February 20, 2014

Homeless 10: The Real Deal

Homeless Jesus by Timothy Schmalz
Image courtesy of St. Joseph's Soup Kitchen
The first anniversary of my homeless condition is fast approaching. Throughout what has felt like a downward spiral, however, I have been in a semi-homeless status. I have had no secure knowledge that the place where I was sleeping was my own place to which to return without exception or conditions; the various roofs over my head have all belonged to others, who were simply generous enough to allow me house space. In the past few weeks, I have shuffled back and forth between various houses of friends, or planned to enter a shelter more than once, only to be reprieved each time at the last possible moment. Not knowing when the day begins where I'll be sleeping that night has been a level of panic to aggravate PTSD on an unprecedented scale.

AND YET, it wasn't until the weekend just past that I finally spent the better part of a day with nowhere to go, no place to hide from the wind's chill, or from the suspicious eyes of store employees and the waiting grip of police in a city that has outlawed homelessness. Just a few hours. I walked the streets, rode a bus simply because it was warm and in order to travel where I knew I'd find a friendly face and some kind conversation. I hid in a fast-food restaurant until they closed, partly because I'm one of the few fortunates who actually have a state-granted income--not enough to allow me to get a motel room, not if I want to survive until the end of the month, but enough to buy a cheeseburger and thereby avoid arrest for loitering a little while longer. Then I went to an all-night laundromat and tried to blend in for a little while; since I had no clothes running on which I could periodically check, the night watchman began to look askance at me pretty quickly, and I knew it was once again time to go back out into the cold.

There are primarily two subcultures in this country who are over 18, yet still carry backpacks--college students, and the homeless, and I've now been both. Students leave their dorm rooms or apartments for a long day of schlepping all over campus and the larger town, often don't intend to return to their tiny nests until sunset or after, and therefore make sure they're carrying everything required for the day on their bodies at all times. The homeless, however, carry everything they own, and it often isn't much, because they have no place to store so much as a paperclip. If it can't travel on their backs, they don't accept it. Always watchful of everyone, each sound and movement that reaches the senses, the homeless cannot relax for a second, waking or sleeping, because the threat of losing the few precious supplies in that bag is constantly, terrifyingly real. Never has my hypervigilance issue been as dramatic as it has become in the past few days; a car beeped near me when someone used their keyless remote to lock it, and I nearly bolted.

The original image is one of the most
famous Christian icons in the world,
known as "The Christ of Sinai."
The altered image is courtesy of
Romero Center Ministries.
I am so blessed. I was once again granted clemency this week. One more time, a friend appeared and put a roof over my head for another 7 days. The shelter to which I was headed only gives a bed for one week at a time (and that makes them one of the best; most operate on a nightly basis), so I am putting off going there as long as I can. I need to keep that week in reserve against the moment when no one can save the day. Before my day of wandering hit midnight, I had a bed in a safe, warm house. Another friend with an empty storage space allowed me to finally stop dragging my belongings from place to place, before I was faced with the task of sifting through and shedding everything that couldn't travel in my backpack. I have a car; I have a meager income; I have friends. As Humble Harv points out, these things number me among the spoiled rich of the homeless class. This week, I found myself for a few hours among those who have none of these luxuries, and they are the bravest people I have ever known. Some might say it's not bravery, as they have no choice, but they do have a choice, every day, the same choice I faced when I sat in that burger joint deciding whether I could live another day if it was going to look like the one I just spent. There are choices, and the most courageous among them is continuing on a path that is seemingly without end until a natural death. I am honored to have been among these people's company for just a few hours, those whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose.

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