By Cat Jones
People who have never been homeless don’t know shit about it. And the real problem is, they don’t know that they don’t know shit. The ignorance around this issue has real and painful consequences for people impacted by poverty. This point has been underlined to me recently, with a spate of incidents and conversations involving friends of mine whose normally compassionate natures were suddenly and inexplicably shrouded by ignorance, entitlement, and lack of understanding when it came to people who are homeless (not to mention the ridiculous spectacle of a couple of New York senators making asses of themselves by insisting we need them to limit the ability of food stamp recipients to buy “luxury items” with their SNAP benefits, as IF that were even a thing). I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, and the din of ignorance has made me decide to share the story about one of the darkest times in my own life… the time when I was homeless.
All The Reasons Why I Never Imagined I’d Be on the Streets
First, I’ll start where most people who haven’t been there are: I’ll start at home. Most people think only “other people” could wind up homeless, think it could never happen to them. So it was with me. I was comfortable once, and I never imagined I might one day be cast out into the streets.
I can’t remember ever overtly looking down on homeless people. I even considered myself an advocate for them, having written numerous articles on “their” plight (for instance, this one, and this one, and this one). But, though I didn’t even realize it, the story of homelessness that existed in my mind was all abstract, theoretical. Like many “allies,” I had a lot of armchair theories that simply weren’t real. This is natural with humans. When we cannot perceive something fully with our senses, the mind helpfully supplies its own beliefs about what should be there and fills in the spaces. Sometimes, unscrupulous people with agendas of their own help to skew the process by which those gaps get filled in. We can’t always help this phenomenon, so we need to be mindful of the possibility that we don’t actually know anything until we have experience with things ourselves.
So yes, I had my blind spots and assumptions, and chief among them was an unarticulated sense that “people like me” aren’t the kind to become homeless. I’d never been there and, unconsciously I guess, I didn’t really see myself as someone who could wind up on the streets myself. It’s not that I had all that much – I have always been an artist and so I’ve never been wealthy. And it’s certainly not that I consciously considered myself to be any better than someone without a home. It’s just that I thought I’d had too many advantages that “they” did not have, and I guess I’d unconsciously bought some of the hype suggesting that homeless people are there because of drug addictions and other kinds of catastrophic personal issues that I didn’t think I had.
I’d had my hard times and working-class moments for sure. Indeed, my whole adult life, with the exception of a few short years right after grad school, was a working class struggle. But I came from a fairly middle class, college-educated family, my dad a police officer, my mom a librarian. We might have gone through some rough, economically challenging times once or twice when I was a kid, after my father left policing and the middle class started to disintegrate under “trickle down [on us]” economics (for a while, we lived in something of a hippie compound on the side of a mountain with buckets for toilets and no running water…), but those were temporary setbacks and we always had a home, and homelessness was unthinkable. When I grew up I went to college like my parents had, and if I may say so I did very well there. (As I’m writing this, I realize that I often feel compelled to mention this fact, not out of arrogance, but because it seems to give me back some of the credibility that people who don’t know me tend to subtract when they find out I’ve been homeless, or that I’ve struggled with mental illness. It’s not that college makes anyone better than anyone else, it’s just that so many people think it does, in the same way they think homelessness makes some people less than others. So, to counter the “less than” assumption, I throw in the paper cred. Thus, here is the litany: I earned 3 degrees. I graduated summa cum laude. All the way through grad school, I maintained a perfect 4.0 GPA. Eat that, social Darwinists.) People with families and college degrees and straight A’s aren’t homeless, right?
I fell madly in love with a talented and hard-working musician who played gigs at night and, like me, he worked the obligatory day job. Both of us worked hard. We had many fine adventures and a baby together and, in fact, when I was an undergrad, Sid was working upwards of 70 hours a week to support us and our baby. And when I was in grad school, he worked full time at night and went to college full time during the day. When we finally got out of school, we both got reasonably good-paying jobs, and after lots of tiny urban apartments, we bought our first and only house together – a little craftsman bungalow on the Columbia river in Oregon, just outside of Portland, the city where we’d met.
Even while we were both putting in long hours as artists, we worked hard in our “respectable” day jobs as well. This was the “corporate disguise,” as I called it, and we kept food on the table and never once missed a payment on that house in the ten years we lived there. As a matter of pride, I was never even late on a single payment.
So I had reason to believe I had what it took to always keep a roof over myself and my family. I also believed in the mythical Social Safety Net. Yes, I did. We’d worked hard and we’d certainly paid our dues to it, and if I thought about the possibility of true economic hardship at all, I’d have assumed it would be there for me. Most Americans believe in this myth… right up until they need it, and only then is it revealed to be the cruel and staggering lie that it turns out to be. It’s not really there. It was eaten away years ago, gutted by a doddering Ronald Reagan all through the 80s and finished off by a grinning Bill Clinton in the 90s. There is no “help” when you reach bottom. And this is how I know.
When Everything Ended
In 2012, right on schedule with the Aztec calendar, the end of the world came riding in on the fourth horseman of the apocalypse. Out of nowhere, my partner, my mate, my muse, the love of my life, the father of my child, was diagnosed with incurable cancer. Renal cell carcinoma. Kidney cancer. Nothing could stop it. Nothing could save him. He tried so hard to live, and I tried so hard to save him. But the end of the world came anyway.
While he was dying, Sid struggled so bravely to do what he had always done – to take care of his family. He was in relentless, excruciating pain. The cancer was eating through him, literally breaking bones, and he needed rest and care in hope that he might heal. But he couldn’t get it, because although he had worked his ass off and dutifully paid for long-term disability insurance for his entire career, a benefit that should have kicked in at this time, he couldn’t get it. Standard Insurance – oh yeh, I’m naming names – denied his claim. They said his diagnosis “wasn’t clear enough” for them and they refused to pay.
They told him this after he had been home for weeks, having exhausted all paid leave, thinking that the insurance was going to kick in like it was supposed to and take care of the bills. I remember the call. I remember the fear in his voice as he tried to grasp what the agent was telling him, as he explained he was counting on that money and we’d miss a house payment without it. He’d been paying for this insurance for more than a decade, and he needed it now. That was the agreement. But none of that mattered to the officious agent, nor to the sociopathic corporation clutching its “corporate personhood” and holding the purse strings. In callous support of their bottom line at the expense of real lives, they denied the claim that was rightfully his, on the incomprehensible premise that the diagnosis that was killing him somehow “wasn’t clear.” This common corporate maneuver sent us careening toward poverty when we really had a lot of other, very important things on our minds.
Sid, who had always had a superhuman sense of responsibility, responded to this catastrophic blow by dragging himself up on TWO makeshift canes, and hauling himself back to work, no matter how much it hurt. His boss, his coworkers, his doctors, and I all begged him to stay home and care for himself but he wanted to save our home. He knew he was dying, and he wanted to protect his family.
