Essays - Winter 2014

Homeless in the City

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A writer describes the decade he has spent living on the streets

Homeless in Santa Monica, California (Photo by Christine Vaufrey)

By Theodore Walther

December 6, 2013


 

 

Some years ago, I joined a disparate group of people known as the homeless. We are of no particular race, creed, or gender but are easily identifiable on the streets of your city. Some people are homeless only for a short time, perhaps after a divorce, the loss of a job, a financial disaster, or the death of a loved one. Yet they continue to participate in society as best they can. Then there are people like me—the long-term homeless, or what social scientists call the chronically homeless, as if we had contracted some sort of disease that is as difficult to treat as it is for many people simply to countenance.

Despite what you might think, once you have joined the chronically homeless, a great deal of freedom awaits. You have the open air. You can pick up and go wherever you can afford to go, anytime you wish. You can dream all day long, if that is what you want to do. No one is there to tell you to get back to work. No one is there to tell you anything at all. Yet this freedom is also a kind of bondage. You are tied to whatever community resources you are able to access. You are chained to erratic, often incompetently run social service programs. You are looked upon as a pariah by most of the people around you, and are treated even worse, as though you are subhuman, by many charity organizations—whether they be faith-based or nonprofit. I should know. I’ve been homeless nearly 11 years. Yet here I sit, writing. I’m wasting my life away like a fool, some would say, but it’s all I know how to do anymore. It’s what my life has come to consist of. Very little more, I assure you.

Most mornings I’m up well before dawn, awakened by one noisy type of vehicle or another. An amazing number of them poke about in the predawn city—delivery trucks, trash trucks, people getting up and about to do who knows what. Noise is just one of the things you have to get used to when you’re living the outdoor life in an urban setting, and there’s no escaping cities, which are a lifeline for homeless people, whose basic survival would be too difficult without even the meager resources they provide.

I have spent all of my homeless years in a small city on the outskirts of Los Angeles. The weather is fair most of the year. That makes outdoor living more pleasant than in, say, freezing windy Chicago. It’s not as noisy as New York, the city that never sleeps. This little city pretty much shuts down after the clubs and bars close. The downtown area is only about six square blocks. Policed constantly, it is a good place to avoid. But even in this small city, I’m awakened every morning by the noise and, for a while, lie still and reflect on my situation. Then, as I pack up the things that I laid out the night before to make my restless sleep more comfortable, I sometimes see the morning sun peaking over the horizon.

I’ve coined a phrase for the kind of sleep you get on the street: “the one-eyed sleep of the homeless.” When you sleep in public—well hidden though you may be—anyone can walk up on you in the middle of the night. It may be another homeless person looking for a good place to sleep. Or one of the nighttime criminals who beat the homeless and steal from them. Or the police, looking to move you out of your spot. You never know what to expect, and it makes sleep difficult. Sometimes I’ll see a fellow homeless person dead asleep in the middle of the day on the sidewalk along some busy thoroughfare, but I don’t know how they do it. Unless they’ve simply collapsed from exhaustion. Or maybe they’re drunk or high.

Alcohol and drugs do play a big part in street life. I’ve tried to stay away from drugs and have succeeded for the most part. Drink, however, has been a different story. We all have our poisons, something that helps to carry us through, that gives us pleasure, whether good for us or not. But when you’re homeless, you definitely need something to take the edge off being so exposed, every minute of every day. It’s difficult to explain this to someone who has never had to live outdoors in the midst of several thousand people roaring around them at all hours. All you have in the world is what you can carry—in my case, a medium-sized tote bag that has become quite heavy over the years. Of course, it’s hasn’t been the same bag. But in all of its manifestations, it has held the little things that I’ve needed to survive.

How can that be, you may ask? How can a person survive on the streets of an
American city for more than a decade? I’ll try to explain, though I don’t expect you or anyone else to truly understand. But it’s worth a try, if only it might lead to a little more understanding, a little more compassion, on the part of those who have for those who have not.

One thing has always separated me from most other homeless people I’ve met: the laptop computer I carry with me. It’s caused a few problems over the years. Some homeless people have seen it as evidence that I hold myself above them, that I’m somehow better than they are. What they don’t know is that when the library is open, there’s a good chance I can be found there with my laptop—writing, reading, and writing some more. Truly, this is one of the only ways I’ve remained sane during this whole fascinating time.

Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t use this word fascinating lightly. Nothing about my time outdoors has been “peaches and cream,” as the saying goes. There is nothing nice about being homeless. It is as difficult, as challenging, as mind-numbing, and as humbling as anything I can imagine. It is survival, in the most basic sense.

When I first found myself on the street, it was an adventure. At least that’s how I approached it. I was glad to be out of a particularly bad situation—one that had led to severe depression, isolation, and alcoholism. Some months before, I had given up my apartment. I managed to sell some of my belongings and left the rest in the alley behind the building for the city’s many scavengers. Then off I went to rehab, hoping to turn my life around.

But rehab generally doesn’t last very long. This is the fundamental problem with social services in general: they are all too temporary and lack the follow-through necessary to solve real, long-term problems. Over my homeless years, I’ve ended up in seven substance abuse rehabs. Three of them were run by the local Veterans Affairs hospital (I’m a former Army paratrooper). Three were nonprofits, and one was privately run. Yet even in the VA institutions, critical resources were simply not available. Sure, they offered sympathy galore and compassion for my suffering, along with endless good advice about my drinking. But they offered no comprehensive housing program, no job training or retraining—only transitional housing and encouragement to get out there and scare up a job.

Many people I met in rehab hadn’t held jobs or had a place to live for years. Many could not read or write well enough to seek gainful employment, certainly not without some kind of remedial learning program. Many had broken or missing teeth, which meant that their chance of making a favorable first impression on a potential employer was virtually nil. Who was going to fix their teeth? Who was going to provide even the most minimal education they needed so badly? And all of these things take time, particularly when there are other, less clear-cut issues involved with the situation. Issues like mental illness, which masks itself behind the substance abuse that many homeless people turn to in a sad attempt at self-medication, unaware of the real cause of their suffering.

Each person, each situation is a different case. That’s the most important thing I’ve come to understand through all of the years and different treatments I’ve been exposed to. Every person I’ve met—whether in the hospital psychiatric ward after a particularly nasty case of suicidal depression, or in one or another rehab clinic—brings their own set of problems to the table. How could I explain to anyone what has driven me to do the things I’ve done? It’s a wonder that I’ve managed to survive all these years, what with the alcohol and the prescription medication overdoses, the genuine suicide attempts and the others that were cries for help. None of which I could control. None of which I understood at the time. None of which were properly diagnosed and fully explained to me until recently.

When I saw the sheer numbers of men and women going through these rehab centers just as I was, without a clue as to what was really happening to them, I realized how hopelessly broken this “world of recovery” really is. It is a Band-Aid on a gaping wound.

When you’re homeless and you’re spending your days in the local park, sleeping off the previous night’s alcoholic binge, or just trying to get some rest, inevitably someone from a local social service organization will come by and attempt to interest you in its services. The truth is, these centers really only track or monitor the homeless; they offer few services designed to change a person’s life. This is especially true if you are living outdoors, eating what you can and when you can, putting all of your energy into survival, and trying to maintain at least some degree of good hygiene.

Believe me, personal hygiene—which so many people take for granted—is not a simple thing for a homeless person. Finding a place to shave, take a shower, or just brush your teeth can take up much of your day. The social service organizations inevitably emphasize personal hygiene, but their facilities are always filthy and overcrowded. It can take hours to get cleaned up. Often, I simply choose to go without, or I do a birdbath sort of cleanup in a public washroom. Even this is difficult; people tend to frown on seeing a homeless person try to wash up in the sink.

Everyone frowns at the sight of a homeless person. And it’s this that really gets to you—the awareness that you are being judged immediately, without consideration for contributing circumstances, by everyone you pass, everyone who sees you in the crosswalks, everyone who pretends not to see you. Even when they turn away, in avoidance or disgust, they are judging you—for your clothes, your lack of hygiene, or the bag of supplies and clothing you carry with you. Very few affordable public storage spaces exist. It becomes easier to simply carry the things you need. Yet this bag, these bags instantly identify you as a homeless person. And it’s always the same look, the one that you know holds the same thought: “There goes another one of those homeless people. Something should be done about them.”

