In four days, it will be four years that I have lived indoors, after years and years of living outside, mostly on urban city streets. And I’m not sure if anyone’s noticed this, but I am often very disappointed in myself.
It seems to me that these days I have been granted a huge amount of freedom, compared to how restricted my freedom has been in the past. Yet I do not use this new freedom to its highest advantage. My life is full of the very opportunities I so longed for, during all the years when I was homeless. But I do I use those opportunities to their fullest?
I have a shower – a bathtub even. How often have I relaxed and sat down and drawn a nice hot bath? Twice, I believe, in three years inside this apartment. I have a dishwasher. Do I use it? I have a carpet. Do I vacuum it? I have an ironing board. But do I iron my shirts? What’s wrong with me? I have a bed, a couch, and a few comforters. But do I even have a pair of pajamas? Half the time I sleep in my street clothes — just as I used to, when I slept on the streets.
I have a piano now. I have two home computers now. I have music production software. I have the capability to create high-quality sound files and videos, both on computer and on smartphone –– which is something I also have. Not to mention, I can type all night if I want to, and nobody is going to complain about the constant pitter-patter. I have space. I have options. I have freedom. But do I fully utilize that freedom? I don’t think I do. Why am I not more grateful?
When I was homeless, I didn’t have any of those things. Like, for years. Thoughts of “if only” often intruded my prayers. I would be looking up to the sky at night, and saying things like: “If only I can ever get inside again — and not one of these facilities where they throw all the homeless people — places with all kinds of restrictions and curfews, where they confiscate your laptop along with your belt and your shoelaces, and they won’t even let you outside without supervision, much less trust you to go out for a jog and back. If only I could ever have my own place — if only . . .”
The inner assumption with “if only” is that it will never actually occur. It was therefore painful to dwell on it. Painful, yet inevitable. All throughout my day to day existence, I was feeling the lack. (Again, just the opposite of what I feel nowadays.)
Lack of money to get myself inside temporary situations where they would let me do my thing. Lack of free power outlets where I could plug in my laptop. Lack of sufficient change to warrant stays in coffeehouses. Lack of supportive people who respected me as an Artist — or even as a man, as a father, as a human being. And of course, there was the big one — lack of a roof over my head.
And even worse: lack of confidence that there will ever again be a roof over my head.
To get that roof, I would need money. Usually, there was a direct proportion between the amount of money I raised, and the number of recommendations for affordable living situations that then came my way.
Invariably, these recommendations carried with them a price that was equal to or greater than the monetary price of admission. The price was not only in the area of a restriction of personal freedoms, but also in the area of an imposition of potentially punitive rules and regulations, geared toward keeping the peace in an environment comprised largely of street criminals, practicing alcoholics and drug addicts, and people with severe, untreated mental health conditions.
The places I refer to are halfway houses, rehabs, homeless shelters, transitional living facilities, psychiatric institutions, board & care homes, and other group living situations. All of these naturally carried a price tag that exceeded the relatively low amount of money one would need for admission. Naturally, huge manuals full of restrictions and ultimatums were developed in order to accommodate such a freaky clientele. But between the excess of regulation, and the intimidating influence of the inhabitants themselves, I found I had a very low tolerance for these kinds of living arrangements. I might have lasted a few weeks or even months, but ultimately I always came to a place where living outdoors seemed preferable.
Living outdoors, there was at least the semblance of freedom. Living in a shelter felt like being trapped in a glorified jailhouse. Now — one might be taken aback by the expression “glorified jailhouse.” So let’s look a bit more closely at what it means.
A jailhouse is a place where one lives if one has committed a crime. While one may not necessarily have committed any crimes in order to be admitted into a homeless shelter, there are certainly enough people entering into shelters who have committed crimes, that the criminal element of the clientele must be taken into consideration. So restrictions and ultimatums are developed according to the least common denominator.
The problem with this is that the person seeking shelter who is not criminally minded is suspected of criminality just the same as another person to whom the least common denominator might more justifiably apply. This criminalization comes not only from the higher-ups at the shelter, but also from many who are living there and coexisting alongside each other. One gets the sense that, while one had left the streets in order to remove oneself from an atmosphere that entailed great suspicion, one had instead relocated to an atmosphere of even greater suspicion and distrust.
In leaving such an facility, on deciding to return to the streets of preference, I always felt as though I were leaving a place where my freedoms were very severely restricted, in favor of a place where my freedoms were less severely restricted. And the cost factor was less, as well.