In March of 2012, the tumor in his spine grew so virulent that it literally broke his back, and it was over. Doctors removed a vertebrae, he was confined to a wheelchair, and he never again had a pain free moment. He couldn’t work at all after that, and as I was his caregiver, I started missing a lot of work too. We had to leave our home, temporarily we thought, while he sought treatment, because he couldn’t manage the stairs. Our son had to go stay with family friends, so that he could stay in school, and Sid and I left the state to go stay briefly with Sid’s mom before he went into the hospital and never came out. I tried to work the day job as much as I could then, but as his health deteriorated I could no longer work at all. I needed to be there for him, and to be frank, my own mental health was taking a hit that I couldn’t recover from as well, due to all the stress. I couldn’t work… I just couldn’t think about anything but him.
But capitalism has no patience for human need, and taking care of each other came with a cost. We missed one, and then another payment, and Homestreet Bank began sending threatening letters and making threatening phone calls. I kept explaining to them what was happening, but they absolutely refused to work with us at all. One of my most heartbreaking memories of that terrible, terrible time was the desperate sadness and self recrimination in Sid’s voice as he held the latest in a series of threatening letters from the bank in his hand. “I’m sinking us” he said shakily. “I’m gonna lose our house.” So clear is the memory of the unsteadiness of his voice, the hurt and fear this was causing him, the way he’d wanted so much to just be sure his family would be all right if nothing else, that it makes me cry all over just to write those words.
Sometimes evil can be so disseminated through series of little decisions by so many people, that no one who is conducting it along feels any personal sense of responsibility about it. Thus, it goes along and grinds up victims, without anyone’s conscience standing in its way. Such is the system we have built in America, where psychopathic corporate “people” grind up real people, and are never held accountable for anything but their bottom line.
Sid should never have had to worry about losing our home at such a time. We hard-working, tax-paying people had just bailed out bank-owning billionaires with hundreds of billions of dollars because they were considered “too big to fail.” And suddenly, because of a sudden and unexpected health crisis, Standard Insurance was disingenuously taking our money and running, and Homestreet Bank was callously stealing our only home, after ten years of payments, because we were too small to bail. (In fact, in those ten years, we had already given them enough to pay the asking price on the house, plus twenty thousand in interest… but given the predatory and usurious nature of American banking, we still technically had 20 years left on our mortgage… The bank’s “profit margins” on the loan. And we were not alone. Our next door neighbor lost his home of 25 years the year before we lost ours, and people all up and down the Columbia and, indeed, all over the country, were also crumbling to foreclosures.) We had heard that one of the reasons for the bailout was allegedly supposed to be to keep people like us in our homes. Rumor had it there were “programs” to help us as a condition of the bailout. But when we asked about this, pleading for options, the only option we were ever given by them was a very curt, “You need to immediately make up the missed payments.” How?
As Sid lay dying in the hospital, Homestreet Bank foreclosed on our only home. I told my lover not to worry about it, that it didn’t matter. Compared to what was happening to him… it really didn’t.
My service dog, Buddha, and I stayed with him in the hospital during those last, heartbreaking weeks, and we never went home again. He died there. And the night he died was the beginning of my descent into homelessness.
I wandered away from the hospital in a daze. My lover’s body left behind, unprotected and unprotectable, cooling… forever without me, no way to ever help him again… my mind was empty and numb. It was around 1am when I walked away, out through a series of impassive doorways, and into the night. I remember the thick, greenish-black, post-midnight air. There was a fountain just outside the hospital, and I can still hear the gurgle of the clear water falling across the black rocks that night, can still smell the wet moss around the edge. My dog, Buddha, and I stood there for a long time, listening to the water. And then I walked out to the parking lot, got into my car like a ghost, and drove the 40 miles to the place where my son was staying, to tell him that his father had died. And if you don’t think that was a soul-crushing thing to have to do, think again.
The friends he was staying with were very good to us both. They offered me food, though I could not eat, offered me a bath, and they let my son stay there with them, since our home was no longer ours. It was the end of everything for me.
I’d just lost my lover, our family was dissolving, our home was in foreclosure, and in one last slam of the door, I was about to lose my job as well. I had used up all my sick and vacation time at work during Sid’s illness, and the moment my boss found out that he was gone she sent me a curt message telling me to return immediately or I would be fired. I was lost in grief, numb, and completely unable to work. Although I’ve had serious anxiety disorders all my life, I’d always been completely functional anyway. Like I said, I’d had a good job and together we’d always supported our family. But my lover’s death was too much for me. I’d lost everything, everything, in such a short span of time. I just couldn’t handle it. Grief and mental illness began to pull me under, and there was no way I could return so quickly back to work. And so I lost Sid, I lost my home, and then I lost my job (admittedly the least of the three and the only one I’ve never mourned). I had no idea what I would do, I had no one to turn to who might help me, and I didn’t know how I would take care of myself.
As I am a painter, I’d always had an art studio. Before Sid got sick, I’d secured a small studio space in a huge, old box warehouse out along the Willamette river, between the river and the railroad tracks. My studio was a tiny room in this big, old, fantastic maze of a building in the middle of the warehouse district of Portland. It was nestled under the Serpentine, a name I’d given the Fremont bridge, which had appeared as a frequent character in my graphic novels at the time. The building was owned by a business man whose family had been in the carton business for many years. I think he’d wanted to be an artist, but had been dragged into the family business. He was a huge supporter of the Portland art scene though, and rented out spaces in his buildings to artists for cheap. I’d gotten an especially good deal, because I helped him rescue a couple of cats so my first months there were free and after that it was only $200 a month. So after Sid died, and after I lost my home, I left virtually everything we’d owned, and I took my three dogs and we moved into my tiny art studio.
I wasn’t supposed to be living there, though, and I had to be careful lest I be discovered. It wasn’t really set up to live in, and although I knew at least one other artist was living there on an upper floor, we both knew we’d be thrown out if we were discovered. It’s not that the owner was a bad guy or anything, but the law is the law, and there are laws against letting people live in spaces that aren’t up to code for habitation. But sometimes when you’re desperate, you don’t have the luxury of living within the letter of the law. So I hid out there anyway.
It wasn’t the Ritz. The nearest accessible bathroom was down a ghostly hallway and up a flight of stairs, and there were no baths or showers anywhere in the building. There had once been a communal kitchen, but it was taken over and turned into an office about a month before I lost my home. So I had some problems to solve – and this is where we will start to talk about the resiliency and creativity of homelessness. We’ll get to that in a moment.
Like any form of poverty, homelessness comes with a lot of stigma. So almost everyone tries to hide it at first, tries to maintain some semblance of normalcy, some personal dignity, at least until the life just beats them down. I certainly did. (You may well be interacting with people every day whom you do not know are homeless. You very often can’t tell, just by looking, who is and isn’t homeless.) So my first problems had to do with both survival, and dignity. I had to hide the fact that I was there day and night, I had to figure out how to eat, and of all things, I had to figure out how to bathe. I’ve got a thing about baths. I just like to be clean, and there’s just something about a bath.
