the situation alone might well bring it to the forefront. If such a person also has some kind of addictive malady you now have a vicious cycle which might well run straight to the grave.
Services which are available to Homeless can and do vary greatly. In Maine we had a homeless problem, especially in the winter months. It was not very dense, but persistent. It has worsened especially in the cities.
Down in Berkeley they have wide ranging and ample services, with a lot of dedicated workers, often who were at one time homeless themselves, who work tirelessly to get aid to those seeking it. Nonetheless shelters are always full, and much of the homeless population is simply not eligible. Drug and alcohol use prohibit use of the shelters, but addiction never listens to rules does it? So the dual diagnosis often keeps people from getting the very aid they need most and leaves them on the hamster wheel.
A homeless drug subculture exists where the majority are addicted to the worst drugs like Meth, Crack, and Heroin. They move from place to place based upon local supply, and keep in touch with one another via burner cell phones. Laptops to connect to free wifi hotspots are not uncommon. All the things common in drug culture are mirrored in this subculture, but without fixed address. The only thing missing is the cash, which is as quickly spent on more drugs and was often generated by dealing drugs, and by crime. Police are finding more and more wanted felons hiding among these homeless groups.
I learned in the Berkeley/Oakland area that no one there is panhandling for food, despite what the sign says. Oh, there might be the odd one here or there who was new to homelessness, but people who had been homeless for more than a couple of days already knew where to find food or a bed if they needed it. They could get showers, clothing, food, shelter and even medical treatment with relative ease, that is if they were “clean”. They could not get cigarettes, birth control, drugs or alcohol, or many personal preference items, anything from a backpack to carry your things, to a favorite shampoo. These were the things they needed money for, but people responded better to signs asking for food. It was basic marketing.
Here in NOR CAL the problem is even more pronounced with less population. We also have weather not so likely to outright kill you as Maine which makes living on the streets year-round feasible. We have scant few cities and those are small, the largest about 50,000 or so population. Yet that city has a population of homeless which is numbered between 600 and 2000. We do not even have a good way to count them.
There is no shelter, only a mission run by a fundamentalist style church group, it can be about 125, and you better be a big fan of Jesus. Services are mandatory for meals and overnights, people have to sit through the service to eat. Although they will loudly decry people are forced, the reality is either you go with the flow and eat, or you resist and are ejected for being “un-cooperative”. Standard breathalyzers are given for entrance and any suspected drug use is reason for exclusion. The atmosphere is overwhelming Christian as it is a Christian outreach program which claims to receive no public dollars, although people on the far left claim otherwise.
There is an emergency shelter for heavy weather, but it has never been opened for the homeless in its existence. It is run by the Mission group because they already run a Mission, despite being a local program. They have stated there is no reason to open it as they have always had an open bed available in the Mission. In 2013 in a cold snap a man froze to death on the sidewalk outside the place.
Camping outside of a legal campsite is illegal. So here last year a young man went to prison for four years for repeatedly defying this ordinance and camping along the fringes of the city. He refused to utilize the shelter as they not only wanted him to sit through a Christian ceremony, but he claimed they would mock his religion and claim he was serving Satan. He is Wiccan.
He left the first night he stayed because he felt ill treated, and refused to return, preferring instead to camp. He was convicted of deliberately disobeying a command to use the Mission and camping instead. He did this for four years running, and was convicted of this charge. I passed this information along to FFRF who began working with the noble volunteer lawyers who were trying to defend his constitutional right to free religion.
In addition to individuals camping we have outright camps, multiple. These are areas homeless have set up a neo-tribal community, often centered around drugs. Such places are located in the weeds and trees between places, like behind the Mall in the scrubland before the next box retail store, out of sight. Citizens are often afraid to go near such places. In a recent raid of such a camp here police uncovered a large cache of weapons, methamphetamine and heroin. Weapons included 2 riot guns, a sawed off 30-30 rifle, several Glock semi auto pistols and a 357 magnum, and numerous knives and bladed weapons. A fully functional bicycle shop with dozens of stolen bicycles was also found in the bushes.
All said and done, I do not tend to view “Street People” as “Homeless”. If I see a disabled woman holding a sign like, “need food, anything helps”, it might be true. It might also be true that she is here because she owes someone, or her significant other needs something, and since she is in a wheelchair, she gets better money panhandling. Marketing you know.
I have no way to tell. I have seen examples of both with my own eyes, and the con was much more often the case than the need for food itself. I have no way to know if giving such a person money is actually helping them or driving a hamster wheel they are stuck upon, or if they just think “working” is a fools game and want to buy a pack of smokes.
This has all affected how I both view and interact with “Street People” of all sots. My area is rural enough that I can tell who is a chronically homeless panhandler and who is new. New people I will point to all the services which are available. If they are truly hungry and I have the funds I will give them food, not money, because I do not want to feed into a negative spiral.
In a more urban environment such an ability is impossible, you will not be able to keep track of the faces. If you want to help, cash out of your pocket might make you feel better but might well be making things worse. Cash, or more needed, time and effort, might actually make a difference. Here in NOR CAL the same people panhandle all the time, and tourists feed their drug habits out of a kind nature, perpetuating a negative cycle by acts of kindness.
Therefore when I hear someone say “The Homeless”, I cannot help but wonder which people are they referring to? It is certainly not an apt term for the diverse groups I found in my experience. If you feel a desire to help by all means do so, but put a little thought into it so you can insure your not helping perpetuate a tragedy in progress. When you see “Street People” keep these things in mind and if you want to help, buy a slice, or a coffee, or donate time and effort to help those noble folk who spend so much effort helping those shut out by the system and circumstance.