[Originally posted at http://portland.indymedia.org/en/2002/07/15147.shtml on July 29, 02]
I have been technically homeless since January and truly homeless (by that I mean homeless and broke) since June. I woke up yesterday morning and realized that this condition might present a good journalistic topic on Indymedia, so here it is.
First of all, in advanced countries (I'll be generous and include my own nation, the United States, in that category) it's not all that bad. For as much fear as it inspires in the heart of man to keep working at their horror of a job, the hells of homelessness are definitely overrated. The worst things about it are boredom and daily rituals of pride-swallowing. Sounds like your typical low-end service job to me. I'm a good person to ask about this: in the span of a year I've gone from working so much I didn't have a life to not working at all and thus not being able to afford a life. I honestly can't say which is worse, though the latter definitely carries the greater stigma in my country.
In point of fact, there are several benefits to homelessness that man "home-guards" fail to appreciate:
1) Lots of exercise
2) Great opportunity to work on your tan
3) Feel more like Jesus
Seriously, homelessness is a great way to work on your materialist hang-ups. One thing I've discovered is that my fellow homeless people are far less likely to rip me off than your average Fortune 500 CEO. I'm also much more likely to toss things that I don't need because I simply can't carry them every place I go. In the past few weeks I've given away a cassette player, paints, clothes, and thrown out stacks of old love letters. They just weren't worth the weight and space they were taking up in my knapsack.
One also has ample opportunity to work on that most boring of the seven virtues: patience. If there's one phrase that I could use to characterize the experience of institutionalized homelessness, it's "hurry up and wait." For example, I spent six hours waiting at a free health clinic last Monday in a bid to obtain a month's supply of badly needed thyroid medicine. I was sent away with an appointment for a week and a half later. Then there's the Salvation Army, who kicks you out at eight in the morning and lets you back in at 6:30 pm. At 5:30 you see people who honestly have nothing better to do gather like crows on a telephone wire near the Salvation Army's back door. The entire day they've been waiting - at the library, the park, the public square - for the precise moment when they can roll out their bed, claim that space as their own for the night, and collapse there from exhaustion. I still don't understand why, but there's something about lugging your earthly possessions over pavement all day that saps every ounce of energy a human being has.
I would like to stress, however, that even in the US (at the time of this writing) there is no real reason one "has" to sleep outside on a park bench. There are shelters and soup kitchens in every decent-sized American town (admittedly easier to find if you are female), and there are always ways to get from town to town. Hitchhiking is considerably more dangerous and less common in the US than it is in Europe, but other homeless people are your best ally in this regard. Everyone always knows somebody who's going somewhere and can hook you up with a ride to the next shelter in an old beat-up van. Most shelters only give you 2-4 weeks to stay and if your time runs out before you can get a decent job you can always pack up and move on to greener pastures (or at least more shelter time). Some people would rather do this than work and this lifestyle is known as "shelter hopping." I think this gives homeless people in general a bad name and I can't understand why anyone would find this existence less exhausting than, say, cleaning toilets for a living ... but on the other hand, it does let you see more of the world ... sort of.
If you're the type of person who prefers to suck but not swallow, however, homelessness is definitely not for you. In this lifestyle one must force down one's pride on a daily basis: Petty bureaucrats will look at you the way they'd look at a pet poodle they suspect of piddling on their carpet. You will be directed through a series of hoops and rules, which often seem to exist for the sole pleasure the enforcer gets from enforcing them. If you smoke (which, fortunately, I do not) you may find the experience of homelessness an excellent incentive to quit -- failure to do so means constantly bumming from strangers and "hunting for snipes" in the gutter. Finally, there is no dignified way of waiting in line to receive a free lump of mush from a server with a condescending smile. If you know how to zone out in the midst of a deafening crowd, you'll soon find this to be a valuable skill.
As disheartening as it is to inevitably smell bad, feel chained to your change of clothes and constantly chastise yourself for getting angry over being made to wait for charity, in this day and age there is one side-effect of homelessness that can definitely be avoided: the feeling of being invisible, ineffectual, and unimportant. Trust me, I know how to get around this one. Here's what you do:
1) Sell one of the bus passes they give you at the Salvation Army (or panhandle, or beat your bongos, whatever) and buy an 89-cent box of chalk from Walgreen's and write "Bush Knew" and "9/11 = Reichstag" in front of a prominent government building.
2) Spend all your allotted Internet time at the public Library railing against the US government and multi-national corporations.
Before you know it, important people will be paying very close attention to you. Caution: this plan may be as hazardous to your health as smoking cigarettes, only quicker.