After my first stint in rehab, I had a choice: stay in a shelter or head out onto the streets. At the time, I was feeling healthy and strong. I chose the street. I knew from my years in the Army that I could pack a tight, fairly light bag, and that I could live outdoors. In the beginning, going homeless seemed like it might not be so hard. But I had no idea what I was getting myself into. After a few failed attempts at finding a place to sleep—the police rousted me out of them—I finally found a spot on the porch of an old Baptist church. I kept to myself, settled in only after dark, and nobody in the congregation bothered me. As far as a place to sleep goes, that was as good as it gets on the street. I saw many other homeless people sleeping in far worse situations, much closer to traffic, much closer to the violent street criminals who beat them, rob them, and sometimes even kill them, just for being homeless.

Even after locating a place to sleep, I faced the dilemma of finding enough money for food and drink. Next to finding a job—a near impossibility once you’re on the street, bathing and shaving infrequently—welfare and food stamps seemed like the best option. Obtaining them meant jumping through a seemingly endless number of hoops. When I finally did, they allowed me to go forward … but toward what? I had no idea how long I would be on the street or what the future might bring. I was just surviving.

Welfare and food stamps don’t count for much, granted, but if you can budget this pittance, you can get something to eat and drink every day of the month. Of course, that’s a big if, and many people can’t do it. For whatever reason, many homeless people are incapable of making their small incomes last. I’ve had my problems, too, and sometimes have had to turn to an agency here in the community for one hot meal a day for the last week or two of a month.

That old Baptist church was a good place for quite a while. The pastor occasionally talked with me after he had locked up the church. He would always ask if I was doing all right and if I needed something, as though there were anything substantive he could offer me. What was I supposed to say? How could I do anything but assure him that I was doing fine, that I was doing the best that I could given the circumstances?

I had heard stories of people who made it off the street and now lived in their own little apartments. I also knew people who had been granted Social Security disability, and after years of having had next to nothing, went crazy with money the benefit provided. Many of them ended up back in the hospital, back in rehab. Others ended up being what they call legally conserved—that is, someone had to be appointed to watch over them and care for their money. Most ended up living in a board-and-care facility, where they have very little real privacy. Their days are filled with someone else’s schedule and endless, morose repetition. For some, I suppose, this is the best possible solution.

The odds against getting off the street once you have been there for any length of time are staggering. Yet it’s not impossible. I have heard of people—though I never met any of them—who managed to regain something of a normal life. They somehow found a place to live and by a series of coincidences, luck, or whatever, got themselves back into the workforce. But I suspect these people were not, like me, members of the hardcore, chronically homeless. Once you’ve been out on the street for a prolonged period, say a couple of years or more, whatever skills you once had are gone or severely diminished and your ability to deal with everyday social situations is compromised. Perhaps someone young, with enough energy and flexibility, could manage this truly incredible feat. For my part, all I’ve been able to do is write, and even that has been a struggle.


My sleeping spot on the church porch was comfortable, or at least as comfortable as a homeless person can expect. It offered no cover from the rain, but a light above the door provided at least some protection from nighttime criminals; you become easy prey in the dark. Nobody at the church seemed to mind that I was there. The pastor continued to fret about whether there was anything he could do for me. I had my daily routine. I wasn’t far from the library. Though I hadn’t yet been properly diagnosed by the doctors at the VA hospital, they’d prescribed a variety of medications, which qualified me for mental health services. These included at least one hot meal a day and a hot shower if I needed one. I felt reasonably comfortable and content. But then I lost my place at the church.

I saw it coming when a few other homeless people became aware of the excellent situation I had. They just appeared—two within a week’s time. I knew that it wouldn’t be long before the kindly congregation would tire of being confronted with a growth in our numbers. Over the years I had become the church’s token homeless person. Although I had lain as low as possible, they all knew I was there. I was an anomaly, a novelty. Some church members had even attempted to take me in as one of their own, stopping by in the evening to invite me to attend services, Bible studies, and meetings of men’s groups.

But too much was too much, even for those good-hearted people. I couldn’t blame them. The other homeless people that had moved in were not like me. I had always traveled light, taken up very little space, and was always gone well before sunrise or not long after. These new folks were different. They spread out. They made themselves comfortable. They slept in. They littered. One had a pet rabbit that he carried with him, along with all the rest of his gear. It was too much, but there was nothing I could do about it. I watched helplessly, knowing it was only a matter of time before the authorities would come to chase us away.

