What I Learned While Being Homeless
Don't try homelessness yourself if you can avoid it!
Over twenty-five years ago, I experienced just over a year of homelessness. During that period of time I was badly injured, both physically and emotionally. I have Asperger's Syndrome, a type of high-functioning autism, a likely contributing factor to my homelessness in my youth, and a barrier to escaping it.
I'd like to share a little look into what it was like to live un-homed and unwanted. My point in this is to spread awareness and to perhaps wake up a little empathy in people. My hope is that people will do something to prevent homelessness in their country, their community, and their family. I also want to show that people with nowhere to live are not all addicts nor are they people too lazy to work.
Due to unemployment and record foreclosures, more Americans are losing their homes. These people need our help and understanding.
Advice for the From an Old Pro: How to Get Money
Sarcasm and Survival on the Streets
The article linked below contains some actual advice on how to earn a bare survival income as a person without a home along with some biting sarcasm and a hint of barely suppressed anger.
Perhaps the traditional approaches have failed you but you still need income to survive. The article linked below gives some suggestions that actually worked for me, with varying degrees of success, until I was able to get a regular job in a retail establishment.
I'll warn you, I wrote it when I was very angry and upset after one of my partner's friends referred to homeless people as "the walking dead" and also said they aren't "real" people. This was after he brought over some videos to play that he said were the best ever and they turned out to be "Bum Hunter" videos in which a guy pays seriously mentally ill street people to beat each other up.
So in a fit of pique, I wrote an article chock full of sarcasm and snark. Strangely enough, the website bought my weird, how-to rant and published it. Sometimes I feel embarrassed by the "real people" bit because some people have taken it to mean I'm really saying homeless people aren't real people. Keep in mind, the nastiness and sarcasm is directed at the guy who had the really crummy attitude about destitute people and appeared to take pleasure in watching them be abused. However, it does explain some of the ways I earned enough to get by and quite a few people have found it helpful.
It's very hard for me to talk about these experiences despite the many years that have gone by but I feel it is necessary. I find it much easier and less stressful to write about being without a place to live than to talk about it. This may in part be due to having PTSD but it is also an effect of Asperger's Syndrome. Writing also provides emotional distance and keeps me from getting too overwhelmed by the feelings associated with those times in my life.
In the blocks below you will find several how-to articles and an editorial I wrote about "The Homeless" from my own perspective. Understand that some of these articles were written from a place of pain and anger so they and their content are not pretty. Homelessness is not pretty, either but it has a face, and the faces of people without a place to live are just like yours and mine.
Read the Article
- How To Get Money While Homeless If You Don't Have A Traditional Job
As mentioned above, please keep in mind I was feeling very upset and angry and sarcastic when I wrote this article so please don't take my "real people" jab to heart.
A Powerful Book on the Issue
Do You Know Anyone Who Is or Has Been Without a Home?
Chances are that you know someone who has been homeless unless you travel strictly in the wealthiest of circles. However, chances also are they've never mentioned it due to the stigma deep poverty has in our society. Prejudice continues long after the actual living conditions are long gone.
Do you personally know anyone who is or has been homeless?
I'm Sick of Hearing about "The New Face of Homelessness"
It doesn't have a new face, it just has a lot more faces
Homelessness does not have a new face. A lot more people are on the street but they are not "a better class of people." People who were living without homes before have similar stories, the economy has just made those stories a lot more common.
In America, health related issues and medical bankruptcy have been major causes of homelessness for decades. Any human being can become sick or get injured and if he loses his insurance he has a pretty high chance of losing stable housing, too.
The lack of affordable housing and lack of a living wage have also created such issues for a long, long time. Job loss is another long-time culprit.
Decent, hard working people have never been immune to losing their homes. Yet every other article out there on homelessness stresses this concept of "the new homeless" or "the new face of the homeless" - as if something has changed about the people rather than the economy.
People have this very limited idea of working poor citizens. They think of the bums and panhandlers who can be found in any given American city as the "old face of homelessness" when, in fact, those people have never been representative of the majority of people living on the street. You could see about 15-30 panhandlers or obviously homeless people in the streets of Chicago, even ten years ago. It sounds like a lot but if you consider that, at the time, there were about 6,000 living without housing in Chicago it wasn't even one percent of them who were behaving like the stereotypes people associated with them. Less than one percent of a population is not its face. The real face of homelessness has not changed. No one ever noticed the majority of homeless people because they looked just like anyone else.
What people are labeling as "the new face of homelessness" and "the new homeless" are really just the real face of the situation and the reality of folks with nowhere to live. People living without housing are just what they describe, people who are down on their luck, people just like you and me in lousy circumstances- and that is how it has been for a long time now.
Advice from an Old Pro: Where to Sleep
I Guess We Could Call It Urban Camping for the Disadvantaged
When I had no home I was constantly tired. My thoughts were consumed by a burning need to sleep somewhere safe. I usually couldn't find any such a place.