So I began to figure out ways to meet my needs, even as I was still so deeply grieving that my chest felt too heavy to even draw a breath. At first, I could do little more than lie in a pile of pillows and dogs in the corner of the room, fearful of being discovered and unable to even think clearly. But pretty soon, I was trying to figure out a bath. It’s funny that this was my first concern as a homeless person.
I had a big, plastic tub I kept spray paints in. It occurred to me that if I could find a way to fill this with water, I could take a bath. There was no sink or running water inside my studio, but there was a big slop sink outside in the hallway, across from my door. I went looking for a way to get water from the sink to the tub, and I found a little camp shower with hose at the army surplus store. So this was my bath and shower. I’d wait until everyone was gone at night, and then I’d dump all the art supplies out of the tub, run the hose from the sink into the studio to fill it up with water, and climb into the miniature bath. After the bath I’d siphon the water back out, put the paint supplies back into the tub, and tuck it back away under my work bench.
Somehow, I had to figure out how to pay the $200 a month in rent, and to eat. Thankfully, I’d been a NW radical for years, and there was never any stigma about dumpstering food and other goods among my friends. There’s an unconscionable amount of waste in First World America that goes unforgivably into landfills if not fished out and salvaged, and NW anarchists have honed the rescue of “garbage” from the shit-end of the capitalist machine to a high art. I’d been dumpstering bread and vegetables, and things for my garden, for years by the time I reached the streets so I knew how to feed myself at least.
I was selling work only very sporadically then, like most artists. So I had to be careful about what I spent money on. As eating out is expensive, I needed to figure out a way to store and prepare that dumpstered food in my studio. I had no stove, no refrigerator, no kitchen sink. So I took up a book about fermentation, and began to learn to ferment food. I could prepare and store fermented vegetables in my little room with nothing but a few jars with lids. I always had a big jar of salted cabbage and beets in one corner. I also had a friend who worked at a goodwill store, and I got a hot plate there so that I could at least heat up soup and tea.
My studio had been well-stocked with art supplies when I was flush, so I had plenty of paint and canvas at least, and I painted all the time. I poured my anguish and desolation into the canvas and shut out everything else with whiskey and rum. After awhile, I started trying to find my footing again there in that little space, trying to get some ground beneath my feet in spite of everything.
In the evenings, I would leave the building around the time the warehouse workers were leaving, making sure they saw me go in order to keep up the illusion that I wasn’t living there. The idea was to circle back again once they were gone, but this became a strangely oppressive nightly ritual to me. I found that it was hard for me to leave my room, but once I did it was very, very hard for me to go back there. I don’t know why that was, but I still feel it to this day, that difficulty of making myself go back to the roost once I’ve left it. I’ve had to learn to acknowledge the feeling and just press on back anyway, but back then there were often times I just couldn’t, and the dogs and I would wander the city, my heart blank and empty, sometimes just roaming the urban darkness all night long. This weird quirk could have something to do with the OCD I’ve struggled with all my life. It could have to do with my ancient pirate ancestry or the Irish traveler in my blood. Or it could have to do with the gnawing pain of emptiness and disappointment that came with going “home” to a place that wasn’t, that would never be again, to nothing but ghosts.
Whatever it was, I can still feel the wash of pthalo turquoise and indigo of our wanderings. The dogs – Romeo, Darjeeling, and Buddha – and I would make wide, meandering, pointless circles across the city, along paths that followed the river downtown, through the dark canyons of the warehouse district, out into the light-speckled urban night of the city, and then back toward my studio. As we’d get closer I knew I couldn’t go back yet, so we’d turn and wander again in another concentric circle. Like ripples left by a stone falling into the water, we followed this strange map to many adventures.
Everything seemed pointless to me then, I was attached to no further outcome, I could feel nothing but emptiness and grief. Sometimes, we’d walk along the waterfront, watching seagulls or collecting random bits of discarded civilization to drag back and work into pieces of art. Sometimes we wandered along the railroad tracks, picking up rusty railroad ties or the bleached bones of animals who had been hit by trains. Sometimes we’d wander through the cobalt and ultramarine canyons of downtown, feeling invisible among all those people whose world we had stepped out of.
It was a strange kind of twilight existence, where I was cut off from everything that I’d known. I’d been knocked into a place where there was nothing left to do but just be. Just observe. Just survive. I lived like that for awhile, and I got a lot of painting done then when I wasn’t wandering. But I was running out of money, and the grief and the stress and the hunger were getting to me.
I tried applying for food stamps, to keep me from starving when the dumpsters were picked clean. And here, I can put regressive, mean-spirited minds to rest (and yes, senator Ritchie, you mind bogglingly ignorant, thoughtless, divisive fool, I’m talking to you right here). People who have never been hungry, who have never applied for food stamps, who like to point fingers down instead of up, to blame their misery on the “lazy poor” instead of the truly idle and lazy rich, well they are simply burning down straw men in their ignorance. In reality, those who imagine poor people to be frivolously buying lobster and spa weekends with their SNAP benefits can rest their sanctimonious heads. No one is living large on food stamps. How do I know? Well let me tell you.
There I was, homeless, ill, zero income, in need of a safety net. I applied for food stamps, and I got them. They offered me a stingy and barely helpful $16 a month. Yes. So keep your “lobster” bullshit rhetoric, Senator Ritchie, and shove those steaks right up some billionaire banker’s bottom line. Because the bogey man you’re raging on about doesn’t exist. It isn’t poor people’s food stamps sucking all the wealth from hard working American pockets, it’s corporate welfare and bailed out billionaires. THEY are the ones eating lobster and going off on spa weekends off worker’s labor and blood. We are eating fermented kale and dumpstered pasta from discarded cardboard, and we’re getting very little help from anywhere.
Cast Out Again
I lived like that for awhile, and after a couple of months I thought I might find some ground beneath my feet to stand me back up a little. The days and nights were a numb blur of painting and wandering, punctuated by occasional exhaustion that would finally bring me back to the warehouse around dawn to collapse into a pile of pillows and dogs on the floor in one corner. But I was living in constant fear of being caught living there and thrown out, and eventually it happened.
The owner of the building was a nice enough guy, but city code and insurance and whatnot did not allow people to live in the building, and when they discovered I’d been living there the manager threw me out. I remember being really embarrassed about it, especially since the reason they discovered me living there had to do with a serious episode of mental illness that I’ll write about separately another time, because it deserves its own space. (What I will say here is that the hardship of homelessness can be mind blowingly stressful, and grief can actually kill you. One night, it all finally just kicked my ass and I spent a couple of days in a nightmarish state of paranoia and delusion. It’s the only experience I’ve ever had with this particular form of madness, and the only one I ever want to have. I cowered in a corner, afraid even to move, victimized by hallucinations so clear to me that I could reach out and touch them. I was trapped there, afraid to even call anyone for help, for fear that anyone who came might also be put into danger. Two of my closest friends had to come and break into the building through my window to rescue me.)
