At some point, I slacked on getting these Street Spirit columns posted on Thursdays in a timely fashion. Here’s my 4th column, as it was published in the November issue. More to come.
The Homeless Habits that Followed Me Indoors
by Andy Pope
One of the many unexpected challenges that arose during my transition from homelessness to indoor living stemmed from the fact that I had simply gotten used to living outdoors. This caused many of the practices that worked for me when I was homeless to be carried over into the context of indoor living. While some of these lingering habits clearly didn’t apply indoors, others of them worked fairly well, both inside and out. In any case, all of them were surprisingly hard to shake. These hard-to shake habits fell into four main categories: Sleeping, eating, livelihood, and self-esteem.
When I was homeless, I got used to sleeping on two or three layers of cardboard placed over a hard surface. I often slept on sidewalks, stairways, ramps, and cement alcoves positioned beneath awnings. To off-set the hardness of such surfaces, I would pile on layers of cardboard until it simulated the effect of a mattress.
The problem with this, as far as my transition is concerned, was that I found I needed to use the same set-up in order to functionally sleep inside. I tried sleeping in the bed that was provided in my first indoor room, but it just didn’t feel right. I wasn’t used to sleeping in a bed. So I set up three layers of cardboard on the hardwood floor, piled on an ample amount of blankets, and found I went right to sleep. In fact, I slept much better than I’d ever slept outdoors. I had combined the comfort of my preferred set-up with the added security of sleeping inside, where I was no longer vulnerable to the numerous assailants that roam the outdoor nights. So I got the best of both worlds.
Another thing: Even though I had moved far away from Berkeley to a place where the temperatures were often below freezing in the winter, I found that I had to leave my window wide open at all times. I had gotten so used to sleeping in the open air, I felt suffocated if I wasn’t getting a huge blast of fresh air in my face. Also, for a long time I had to visualize one of my former outdoor sleeping spots in order to calm my mind enough to get to sleep at night. This eventually faded with time, but evidenced an overall nostalgia for the homeless experience that flew in the face of reason.
My ideas around food, its availability, and one’s ability to feed oneself also changed radically as a result of my years of homelessness. When food came my way while I was on the streets, I cheerfully shared it with those in my midst, assured that others would do the same for me. Generally, I was right. This is one of the small ways in which people on the streets take care of each other.
But without a street community to share resources with, managing my grocery shopping and eating habits was a struggle. Having a kitchen for the first time in years, and being on a fixed income from Social Security, I naturally stocked up on food after I had paid rent and other bills. But with this surplus of food available to me, I found myself overeating, using up my food supply long before the month was over, and thus gaining weight. It took some time for me to become comfortable with stretching my groceries to last all month.
I had also become accustomed to flying a sign on a sidewalk in order to accumulate pocket change to get through the day, as well as an occasional sandwich or other form of foodstuffs. But in my current situation, there weren’t any panhandlers, let alone “silent sign-flyers” as I would have characterized myself. Had I showed up on Main Street with my sign, I’d have stuck out like a sore thumb. The local cops would have been on me in a heartbeat. But I missed flying a sign for many reasons, not the least of which is that I simply was used to that means of livelihood.
In fact, I so missed flying my sign that on two occasions I invested over $50 on a round trip bus ticket to the nearest large city, when I hooked up with the homeless people who hung out by the station, and flew my sign until it was time for the bus to leave. Unfortunately, I made less than $50 each time, so it as not even a cost-effective venture. But it did satisfy my enormous urge to earn money in my customary fashion, if only for a day or two.
The overall inability to panhandle in a small rural community resulted in a form of food insecurity I had not at all anticipated. After all, it was difficult to experience true food insecurity in Berkeley, where there were up to four free community meals each day. Now, without community meals or the ability to fly a sign, I found myself suffering midway through each month. I scrambled to make more money without the option of having a “street hustle,” and found that my job-related skills had suffered greatly as a result of years of unemployment.
Seeing the people in my midst who seemed not to have a problem feeding themselves, jealousy burned within me. Whereas before, I had been jealous of practically anyone who had a roof over their head, I now found myself jealous of homeless people who were able to feed themselves more readily than I was, such as many of the homeless people in the city of Berkeley, where so much free food is abundant.
By far, however, the most difficult transition to navigate was in the area of my self-esteem. As much as I despised seeing the way that privileged people who lived indoors treated homeless people who were suffering, I had simply gotten used to being treated like a piece of shit. Unbelievably, when people began to treat me humanely, as though I were “one of them,” I found I couldn’t handle it.
For example, I had been quietly hanging out out at a local coffee house for a couple of weeks before one of the baristas extended her hand and asked what my name was. Afterwards, I literally had to go into the bathroom and cry. I could not believe that an employee in a public business establishment cared what my name was. I had gotten so used to being viewed with suspicion, as though it were assumed I could only be a troublemaker, that the experience of having an employee actually treat me with dignity was almost too much for me. While I soaked it all in with a natural delight, it also caused me to wonder why on earth I and my homeless brothers and sisters had put up with such pejorative treatment to begin with.
The closest I’ve come to an answer is that we all simply got used to it. We didn’t think things would ever be any different or any better. The overall message that society gave us was that we would always be homeless, and that we were without hope in a world where an uncrossable gulf was fixed between those who were within and those who were without. We even got the feeling that we should always remain homeless – that we belonged, not in the privileged world of renters and homeowners – but in the leprous realm of the ostracized, the abandoned, and the untouchable. For we were not such as were worthy of dignified indoor living.
When such a bombardment of dehumanizing messages is blasted at a person day in and day out, it messes fairly severely with one’s head. Had I not known the amazing community that existed between me and my fellow homeless people, I would never have found the strength to come out alive.
Homeless No More is a column that features the stories of people making the transition from homelessness to housing. Andy Pope is a freelance writer who lives in the Pacific Northwest, and the author of Eden in Babylon, a musical about youth homelessness in urban America.
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