Eventually, I learned how to avoid most dangerous and uncomfortable street-sleeping situations. I wrote this article both to share that information with others who might need it and to enlighten homed people as to the conditions people without suffer.
Maybe the shelters are turning people away, you got assaulted in or near the shelter too many times, or you just don't like getting scabies with your night's lodging. Whatever the reason, you may need to find somewhere else to sleep. I am in no way representing these suggestions as either legal or even necessarily all that safe. I'd like to share some ways I learned to cope with the inconveniences and terrors of sleeping in the rough while living on the street.
Read The Article
Keep in mind that these were actions of desperation. I take no responsibility if you choose to use any of the ideas in the post.
- Where I Sometimes Slept While Homeless
You can read about some of the places I slept while homeless when I was trying to avoid getting beaten up, harassed, or bothered by police.
The Vast Majority Don't Panhandle or Beg - ...and Some Panhandlers Have Homes
Unfortunately, the most visible homeless people are the small percentage who do beg and thus most Americans associate all of them with pushy, dirty, and/or mentally ill beggars. Most who live on the street do everything they can to blend in for safety's sake and that means avoiding shelters and soup kitchens and begging of any kind.
Why I Hate The Words "The Homeless"
Words Are Used To Dehumanize
The following editorial is dedicated to Justus, a lovely man who saved my life - after society had discarded him and given up on him, too.
For years, America has been working to further dehumanize people who for one reason or another have found themselves living on the street. The recently favored descriptive phrase chills me to the bone. "The Homeless" - they are no longer hobos, transients, children of the street, vagrants, bums, or street people - they have become "The Homeless." You may say it's only words but words speak of deeper feelings. That is what words are, feelings and concepts given life as sound.
Let's look at that phrase a moment. When we use words to name other types of people - daughter, hooker, dentist, criminal, lawyer - do we use "the" in front when we refer to them as a group? Homeless is a state of not having somewhere to live, not something that a person is like a profession. People speak of "The Homeless" situation or "The Homeless" problem. At the holidays, people sometimes think of donating to "The Homeless."
They are PEOPLE. They are PEOPLE who have no place to sleep at night that is safe. They are PEOPLE who have fallen on hard luck. They are HUMAN BEINGS dying in your world. They are HUMAN BEINGS getting beaten by your policemen, your bored teenagers, and your reality show producers.
During my time as a PERSON without a place to live I learned that many MEN end up on the street because of illness, loss of a job, or as with many WOMEN, they have run from horrifying abuses while still teens. During my time as a PERSON without a home I found that most homeless WOMEN become that way from abuse, sexual or otherwise. They run from situations that their families, their law enforcement agencies, their charities do or can do nothing about. They walk the razor edge between flight and suicide and for some reason, they choose to run rather than face another rape by their stepfather or another bone-breaking beating from their spouse. Once they run away, they discover that they've merely jumped into a more slowly burning fire rather than to true safety. By that point they are stuck. There's no hand up, there's no government assistance to save them, there's really nothing to save them but themselves and sometimes each other. While the rest of the country is shedding tears over the little girl molested by her Uncle on the Lifetime movie the real little girls and boys are sleeping in dumpster surrounds, too broken to understand what to do or how to function.
After my first rape, it was a homeless man who saved me. I was tucked into a bloodied ball behind a dumpster, deep in shock. Without his intervention, I would have died. He covered me and sang mumbled songs. He bathed me like a child in someone's motel room where he'd carried me. Fittingly, his name was Justus. My angel had Parkinson's and had suffered several strokes. His bladder control wasn't perfect so he smelled pretty bad, too. He talked to me of soldiers he'd seen shell-shocked in Vietnam. He prayed and sang "Amazing Grace" as I stared into space, trembling and waiting, hoping to die while he carefully dabbed my face with a washcloth. He showed me a very old picture of his daughter, a cute toddler in corn rows. He spoke of her with such love. It was then I unfroze and began to cry. If this gentle, lovely man could be discarded and dying out where no one cared what hope was there for anyone?
I regret that I was too deeply wounded, too deep in shock at the time he finally urged and convinced me to let him take me to the hospital - I regret I was too damaged at the time to think of how I'd find him again. I was hospitalized for several days while they pumped me full of antibiotics and wrestled to get my fever under control. I never found Justus again.
Of all the people I've ever met, Justus was perhaps the most humane person of them all. Justus was not "The Homeless," he was a man of substance and humanity.
For the sake of Justus, don't use that phrase, "The Homeless."
The Word That Comes Next Should Be "Person" or "Man" or "Woman" or "Child"
- Here a Homeless, There a Homeless
Christine Schanes gives her take on the trend of dehumanizing people without homes by calling homeless individuals "a homeless" instead of "a homeless person" or even a hobo.
