There are many strange disparities that entail between the worlds of those who live outdoors and those who do not. Few, however, cause as much difficulty as the naked fact that people who live outside have no privacy whatsoever.
In fact, the relationship between privacy and freedom is something I hadn’t really examined prior to having lived outdoors. When I first decided to join an intentional homeless community in Berkeley, a large part of what I was after was freedom. You see, I was writing a lot of music at the time, and I just felt that in the living situations I was able to afford, I never had enough privacy to be able to focus on it. What that meant for me was that I was not free.
I wanted so desperately to be free! I wanted to be where the musical ideas would flow in an uninterrupted fashion — not in an environment where I was frequently interrupted by roommates or landlords, or by their friends, lovers, and children. Somehow, the outdoor venues of the San Francisco East Bay provided that freedom for a good year and a half or so, between around April 2011 and October 2012. I wrote a lot of music then, and I remember how blissful it felt to plug my laptop into an outdoor power outlet on the U.C.Berkeley campus and enjoy an uninterrupted creative flow in the open air.
Of course, that happiness was short-lived. After a while it became known to the local thieves that I was a scatterbrained O.G. with a laptop – and therefore an easy mark. I may have had freedom for a while, but I certainly was deluding myself if that freedom could be any substitute for the kind that is found in privacy.
If those of us who were homeless began to bicker and squabble amongst each other, that bickering and squabbling was made known to whoever was within earshot. We couldn’t even enjoy a mild debate or political discussion without it becoming privy to whoever happened to pass by. And if we had to use the bathroom? Good luck.
I remember more than once spending over two hours looking for an open bathroom when I had to go No.2. Finally, I would take matters into my own hands. But what else could one do? One does what one must — of course. But then, when homeless people are in search of privacy, and perhaps even locating a semblance of same, how do those homeless people appear in the eyes of ubiquitous observers?
“They appear as though they have something to hide. And who has something to hide? A criminal! We better investigate!”
So we would find ourselves, even as we sought out privacy as quietly as possible, being pursued in that very search — by those who suspected us of subterfuge. The more we sought after privacy, the less private our lives became.
The fact that homeless people are often in search of privacy in order to conduct normal, routine business that is ordinarily conducted behind closed doors feeds into the criminalization of the homeless. That there are criminals among the homeless is no secret. Often criminals duck behind stairwells and into back alleys in order to conduct criminal business. And they certainly look suspicious when they do. But what if a couple of non-criminal homeless people need to have a private conversation? Where do they go?
Chances are, they will go behind that same stairwell, and into that same back alley, where criminals are found engaging in illicit transactions. Why? Because there is nowhere else to go. And any time a homeless person seeks privacy — whether their motives are benign, malicious, or neither — it makes them appear to be criminals with evil intent.
If I have a personal habit today that one might frown upon — and God knows whether I do — at least I know that I can go behind closed doors to engage that private practice without concern for onlookers. When I was homeless, I had no such luxury. Any peccadillo of mine was made public information, visible to an entire city. Can you imagine the effect such a phenomenon would have on one’s sense of self, especially when perpetuated over months and years?
It wasn’t until long after I had gotten inside that I began to make sense out of it all. The bare truth was that the very things I did outdoors that aroused disdain under public scrutiny are those which my observers themselves did, behind closed doors, unabashedly. If that is not an inequity, I do not know what is.
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