So yes, that was pretty awful, and not what one normally thinks of as part of the millieu of everyday experience. Trust me, stress can do unbelievable things to the mind, and homelessness and grief are both unbelievably stressful. The delusional episode turned out to be very transitory, anxiety-related, and it faded away as quickly as it had come on. So far, at least, it’s the only one I’ve ever had. (Yet another surprising revelation to me… as with homelessness, I’d never realized that I had significant blind spots about what this kind of mental illness could be like, and in spite of having been born with OCD, I never imagined I would find myself absolutely out of touch with reality like that… This episode changed a lot of my perceptions about such things.)
The hullabaloo of my rescue had been enough to alert the building manager to my unauthorized presence in the warehouse, and he threw me out. Once again, I was cast out of the only place I had left. They kindly let me keep some things there for a short while, since my studio had been full of art supplies, but I subsequently lost most of what little I’d had left, and my dogs and I were forced to live in my car. I’m grateful that I did still have a car, such as it was, since it was at least a tiny square of space marked out by sides and a roof that I still had the right to call mine, and it could keep the rain off us.
It doesn’t feel very secure to be sleeping in a car, especially since so many cops and security guards and gatekeepers of all sorts frown on any visible sign of poverty, and thus they tend to intrude and send you on your way when it looks like you might be living in there. That’s really a thing, when you’re homeless. Nobody ever lets you sleep. Not anywhere. All bodily functions and normal activities are criminalized when you’re homeless. It’s bad enough to be living on the streets without a home, but everyone wants to treat you like shit because of it. People have assholes in their souls sometimes, and they make things so much worse than they even need to be for each other. Honestly, what IS it about kicking people when they’re down in this culture? So anyway. Now, instead of painting and wandering, it was driving. Driving around in circles looking for somewhere to rest, some way to survive.
During this time, I was still trying to keep the fact that I was homeless to myself. Besides being an artist, I was an animal rights activist, and I was involved at the time with the Sea Lion Defense Brigade, a group that I had founded 8 years or so before, whose mission was, and is, to save the sea lions and other wildlife along the Columbia river from being killed by Fish and Wildlife agents on behalf of the greedy NW fishing industry. They were (and are) killing sea lions all over the river for the crime of eating the fish they’d been eating on that river for at least ten thousand years.
I had met the sea lions while we lived there on that river, and they are beautiful animals, remarkably intelligent, gregarious, curious, and filled with personality. I knew many of them personally, and this killing was killing me too. So I was still fighting that battle, even while I was sick and homeless, and there were all these official functions and press conferences and meetings with government officials and whatnot. So I still needed to drag myself together and look at least somewhat presentable, not like someone who might be living in a car. It wasn’t easy to pull this off, but I was doing my best.
If sleeping in a car is difficult, hygiene and dressing are even harder. I’d lost the camp shower and plastic tub with the studio, not to mention any privacy at all. I’d also lost the hot plate and the fermentation jars, and what little storage space I’d had. So I had to start all over, solving those same problems, with even fewer resources than I’d had before.
Water Games and Continental Breakfasts
It was the bathing part that led me on some of my grandest adventures. I’m a Pisces, man, and I need water. This really became a thing after Sid died. In my mind, Sid was always water. I was fire, and he was water. He was soothing, and cool, and filled my veins with what I needed. I was hot tempered and mercurial and the world set me off. Sid was the ocean. He was the cool, calm, quiet pool I dove into when I came home at night. So when he was gone, it was a thing that I became eternally thirsty. (I wrote this about looking for water while tripping on shrooms the night of his service, when this longing kicked in for real. In an effort to heal from the trauma of Sid’s death, and in the desire to find him again somehow, I had turned to entheogens, and that night, when people asked me what I needed, I’d said p. Cubensis. Everyone came through, and I’d taken them all. Walk in my shoes awhile before you tell me you’d do otherwise.)
Some of this relentless thirst for real and metaphorical water manifested in my constant need to find a place to have a bath. My friend Ninja and I took to going up into the cascades to soak in streams that summer, and in hotsprings along the upper Clackamas when the weather started getting cooler. We and our dogs would hike up into the forest, find a good spot, and climb into water that we would not climb out of until evening was coming on.
But the streams and hot springs were outside of the city, and we didn’t have the resources to go every day. I craved bathing every day. So I found other ways.
There was a hotel along the river where Sid and I had stayed once, shortly before he’d died, and it had a swimming pool and a big, outdoor jacuzzi, and I thought maybe I could bathe there. I decided that if I could walk in through the back with enough confidence, I could pose as a hotel guest and it was possible that no one would bother me about it. And sure enough. My most pleasant memories of homelessness involve soaking in that hot tub. I’d saunter in through the back, with a 1920s bathing suit I’d found in a thrift store under my clothes, go out to the courtyard, strip off the outer layer of clothes, and climb into the warm, welcoming, water. It totally worked. No one even questioned it. I got so brazen that I would wrap up in a towel and walk right into the lobby on my way out, grab a warm mug of complimentary coffee and help myself to a banana or an apple or an orange from a huge plate of fruit left out for guests, and then I’d leave. Some days, that was all I ate because $16 in food stamps doesn’t buy much steak and lobster after all, Senator Ritchie (and I’m vegan, so I don’t eat that stuff anyway), and most of the money I managed to scrape up at that point was going to buy food for the dogs.
I realized that hotel staff were going to catch on to me if I kept going to the same place, so I started looking for other places to bathe and eat. In time, I developed a whole circuit of hotels and motels I’d visit, both to bathe and, importantly, I’d stop in for the continental breakfasts. Having a car then kind of set me apart from people on the streets who didn’t have such a thing. I’d never have been able to pull this off without that car. It’s kind of a spiral, the descent to the streets, and at this point I was still one of those “uppity” homeless people with a car. I ate well most mornings, thanks to the largesse of certain Travelodges and Holiday Inns. I’m pretty sure that, after awhile at least, some staff people realized I was not a guest there, but they were kind to me and never called me on it.
But by far, my favorite bathing hole was at an apartment building where my friend Blank lived. I learned that his place had an enormous, pool-sized, indoor jacuzzi. Oh my God, it was such freaking luxury. My friend used to let me go over there to lounge around in the warm water when I needed to, and I went there all the time. (I probably could have just used his shower, too, but by this time I’d discovered that I really liked the comfort of a big jacuzzi for a bath, and I have a lot of fond memories of that place.) I would change in Blank’s apartment, then my dog Buddha and I would walk through the complex to the pool room in the center of all the buildings. I’d walk through the big, glass doors and shut out the whole world. There was rarely anyone else in there, and it felt like sanctuary. I’d climb into the warm, goosebump raising water and forget almost everything. I spent whole afternoons and evenings there. Sometimes, I still miss that place.
