Far From Homeless
Even when I am living on the streets, I will be far from homeless.
As several people have pointed out in the past week — some more subtly than others — I’m just some privileged white kid who thinks he can urban-camp for a week and understand what it’s like to be homeless. Point taken.
There is a lot more to being homeless than not having a bed to call your own, and I realize that. The things I’ll be experiencing during my homeless week are only the basic, physical privations.
I met a woman named Dawn last weekend in Finlay Park. She’d been out on the streets for a month, and she was getting around on crutches with a sprained foot. She had experienced the cruelty of strangers and the cold of our city in the dead of winter. But in the midst of all those things, here’s what she said was the worst part:
I have no children, so I won’t experience the anguish of being unable to provide for them. In a way, I’m being spared the worst.
Another important shortcoming of my homeless week: I’m planning this out. I’ll have some warm clothes, a rough itinerary for each day, and a definite ending date. This is not how homelessness works. Here’s how Mike, whom I also met in Finlay Park that day, explained his homeless experience:
“Homelessness is just something that happens to you. It’s not something you plan on. Five years ago, being homeless was the last thing I thought I was gonna be. I had a good family, my wife worked for a senator, and you know, I have a problem with alcoholism, and it just led from one thing to another and it kept getting worse and worse, and then the next thing I knew it was I didn’t have anywhere to go, so I had to try to find places to sleep.”
A far cry from my situation, to be sure. I’ve met recovering drug addicts who can’t even piece together a narrative of how they got where they are. The sheer uncertainty of circumstances can take a toll on people’s minds. To know neither where you are going nor where you have been is a deeply troubling thing.
What’s more, I* have no handicaps. I was reminded of this today by a homeless man named Albert. Albert is an older black man with a ready smile and a penchant for talking about God, and he has no legs. He told me he lost them in an accident involving a bulldozer.
I was driving up Gregg Street when Albert approached me in a manual wheelchair. He was having trouble getting up the hill, and he said he would appreciate a lift.
I asked him if he’d like me to push him or help him into the passenger seat, but he shook his head and said, “Just roll down one of your windows for me.”
He gripped the back edge of a window frame as I slowly ski-lifted him all the way up the hill, and then he thanked me and rolled on.
I am not mentally disabled. I am not heartbroken. I am not an Army veteran with PTSD. But these are key elements of so many homeless stories I have heard already.
That’s the thing: I’m not just heading out on the streets to tell my story. I’m doing this to hear others’ stories.
As far as the personal experience, my expectations go about as far as this description, given to me by a man named John whom I met on the steps behind Richland County Public Library:
“When you’re on the streets, this is your pillow,” John said as he set his backpack down.
“This is your blanket,” he said, patting his camouflage fatigue jacket.
“And this is your bed,” he said, lowering himself onto the concrete, staring straight at me.
* I should here note that “I” has become “we.” My roommate Matt will be accompanying me on the streets for reasons of safety and perspective. So all you moms out there can breathe a little easier.