There were a number of words used predominantly by those who lived indoors that had a precarious ring in the ears of those of us who lived outside. These words often had a way of revealing our homelessness in a situation where it would have been wiser to conceal it — for example, when one was seeking a place of residence among numerous applicants.
Even if the situation were such that there was no reason why our homelessness couldn’t remain “out in the open” (so to speak), these words still had a way of making us feel that we were in some way distinctly set apart from the rest of the human race. At times, the words suggested that possibly we were not even truly human. After all, the humans who lived inside never used these words in reference to them.
So let me list four of them. Conveniently, the first two are what I will call the two “s-words.” The last two will be the two “h-words.” And I assure you — we who have been forced to live outdoors for prolonged periods of time could easily come up with numerous similar “buzzwords,” possibly one for every letter of the alphabet. But these four will suffice — for now.
Once on Facebook, a friend of mine announced on his timeline that “Andy was looking for shelter.” Now, of all the friends on his timeline, how many of them would have known that I was homeless? Probably only him, his wife maybe, and his kids. Does a person who isn’t homeless ever look for “shelter?” No, they don’t. They look for a place to live.
I asked him to remove the post. Although he was trying to help, he didn’t realize that the revelation of homelessness in this fashion would work against me in trying to secure residence. I knew from experience that if there were ten applicants on a rental application, and one of them put down that he had been homeless, there would soon be only nine applicants on that application.
This one wasn’t nearly so bad as the other “s-word.” But it still pointed to certain stigmata associated with poverty and disability culture that could conceivably work against us in many circumstances. A person trying to find residence, for example, is generally reluctant to say that he or she has had to have access to “services.” A prospective landlord would much rather hear about “gainful employment” than “services.”
Even in the context where no discrimination would be involved, there was still the inner sting of feeling that we somehow weren’t employable, able, or competent. Nobody likes to think of themselves as incompetent. We all want to think that we are at least capable of earning our own way in life, even if circumstances — personal, medical, or financial – are temporarily preventing us from doing so.
As I wrote in an earlier post, in all the years when I flew a sign on a Berkeley city sidewalk, only once did a person walk by and shout: “Get a job!”
It was just about the most refreshing thing I’d ever heard. It was very common for passersby to point me to where all the services were — as if I didn’t know already — and the overall effect, after a number of years, was to drill deeper and deeper down into the depths of my psyche the disconcerting notion that I was somehow “less than” all the more worthy sorts of people — those who were capable of holding down jobs.
And I’m pretty sure that I speak, if not for all of the middle-aged homeless men and women in my position at the time, then certainly for a vast majority of them.
The first of the two “h-words” is akin to that of the two “s-words.” Who needs to be “housed?” A person who doesn’t already have a house, of course. So when a social worker would refer to finding us “housing,” it only served to remind us of the essential difference between us and that other kind of human being, the one who was so privileged to be living indoors, who could conceivably delight in having moved to another place — a place of their choice, and more to their liking.
We could take no such delight. The homeless person, even when told to move (which we very often were told to do), doesn’t really get to move to a new place. Wherever we “moved” to, we were still homeless. If a homeless person did find a place to live, it was because we had been “housed.” It almost felt like we were animals being assigned to cages. Compare that feeling to that of a person who had lived in a rental and who then succeeds in buying a house. Possibly he moves out into the suburbs, or even into a gated community. He gets to do what he wants to do, and take his pick of places of residence until he finds the one he likes. That’s the sort of person who actually gets to move, and gets to move up in the world.
Homeless people only need to be housed – and quickly. It was a huge obsession of many of the indoor-dwellers in our midsts, especially of the ones who were trying to help us. Something had to be done with us — hopefully as soon as possible — and our own personal say-so in the matter was of limited importance in their minds.
And that says nothing of the kind of indoor dweller who didn’t even care if we were ever “housed.” They only wanted us out of their neighborhood – and fast.
Now for the big one.
I have probably used the word “homeless” ten times as much in the past two years indoors than for the past twelve years outdoors. Even now, I prefer to use words like “outside” or “outdoors,” rather than “homeless,” whenever possible. Partly this is because I feel called upon to emphasize that the main difference between those who are homeless and those who are not is that the homeless person lives outdoors — exposed and vulnerable to all kinds of external influences, human or inhuman, foul or fair. Whoever is not homeless lives inside and is as such protected from the vast array of such external elements.
But the word “homeless” for some reason carries a number of unrelated connotations that obscure the real issues of those who live outdoors. For this reason, many homeless people do everything they can to conceal their homelessness from those who live indoors. The word “homeless” carries so much stigma, it drives the average homeless person into the realm of invisibility.
These kinds of homeless people, though far from the most conspicuous, are undoubtedly in the vast majority. When I was homeless, any amount of money I was able to secure at in excess of my usual $17/day quota was considered to be license for me to take a bus or a BART train to someplace far away from places where I typically slept and attempted to earn my keep. I did this so that I would not have to deal with the annoying barrage of repeated questions and irrelevant information that was sent my way as soon as someone figured out that I was “homeless,” or heard that word used in the context of my person.
Typical connotations on the word “homeless” include”drug addict,” “alcoholic,” “nut case,” “loser,” “lazy bum,” and a whole plethora of stigmatic labels that serve amazingly well to obscure the more essential information about the homeless condition. As I said, these labels are unrelated to the real issues of those who live outdoors. Plenty of people who live indoors could easily have any one of these labels attributed to them, and the homeless person may in fact have none of them attributable to his or her identity. Even if these attributes are part of the homeless person’s experience, it serves no purpose to dwell upon them, other than to create a diversion from dealing with their true top-priority issue; that is, to find a place to live. A dignified place to live. A place to call their own, just as an indoor person buying a house can call their house their own.
So to avoid having to cut through the quagmire of all this unrelated labeling, I had to start by avoiding the label of “homeless” in the first place. For it would be from that label that all the other distracting labels would spring. If instead I somehow managed to be seen only as a fellow human being, in as many situations as possible, and not as a “homeless” person, then my chances of attaining a place to call my own were greatly enhanced. And in the end of my homeless sojourn, that was exactly how I found a place I could finally call my own — by leaving all trace of “homeless” out of my persona, and finding a landlord who had no reason to see me as anyone other than a fellow human being.
Perhaps you saw the episode of Northern Exposure in which the character Maurice approached a disadvantaged man on the street and asked: “Are you homeless?”
The man replied: “I prefer the term hobo.”
And before I had gained more savvy in the realm of outdoor living, I once asked a man if he were “homeless.” He replied: “Homeless is just a word.”
Not to mention, when somebody asked me recently, after I’d been living inside for almost two years, “Are you homeless?” — my reply was published in the post that bears that name.
So when I finally succeeded in achieving the dignified dwelling place I had long sought, how many times do you think I used any of those four words, the two s-words and the two h-words? Of course, the answer is zero. I avoided all four of these words completely. I hope that by now, you understand why.
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