In poverty, one becomes very resourceful. (Honestly, I think after the apocalypse, it will be the people who have been homeless who will survive. We learn how to do things because we have to.) So part of the reason I threw myself into botany during this time probably had to do with the necessities of survival. I wanted to know which plants around me were edible, which were medicinal, and which were useful in other ways. But I think this pursuit had more to do with desperately needing to find a reason to live even more than a way to.
I’d always been interested in plants. One of the most painful things to me about being forced from my home, aside from having to leave all of my son’s childhood drawings and school papers behind, was having to leave the garden that I’d lovingly tended for ten years. (All the fruit trees I’d planted were just about to bear fruit there, and I’d grown to need the feeling of my hands in the earth.) So that was part of this too, a way to try to connect with the earth again through the plants who grow from her. But it was also a desperate need for something to do. I’d had to leave my studio full of art supplies behind. I could not paint when I was living in my car. I needed something absorbing to fill my days with. I needed something that the dogs and I could do together. And I needed something to focus on besides just grief and despair.
I’ve always tried to deal with the difficult times this way, by finding something to build upon. I remember after I gave birth to my son, I had raging postpartum blues. Although I was overjoyed about my baby, I felt like all the color had drained from my life. I found I couldn’t get into anything. So at that time, I’d gone back to school to pursue a degree, figuring that the structure of college would force me to do something besides just melt away, and that by the time the depression lifted I’d have a degree to show for it rather than just wasting that time. And sure enough.
So that’s pretty much what I was doing here. Trying to find something to do with myself that might make life bearable, and that would give me something to keep if I ever got better.
I started with a couple of botanical field guides I’d salvaged from my stolen home. (Although the bank had foreclosed, they just left my home empty with all my things in it for a long time. I’m told it’s still empty to this day, 3 and a half years after they threw me out of it. So I used to go back there and break in periodically, to check the mail and retrieve a belonging or two. But I never slept there again. I just couldn’t handle the memories, the dilapidation once it had sat empty awhile, the knowing it wasn’t mine.) Anyway, I’d take the field guides and the dogs, and wander out into the copious greenspaces surrounding Portland. We’d hike and trudge around through Oaks bottom and Forest Park, along the riverbanks, up through Washington Park, and especially the arboretum up in the west hills. These places became something of a sanctuary for me. Still so numb and suffering from grief, I nevertheless began to feel a little bit of life again when we were out trudging through the woods. I’d look up every plant I didn’t recognize. I’d draw and photograph and identify every leaf, twig, and tendril that I could. I began to learn about rocks and insects and birds and furry little rodents as well. I became so absorbed in the flora and fauna and natural history of the Pacific NW that it was a meditation for me, something upon which to focus with such intensity that the knots of anxiety and despair that had been plaguing me could unwind themselves quietly in the background without the interference of my constant attempts to struggle with them. I became something of an expert in the plant life of Cascadia.
I started to see the arboretum up there above Portland as almost a sacred place. I spent whole days there. Sometimes, I would make a point of setting out a “picnic lunch” for me and the dogs up there, where I’d splurge on some special treat for them and some fruit for me, and we’d spread out a blanket on the ground and pretend life was good again.
So it really hurts that it was here, in this makeshift sanctuary, that some thoughtless douche finally took everything that was left.
(As I’m writing this article, THIS PERSON felt herself entitled to go bash out the windows of a homeless family’s van because she felt their presence was bringing down the value of her home and wrecking “her” neighborhood. The homeless family defended themselves by smacking her fool face in. And the media is reporting on this as if SHE were the victim. Keep this in mind as you read about what I went through next.)
I was actually almost feeling good again, on the day that it happened. I had gone up to the arboretum that day just to give the dogs a walk. I wasn’t even going to stay that long. I parked along the road, with everybody else, and started walking down a trail. I remember taking pictures of a bright green inch worm dangling from a silver thread above the trail, and I recall sitting in the bright green grass while the dogs played in the water.
Then we started walking back up the hill, but as we got up near the top, there was a woman with two fluffy white dogs, talking on a cell phone. “How much longer are you going to be, um, working on that job?” I heard her say. In retrospect, I now realize that she was almost certainly the lookout. But I had no idea what was happening, and all I was thinking was that Romeo can be dog reactive, so I like to keep him away from dogs he doesn’t know. I stopped and stepped off the tail, waiting for the woman to walk past. Only she didn’t. She just stood there for the longest time, talking on the phone and staring at me and my dogs.
When she finally sauntered away, I headed back up to my car. When I got up to the road, a car was just pulling away, and I noticed a sock rustling in the breeze in the middle of the street. I saw that it was mine. That’s weird, I thought. How did that get out here? I thought I’d accidentally dragged it out when I let the dogs out. I picked it up, embarrassed to have scattered my laundry in the street, you know, like some homeless person or something.
But when I was putting the dogs into the car, a slow realization came over me that something wasn’t right. The front seat was pushed way too far forward. Then it struck me like a blow. The back window had been broken. The handmade basket I had kept my clothes in was missing. And a small black bag… It had only had some soap and shampoo, my toothbrush, a comb and a little makeup in it. Nothing that would mean anything to anyone but me. But to me, that loss was devastating – not just because it was every little thing I had left from the life I’d once had, not even just because grooming is important to me and I couldn’t afford to buy any of that stuff again. This loss threw me into a tailspin because that little black bag had belonged to Sid, and he used to carry it everywhere with him. It was one last, tenuous little connection to the man I’d loved so much and would never see again. Christ, they even took his handicapped parking tag from the months when he was in a wheelchair at the end, which I’d also kept for sentimental value.
I’m guessing the thieves were surprised when they discovered how “worthless” their haul was. But to me, it had been everything I had.
I just stood there with my chest hurting, numb to everything else, wondering how and why the universe could hate me so much.
One of the things that people who are homeless often suffer from more than anything else is isolation, lack of social support. This is one of those things you just have no idea about until you’re there. Often times, the same things that have robbed a person of their home have also taken away family, friends, anyone to turn to when things get hard. And so it was for me. I had never understood the grinding pain of loneliness until this time when I was homeless.
I stood there so numb, because I knew there was no one in the world to turn to. There was no one on earth who would comfort me right then, no matter how much I needed it. There was no one on earth who would even care. I’d just been dealt such a blow, and only six months before, I’d have immediately run to Sidberry for a hug. He would have put his arms around me, and told me it was going to be all right. And it would have been. But Sid was gone, separated from me forever, and there was no one there to turn to. I was estranged from my family by the forces of grief, mental illness and bitterness. I’d lost too many friends by being way too sick from the anxiety and the grief. Everyone had gotten tired of the “burden” of my suffering, so I was left alone with it.
I stood there for a long time, staring at my car, at the place where the clothes basket had been, the one sock in my hand …all that I had left. Only secondarily did I finally recognize that I had a bigger problem too. The broken window. It was late autumn by this time. Winter was coming on, and I had no way to keep the weather out. Even more devastating, I couldn’t figure out how I could keep my dogs safely in the car with the window gaping open. If I needed to go into a store to buy food, if I needed to go take a bath, or even use a bathroom somewhere… I had nowhere for my dogs to go.