What Turned It All Around For Me
I'll Give You A Clue - It Was Money
My prospects were pretty dim; I had little work experience and nowhere to shower regularly. I walked funny and talked with a slurred voice after the brutal beating that had hospitalized me.
I couldn't get a regular job so I walked from door to door in suburban neighborhoods, scouting out homes where older folks lived. I knocked on doors asking to mow and rake lawns, scrub toilets, clean out homes and garages, and clean up dog poop. I also picked up bottles and cans for their deposit. I managed not to starve to death. Just barely.
One day I had a particularly bad day after almost a week of bad days. I'd been beaten up the night before and I hadn't convinced anyone to hire me to do any odd jobs in almost a week. No one seemed to appreciate the bargain at which my services could be had - not even poop scooping a really nasty yard for $2. I hadn't eaten in several days and was feeling pretty down. I thought about suicide.
As I walked along the freeway picking up trash and cans I found a number of cigarette boxes that day. When I picked the last one up I saw the edge of a paper bill sticking from the package. This was pretty common; often people would put a few dollars in their cigarette pack and forget about it. My hands were shaking and I was tearing up. I was going to get something to eat! As I pulled the bill out I couldn't believe what I was seeing. It was a folded hundred dollar bill! I looked at it in disbelief, thinking that somehow it must be a fake.
This was a turning point for me. I was able to rent a Post Office Box, buy a tarp to sleep on, buy showers at the truck stop, and clothes from a thrift store. I had an address to put on job applications and I could stay clean and well-dressed. I was then able to get a regular job, ten days after finding the money.
It wasn't really that simple but the money got the ball rolling.
Do You Think People Can Return to Society After Living on the Street?
Do you think homeless people can be re-integrated into society?
You Can't Really Count On The People You Think You Can
One of the saddest things I learned about losing my home is that that you can't count on anyone. If things go wrong for you, chances are, there's no one you know who will help you enough for it to matter.
This sounds really bitter but I've heard the same story over and over and over. I've seen elderly parents who put their kids through college fall to the streets when they became too old and sick to work too early to collect Social Security retirement. I've seen them disowned for being ragged and poor.
When you stop earning a good wage or your parents kick you out or if your parents abandon you, your friends will soon follow. Once you can't go out to the movies or out to eat, your friendships are done. Once your family becomes ashamed of you for not earning what they feel you should or because your clothes are worn and old it's likely your family will turn on you, too.
Fortunately, sometimes some people you never suspected will step to help. But don't count on it. It's survival of the fittest out there. If you fall, there's no one to catch you. So you'd better not fall.
Don't think that your parents or spouse or close friend will give you a couch or porch to sleep on, the welcome ends far faster than you'd ever believe in most cases.
Why Street People are Often Afraid of Police
...and being without a place to live is sometimes considered a crime in and of itself
Many living on the streets are terrified of police and there's a good reason for this. It is because some policemen use their position of power to harass or even harm them. Now that many citizens have video recording equipment on them in the form of cell phones and digital cameras, more of this behavior is being exposed. If you just search for "police beating homeless" on any search engine you will find many shocking results.
Being homeless is considered a crime in some cities, adding to the fears of those with nowhere else to go. In cities where it is a crime in and of itself there is an increased likelihood of arrest. Increased exposure to police increases the likelihood of encountering a dangerous police officer.
When I had nowhere else to sleep, I was wakened many times by non-too-gentle kicks by police "checking on my welfare" when I fell asleep in public places. I was also treated dismissively when I tried to report crimes. I was once even accused of prostitution and threatened with arrest.
I know most police do not behave this way but there are enough around that if a person stays on the street long enough, he or she is pretty likely to encounter a policemen of this type. Many people see homeless people as worthless, lazy criminals and it becomes dangerous when those individuals are law enforcement officers.
It sucks to have nowhere to sleep at night. It isn't some carefree, free-wheeling existence as many people have been led to believe. Homelessness is living constantly one step away from degradation and violence while standing exposed outside the boundaries of society's protection.
People need to know that the majority of people living on the streets don't get government checks or real health care. They need to know that a diagnosis of a serious illness or chronic disease usually means death for those in deep poverty. Folks need to know that women without homes often get raped again and again, mostly by people with homes. They need to know that homelessness could actually happen to them.
The safety net is badly broken in many places. The job market is slipping toward a third-world economy with businesses finding ways to hire workers at less than minimum wage while fighting the wage laws in place to try to get rid of minimum wage.
However, I feel that there is hope. I know that there are more good people than bad. I have learned that most individuals, when confronted with the realities of homelessness, open their minds and recognize that what they were taught about poverty was wrong. I have seen the some of the most rabid of homeless haters turned into caring shelter volunteers.
© 2008 Kylyssa Shay