Sure enough, the cops came by the following week. It was early dawn, just enough light to see, when they came rolling up. They said that someone from the church had complained, and that we were no longer welcome. I was sad, but I understood. Now I faced the difficult task of finding a new place to sleep. Good spots are extremely rare. People don’t want to see a homeless person sleeping outside their residence or store. They don’t want to think of us at all. It’s understandable … in a completely cold, crass way.

Don’t get me wrong. I know that many people are compassionate. It’s just that homelessness is not an easy thing to deal with. And it’s certainly not clear how individuals could make any real difference, even if they wanted to. It’s easier to believe that the social service agencies are handling the task, that the church groups and other charities are doing something more than providing the occasional pair of socks, a thin blanket, a sack lunch, or the rare public feedings where the lines can grow into the hundreds when there’s hot food being served. But they’re not handling the problem. People’s compassion becomes just so much wasted energy, mostly manifesting itself in the pathetic offer of pocket change to the occasional homeless person desperate enough to ask for it.


After the church, I tried several new spots, all to no avail. It was far more difficult than I had expected, and I began to fear that I would never find a long-term solution. Then I came across the post office—not the main post office downtown, but an annex off one of the main thoroughfares. It had a large parking lot in back where postal workers parked their trucks at the end of the day. It was quiet. It wasn’t patrolled by security. After nightfall, I could slip in behind the trucks and, in relative solitude, make a small bed out of a couple pieces of cardboard and my leather jacket, with my bag for a pillow. I decided it would have to do. It was the best I could find. The privacy made it very appealing.

Although it is a noisy spot compared with the church, just off the main drag with several businesses surrounding it, one of these is a supermarket that closes late and opens early—ideal for emergency bathroom visits. But the most important thing that I have discovered in the neighborhood—the one thing that has really helped keep me going—is a mirror. Large, it hangs on the wall outside what used to be a candy store. A dry cleaner has taken over the space, but the mirror remains. You can step away from the sidewalk for a moment and see yourself. I use it every morning when I wake. Whether I’m feeling good, or shaking off too little sleep or the previous night’s drink, the mirror shows me who I am.

I call it The Magic Mirror, though there is nothing special about it. It simply reflects reality, dispelling all those creeping, insidious thoughts that somehow society’s judgment may be correct—that I really am just a piece of human waste, someone with nothing to offer, something less than human. It shows me who I really am deep down, underneath the homeless façade that others see. It reminds me that I am a capable person, given half the chance, and with a shave and a shower and possibly a haircut, even a fairly good-looking person. It does all this for me just by offering my reflection, free of judgment. It keeps me going.

I’ve stood before The Magic Mirror every morning for at least three, maybe three and a half years. It motivates me to get something to eat, to take care of my body and its needs. It drives me to carry my bag and my laptop to the library—where I am writing today. I’ve written this little piece, this true tale, to share the experience of being homeless. To show you what it is like, what it can be like, to be a productive member of society while living outside the mainstream, handicapped by circumstances.

In society’s eyes, I am not a well person. After all, why would anybody want to continue living the way I do? I don’t. Not anymore. But I don’t know what else to do. I see my doctor at the VA hospital, and I take the medication I’m given. I go to the library and write. Yet it is the mirror that shows me again and again that I am a whole person, well or unwell. It assures me that if only I pursue my true feelings, then I am doing everything I can. I am the one who got myself into my current situation. Yet there is always the possibility that somehow, perhaps with the help of people I do not yet know, somehow my situation will change. Somehow I will make the right move or meet the right person who will help me overcome these long years and make it all worthwhile—all of the suffering, the sleepless, freezing nights, the hunger, the hospitalizations, the humiliation, the thoughts of death, the suicide attempts, the horrible dreams … they all have to be worth something. I believe this. I write about it. It’s all I can do these days. The mirror keeps me going.


Postscript: Theodore Walther wrote this piece while homeless on the streets of Santa Monica, California. He now receives federal disability compensation and, for the past two years, has been living in an apartment in Los Angeles, where he continues to write. 


Theodore Walther is a writer in Southern California.


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