And …I still had work to do. That night, there was an important town hall meeting in a city along the nearby Willamette river, where people were trying to decide whether to start killing sea lions there too. I had to somehow pull myself together, patch my window, and go to this meeting. I had to speak up for the animals.
I don’t remember how I dealt with the window. I only remember that whatever I did involved tape and did not keep out the elements (to my horror and inexplicable embarrassment, mushrooms actually started to grow on the floor in the back seat after awhile, because of the NW rain that drooled in through that window). But I did manage to block it well enough to keep the dogs from jumping out.
I went to that meeting, shook hands with people, talked to politicians and the media, and to my knowledge no one could tell that I was living in my broken car and had just lost everything I’d owned. When I walked out of there, though, it was dark, and it was getting very cold. I hadn’t had time during the day to figure out where I was going to park that night to sleep, and this is an important consideration when you’re homeless. If you pick the wrong place, you get attacked, rousted by police, or at the very least, embarrassed by people seeing you there, sleeping in a car. I had no curtains or anything to close myself off from the scrutiny of the world, and I felt so exposed. I couldn’t think what to do.
I remember walking out of the building into the darkness, just as a cold rain began to fall, and I just couldn’t take another day. In desperation, I swallowed my pride and turned to a friend who had also attended the meeting. I’d been trying very hard to put on a brave face in front of the few friends I had left, because I’d learned that no one wants to be burdened with other people’s pain. But I’d just been through too much. I desperately just needed somewhere warm to sleep, somewhere to curl up and think, somewhere without the threat of prying eyes and further victimization. I just needed a little fucking break.
This friend was one of a very few who did know that I’d been living in my car. She was, in fact, one of my very closest friends. I confided in her that my car had been broken into that day, that I just couldn’t take another night in that car, that I was so cold, and I couldn’t keep out the rain, and it was supposed to freeze that night. “Can I just sleep on your living room floor tonight?” I asked, defeated.
I’ll never forget her answer. She hemmed and hawed and cleared her throat. So I quickly added, “Just for one night,” realizing she didn’t want the burden any more than anyone else. “You’ve got three dogs,” she pointed out. Yes, I acknowledged. She told me she just didn’t want my dogs in her house, and then she added, “It’s going to get really cold tonight. If I let you in, your dogs would have to stay out in your car. And I just couldn’t live with myself, knowing they were out there freezing while you were safe in my house.”
I’m not making that up. She really did say that. And so, all four of us, my three dogs and I, were forced to spend that freezing night huddled up in the front seat of my car, while the icy rain fell through the broken window into the back seat. My friend slept well, I guess, knowing we were all out there together.
(I’m actually still friends with that person, though we did go through a long period of estrangement. She’s a better person than this one incident would suggest. People are complex, and aren’t always aware of the ways their actions or lack of action impact others.)
It was this night that finally broke through the numbness, though, and left me wracked with pointless, unheard, uncomforted tears. I hugged my knees to my chest, just cried and cried, while my dogs snuggled against me for warmth. This was nothing like the life I’d expected to have.
Dukkah and Bodhicitta
But then again, suffering is often rooted in clinging to expectations, I’m told, in attachment to outcome. And every experience – even suffering – is an important part of the journey of life. When I could remember that, let go of expectations, and just be with the experience, I found beautiful gifts that I might never have found anywhere but there, in that unexpected trek through the underworld.
I began to discover what Pema Chodron has called the “Wisdom of No Escape.” I began to let go of not just things, but attachments to things, not just expected outcomes, but attachments to any outcomes. I began to learn to float.
I found adventures I might never have had otherwise. I discovered an inner strength and patience and resilience in myself that I had never known was there before. And I began to find compassion and understanding in my heart for other people whose struggles I might never have comprehended otherwise. I had learned what loneliness was, what poverty and homelessness were, what real hunger was, what grieving was. I’d learned what it meant to have nowhere to turn. I’d even, in that strange decomp that got me thrown out of that box warehouse, gotten a taste of what it feels like to suffer from paranoid delusions and hallucinations that seem as real and complex as anything in real life. (That’s actually a substantial barrier for most of us; Until we’ve been there, people who hallucinate seem so beyond the pale of comprehension, we barely recognize them as members of humanity, much less people just like us who have needs and desires and thoughts and feelings just like anyone. That was the very first time I was able to see people with schizophrenia except through the corner of my eye. You’d think someone who struggled with OCD since birth would have been aware that people with mental illness are still valid human beings with important and valid things to say. But empathy is like that. Sometimes it takes a truck to drive us through our own barriers. Seeing the remarkable ways that the mind can suddenly begin misinterpreting input and fabricating sensory data from such a front row perspective was an astonishing awakening.) So I have a lot more empathy and compassion now, for the struggles of other people because of my own struggles. It was very much a gift of bodhicitta, and that is a priceless treasure.
Some of the People I Met Out There on the Streets
Although homelessness was very isolating for me, it also broke down some of the barriers we automatically erect between ourselves and people we consider to be too different from us to relate to. When you’re living on the street, you don’t see yourself as better than anyone else. You’re not too good to notice or talk to all the people living around you in the margins, so you don’t go around just looking through people the way one tends to do when one has never had to be humble. All the perspectives you’ve had about how people “should” be, and how they get “off track” get challenged and discarded, so you tend to be open to the strange and wondrous, beautiful and bizarre diversity of humanity that you might otherwise have been fearful enough to close yourself off to. And you’re lonely, so you tend to be grateful and welcoming for any opportunity to relate to another being. At least, that’s how it was for me. So I met a lot of interesting characters then, who filled me with stories and fleshed out my understanding of humanity.
There were the crusties from the Kracken, for instance. One night, with nowhere else to go, the dogs and I simply sat down on the sidewalk in downtown Portland, leaning against a wall. And that’s how I nearly ran away with the Kracken. They came up the sidewalk in their thickly patched carharts, dreaded and stenciled and basted in the scents of curry and patchouli, munching Chinese food from a single, dumpstered, box. They all had musical instruments slung across their shoulders, most were sipping beer from paper bags, and at least three were loudly arguing about nothing. They stopped just a few feet from where I sat, stood in a circle sharing food and noisily trying to work something out. I turned an impassive gaze on them because there was nothing else to look at. One, in particular, began to capture my attention. He was standing there quietly eating out of the box, watching his friends arguing out of the corner of an eye. Every now and then, he’d quietly inject a note of reason into the conversation, without judgment, without angst, without sanctimony or self righteousness. He was just a natural at finding common ground, at respecting people even when they were acting like buffoons, at figuring out what people were trying to express and then interpreting that to everyone else. It was transfixing to watch as he gently diffused what had initially felt like a potentially dangerous situation, without ever stepping out of the relaxed, laid back, respectful softness that enveloped him.
Eventually, they noticed me sitting there on the cold concrete, and they all came over and sat in a circle with me and the dogs.