But the cost factor involved in acceding to a dignified living situation was greater. I remember having $1000 once, because I had been prepaid half the fee of musical-directing a children’s show. The director hired me over Craigslist, and she didn’t know I was homeless. I was in San Francisco at the time, so I took the $1000 down to what they called a Twelve Step House, which was really a cheaply run rehab organization that then offered me a room with a roommate in a house with twelve other men in exchange for $700. This seemed the easiest way to get inside quickly, which after all I would need to do, now that I had a job.
But what would have been the cost factor involved in getting my own place? As a renter, that would mean a first and last month’s rent, plus deposit. I remember at the time of my leaving the Bay Area, a friend of mine was paying $1800/mo. for his one bedroom apartment. By that gauge, I would need $3600 to start, plus whatever the security deposit turned out to be, could be another $1800, not unlikely. The point is that the obstacles toward my securing a place of my own liking were pretty sizable. That is, as long as I remained in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Moving up to North Idaho was about the smartest thing I did in maybe fifteen years or more. Here I have a one-bedroom for $450 in a nice secluded spot with quiet, friendly neighbors, in a town with an extremely low crime rate. An apartment like this could cost me $3000 or more right now in San Francisco. And yet, my retirement income is exactly the same, here there or everywhere.
I always wonder why I didn’t do it sooner. But I stop wondering when I remember the true reason.
Low self-esteem. If you’re treated like a criminal, if you’re continually demeaned and brought to think that you are somehow worse or lesser than the people around you — only because you have become homeless — it eventually gets to you. I imagine people of higher self-esteem might have brought themselves up by their own bootstraps a bit sooner than I did. But I basically felt so ashamed of having become homeless, that I bought into all the self-definitions that people were laying on me. The upside of this ultimately was that it took a gigantic leap in my self-esteem for me to decide, in July 2016, to make the relatively few moves I needed to make in order to start a new and better life.
Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t just being criminalized. Poor people and people of color are criminalized. Homeless people are criminalized too — but there’s something that affects homeless people that is even deeper than criminalization. It’s dehumanization — and people of color will know about this — you’re not just a “criminal” but some kind of “animal” or in some other way, not quite fully human. Even when your humanity is acknowledged, you are then often not regarded as mature or adult, even though you many be a couple generations older than the authority figure who passes that judgment upon you.
It is not thought that you can make decisions for yourself. It is assumed that you need caseworkers, and caregivers, and people to make your decisions for you. Even the simple decision to leave the city of Berkeley was met with much resistance.
Once, when I was considering leaving town, I made mention of this to someone who was in a position of some power in the community, whom I believe was the Director of the Homeless Action Center. She then asked: “Where will you go if you’re not in Berkeley?”
“Well, my friend in Georgia might have a room for me. She has to talk to her husband.”
“Well, I don’t know anything about your friend in Georgia, but I know what it’s like when someone’s starting to have a manic episode! You start thinking of wanting to take long trips to distant places.”
True. Sudden spontaneous trips out of town are hallmarks of mania. But this is besides the point. Why could this person not “know” that my friend in Georgia might have provided a roof over my head, and that sleeping on the Berkeley city streets would naturally be less preferable than staying with a friend in Georgia inside a house? Why was it a problem in me — “manic episode” or what-have-you — to want to not sleep on the Berkeley streets anymore, and sleep inside a warm house — even it meant moving to Georgia? Did Berkeley own me?
Of course not. But there were many in that city who acted as though they did. It was thought that I could not make my own choices. It was assumed that, because I had become homeless, I had no ability to fend for myself, and someone else ought to be doing it for me.
Once I became friends with somebody who had an official position in the City, and she came and saw me at my Spot after one of the times when I had escaped the halfway house.
“Andy, what are you doing back here?”
“I’m in my sixties, Carmen. I don’t like being treated like a juvenile delinquent.”
Now another type of person might have said: “Okay, I’ll suck it up. I’ll be treated like a truant schoolboy for another seven months or so. It will be worth it to get myself into a better place.”
I respect that reasoning and the implicit patience and strength of character. But I don’t buy it. Why not?
There is no evidence that people who treat other people like that have any power to get them into a “better place.” That power, when it did come — either came from deep inside me, or from God – or some combination thereof. I had to get to the point where I believed in Andy. I had to get to the place where I stopped buying into every negative self-definition that was being thrown my way by people who were doing materially better than me. I had to somehow get with Andy, and know what would work — for Andy.
To be honest, I don’t know how I did it. I don’t know it how it happened. There was that prayer I always talk about, that I’ve written about. And there was a lot of sudden resolve. I don’t know how it happened, really. I’m just glad it did.
What I’m not glad about is that I’m not more grateful, and that I don’t have as much to show for myself throughout these past four years than I’d hoped. But maybe I have more to show for myself than I know.
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