They played music and kept me company for awhile. They told me that they had a bus somewhere out among the warehouses that they called “the Kracken.” It was painted up like a sailing ship, and they were traveling around the country in it. They were getting by and embracing solidarity and mutual aid by dumpstering food and pooling their food stamps, and making big community meals in every town they stopped in, for anyone who was hungry. They were something like a traveling Food Not Bombs bus. They were on their way to the South and invited me to join them.
I almost did, too. I very nearly went along with them. I wonder what adventures we’d have had if I had gone. I took three days to think about it, but when the day came for the Kracken to head out, I decided I couldn’t go because it wouldn’t be the best thing for my dogs. Romeo doesn’t like to travel much, and doesn’t get along with other dogs unless he knows them, and they had a lot of dogs.
So I didn’t sail away in the Kracken, but I know it’s still out there somewhere, and maybe some day we’ll cross paths again.
I made a lot of connections, then, with people in unlikely ways. There were the women I met at the arboretum on the afternoon that my car was ransacked. I’d gone down to the visitor’s center on the long shot hope that someone might find my things abandoned in the woods, once the thieves discovered that they’d only gotten clothes and soap. Maybe there was a lost and found. I found three volunteers there, behind a folding table covered with sign-up sheets and brochures. Initially, they told me that I needed to call police because there had been a terrible rash of break-ins up there, and that was all they could offer. I stammered through a few sentences about how I just don’t call police on people, maybe the thieves were on hard times and didn’t know what they’d done to me, I didn’t want to send armed cops after them in a city as famous for its police violence as for its radical and lefty politics, I didn’t want anyone getting shot over my meager possessions…. They looked at me like I was from outer space. But in that, you know, that polite Portland way, not cold and officious, but trying to comprehend. It’s such an ingrained thing in our culture, that when someone offends us we call police. It was hard for them to understand why I didn’t want to do it. But they wanted to understand, and as there was no one else there, they had the time to mull this over some.
Well, I said, it’s just, I don’t think the police would care anyway. It wasn’t anything very valuable to anyone but me. I just would really like it back, in case they just leave it somewhere in the woods. All right, they said. They gave me a yellow square of paper on which to write my contact info, and then asked me to describe what was taken. I didn’t tell them that I was homeless and that the stolen things were all I had. I just started trying to list what there was. I was too embarrassed to explain the clothing, so I just said it was a basket of laundry. But when I got to the part about the bag, my voice cracked a little bit. “I’m just hoping maybe they’ll take what they want out of it and leave the bag near a trail or something.” I hesitated, but I felt like I needed to explain why it was so important to me, so that they would be more likely to give it back to me if anyone ever found it, and so that they would understand why my voice had cracked when I mentioned it.
“It’s just, well the bag meant a lot to me,” I said. “It belonged to my mate, and. ..well he died a few months ago of cancer. It was important to me. Carrying it around reminded me of him.”
Suddenly, it was very quiet. All of them looked stricken for me. “What… (throat clear)… what kind of cancer did he die of,” asked the woman in the middle quietly, almost in a whisper, and I saw that her eyes were filled with tears. “She lost her husband recently to cancer too,” explained one of the other women. She had tears in her eyes, too. All three of them did. “It’s so hard, isn’t it,” said the woman whose husband had died. “Trust me. I understand.”
So in that moment, I had gone from the painful reality of having no one in the world to talk to about this terrible theft and this terrible pain, to having three people who actually cared. We shared some words and tears, and they told me they would keep their eyes out for my things. I never did confide to them that I was homeless, and just how badly this theft would impact me, but before I left, the woman who had lost her husband came out from behind the table and gave me a hug. Such a little touch of human kindness, and it meant so much to me. I never did get my things back, and I never talked to them again, but that little bit of shared communion meant a lot to me and still does.
Some nights, I’d go sit on the deck behind the Ecotrust building, a big brick building near the warehouse district that had some eateries inside, where I’d often share a picnic table with people picking up a pint or a sandwich, or a slice of pizza at one of the restaurants inside. Some weekends, I’d even indulge in a $1 mimosa from the pizza place there, that I would nurse all night just to have somewhere to be (so sue me, Senator Ritchie, though not one cent of my $16 SNAP benefit went to that). I’d go there hoping someone might sit down near me, so I might have someone to talk to. I met so many other lonely people there.
There was the lady with schizophrenia who was homeless too. Everyone was giving her a wide berth, the way we’ve all seen people do to someone who is obviously mentally ill. She kept trying to talk to people, who just kept ignoring her. She came over and asked to sit at my table, and I gratefully let her. Maybe if I hadn’t gone through that weird psychotic episode, I might have been as suspicious and fearful of engaging with her as everyone else. Maybe I’d have felt some little bit of pity, while at the same time dismissing her as so far outside my comprehension that it wasn’t worth actually trying to talk to her as a real person. But as I’d had that experience, I recognized her humanity, and just saw her as company on a lonely evening. She asked me to buy her a meal, which I’d have done if I could have, but I explained to her that I was homeless too. Oh! She said. And suddenly we bonded over the experience of living on the streets.
She told me about her life, and shared information about places I might find food. We traded tips on good dumpsters. (This was Portland, after all, where, like I said, every good radical or anarchist knows how to find food in a dumpster. There’s no stigma about dumpster diving in Portland, or at least there wasn’t back when I lived there. Who knows how gentrification has impacted the social acceptance of recycling food that would otherwise be thrown away, but my friends and I had been dumpstering since long before I was made homeless. That made up a good part of my diet during the time after Sid.)
But I think my favorite character that I met in that time was the ancient typewriter repairman-turned writer whom I met on that very deck. He was in his 90s. He’d rolled up to a table not far from me in a wheelchair, and was jovially trying to make conversation with everyone around him in that way that people often find intrusive or strange, and so most people were just politely moving away and shunning him in favor of a quiet meal. I watched for awhile, until everyone had pretty much moved away from him as if he were a drop of oil in soapy water. That’s when he noticed me and my dog Buddha, sitting in the shadows watching him.
It wasn’t but a moment before he was inviting me over to his table, and telling me his life story. He’d been a very busy typewriter repairman in New York City, many years ago when people still had typewriters. I guess it was a thriving business for him. He’d go out on housecalls – sometimes to posh office buildings, sometimes to actual houses – and these visits were actually considered “emergencies” to fix those pesky “analogue PCs.”
He’d gotten embroiled in so many strange adventures that way! He met millionaires and mob bosses, famous actresses and art collectors with priceless treasures on their walls. He’d met a madam and had been engaged to repair the brothel typewriter. Once he was called to a home in the 1950s where a woman answered the door naked and invited him in to fix her (cough) equipment.
He told me about his romance with the woman he loved all his life as well. “You should write a book,” I declared. And it turned out, he had! He happened to have a copy, and he had me dig it out of a bag he had slung over the back of his wheelchair. His eyes were in too rough a shape to be able to read it himself, but he directed me to certain chapters and asked if I would read them aloud for the two of us to enjoy, and I did. We wiled away a fascinating evening that way. He’d done that work for about a million years, until computers came along and the bottom dropped out of the typewriter repair market. I wish I could remember his name. It’s written down in a journal somewhere, the notebook I’d had with me that night. I come across it every now and then, and next time I do I’ll add it here. [Added later, as promised, the book is Where Typewriters Took Me, by Ben Greenberger.]
Humanity on the Edge
One meets people like this on the edge. These are people who are normally invisible to the good citizens of polite society; people whose oddities or idiosyncrasies or sufferings cause “normal” people to turn away from them; people who might otherwise have kept vast reservoirs of wisdom and stories and sharing to themselves, might never have opened up at all, but for finding someone as lost at the margins as they. It’s also a fact that, when you find yourself stranded on the brink, the most likely people to offer you any support, any compassion, any help at all, are people who have been there too. And so it was with the help of just such a person that I finally found my way in from the cold.
Getting Back Inside
It was that November, with my broken window and my floorboard of mycology, and my dogs, that I started to really crack. I just couldn’t do this anymore. I’d been uncomfortable for months, but now it was starting to become life threatening. I was freezing. Ice was forming inside the car, I had nothing warm to cover up in because all my sweaters and warm clothes had been stolen. I was freaking out from never being able to get out of the cruel public glare, never having even a moment of privacy, not even just to sleep. And I could no longer even effectively advocate for myself, not even for the simplest things. The plethora of anxiety disorders I’d been born with, previously controlled back when I’d had a life, were suddenly raging out of control, a conflagration that threatened to engulf me.
No one was helping me. I’d been abandoned by friends and family both (people always think they’re cool about poverty and mental illness, but the moment they actually see even the slightest symptom of it, they tend to create a lot of distance), and as I said, there’d been no “social safety net” to turn to after all. Certainly nothing that would help a woman with 3 dogs. I finally turned to my friend Blank, who has had plenty of adversity in his own life and paid his own debts to the street. It was Blank who finally moved heaven and earth to help me get off the streets.
I had so little income, and so many dogs, that there had just been no options for me at all. I couldn’t imagine how I was going to manage the winter. I went to see Blank, and cried on his shoulder.
And here I should say a little something about this friend, because it’s an important point that the only people who ever really help you when you’re struggling with poverty tend to be other people who are right there with you. It’s not “the system” or wealthy philanthropists who lend a hand, it’s other poor people. It’s solidarity.
Blank’s father died when he was a child, only 9 years old, and his mother lost her mind in grief for awhile. She couldn’t even take care of herself, much less her children then. So Blank had had to grow up quickly and take care of not only himself, but his mother and his three even- younger siblings – an 8 year old, a 6 year old, and a 3 year old toddler when their father died. His childhood ended at 9, and a sense of responsibility for others has been a pronounced feature in his character ever since. When I first met him, I was doing guerilla videography with a radical media collective in Portland, and Blank was still a teenager, trying to support his entire family, including his mother, his grandmother, and his siblings, by doing stringer work on the streets with a beat up video camera. He shot good footage, and after a brief period of suspicion on my part (radical media activists in Portland were being heavily surveilled by the police state back then, and I initially suspected him of being an infiltrator), we really hit it off and we’ve been best buddies ever since. We still laugh about the time I used to think he was a police informant there to spy on the collective.
So Blank grew up with a very adult sense of responsibility, a survivor’s sense of resourcefulness, and a deep sense of solidarity toward those whom he considers to be his people. (Otherwise, he seems very stern and somewhat intimidating to people. He keeps the heart of gold hidden under layers of black hoodie and trench coat. Just another example of how you can never know another person’s story from their book-jacket.)
Thus, I picked exactly the right person to finally turn to. He, unlike other “friends” I thought I’d had then, didn’t turn away from the “burden” of a friend’s suffering, and instead stoically turned all of his resourcefulness and ingenuity onto the task of getting me off the street. Through personal connections, he helped me get a tiny room in an old nursing home that had been converted to “artist housing” that cost very little to rent, and his connections overrode their one-pet limit so that I could keep my dogs with me. Since I was so overwhelmed by that time that I could barely function at all, he made the necessary initial calls for me, hooked me up with the manager there via email, and set up a meeting for me with the management. He prodded me to pursue my own communications with the property manager, and he used his personal connections there to impress upon her the direness of my situation. I got a meeting to discuss a lease, which he prodded me to go to even though I was really nervous about it, and that very night I had a warm room to sleep in again at last.
I remember the way it felt to walk through that door. It was a tiny room, no bigger than a walk-in closet. There was no kitchen in the room, though there were shared communal kitchens on each floor. There was no room for a bed, even if I’d had one, and for the entire year that I lived there, I slept on the floor in the closet with my dogs. And it felt like a palace to me.
For the first week that I was there, I was so sick with stress and exhaustion that I never even came out of my room except to take the dogs outside once in awhile to pee. I lay curled up in the corner with them the rest of the time, basking in the precious privacy of my own space, trying to lick my wounds. Eventually, though, it was time to come out and meet the other residents there, and that’s a whole book of stories on its own.
This story, though, the story of the time that I was homeless, finally concludes with the profound gratitude I felt at finally having a warm and private place to be again. I didn’t call it home, because to be honest, I’ve never been home again since Sid died, and I don’t really expect to ever be again. Home is more than a place. But although I might not be home yet, I’m no longer homeless and haven’t been since that day. I know now, in a way people who have never been on the streets will never know, what gratitude really feels like for a soft, warm place to sleep and a door I can close between me and the world. I started painting again the moment that I had a place to do so, people started buying my work, and I have had walls and a ceiling ever since. To this day, more than three years later, I still taste the gratitude every time I climb into bed at night (I still live in a tiny studio, but I have a bed now, and every time I climb into my bed, I remember when I didn’t have one and I feel the glow of gratitude all over again).
A lot of things are like that. No matter how shitty everything else might sometimes get, I’m never far from deep and abiding gratitude for things that people who have never been homeless never even think about. The luxury of a hot bath – God, I think about this every time I climb into my bathtub. What would our ancestors think of something like that! A huge, porcelain tub, right in my apartment, that I can fill with hot water any time I want, just by turning a spigot. No need to chop or haul wood, no need to haul water or build a fire. It’s just right there. A cozy, warm place that’s safe from everyone’s prying eyes; no one can tell me I can’t sleep here. Safe walls, and a stove to cook on.
So the next time you see someone sleeping in a doorway, please realize, you have no idea what their story is. They aren’t some cardboard cutout, lying there to illustrate your pat stereotype of failure and addiction. They aren’t a symbol of moral decay, there for you to get your kicks on by shaming them in your smug superiority. This is a human being. You don’t have to give them money if you’ve none to spare, but in God’s name, just leave them alone, would you? Let them sleep. If you don’t care enough to have any compassion, at least recognize that their life isn’t any of your business and you know nothing at all about who they really are or why they’re here. Just leave them alone.