“Recognize what is in your sight,
and that which is hidden from you
will become plain to you.
For there is nothing hidden,
which will not become manifest.”1
Part 1 – Not Quite There Yet
The sun is up early today. Muffled conversations fill the air around me and the scent of breakfast cooking in the distance fills my nose, making my mouth water in sweet anticipation. Slowly, and with great effort, my eyes open to familiar surroundings. Nothing changed during the night; good!
Earlier, just before dawn, I thought I heard someone walking around, checking to make sure everything was okay. I guess it was. Finally, and lazily, I get dressed and lay back for a few more precious minutes of post-sleep.
As I finally get up off my bed, my thoughts turn back to breakfast and my stomach rumbles. Though still stiff and sore, I gather my things and head out to see what new fortune awaits.
Sound familiar? That could have been any normal morning. Maybe that was the day you were getting out of bed while your family was getting ready for their day, or perhaps that was the morning you were staying at a hotel in a distant city where you were searching for a new job. That morning could have been any one of a hundred or so mornings, but the truth is that particular morning, many years ago, I was getting up off a hard cement bed in the middle of a big city. It wasn’t my intention to be homeless, but it happened none-the-less.
I was alone and scared and I kept telling myself over and over again that I should have seen it coming. I kept thinking I could have done more to prevent it, but it happened regardless of my efforts. At 18 years of age, I became a statistic on the streets of Los Angeles. Up until that first morning so many years ago, I had always thought that I was in control of my own life and that I was only responsible to myself. I was wrong.
There was of course much more to my experience than just walking around and panhandling for money. There were new languages to learn, behaviors to recognize, social orders and hierarchies to follow. Sure it makes for great reading to follow someone as they rummage through a dumpster for tossed treasures, but where is the learning in that?
I looked for a job every day in the months preceding my eviction. Unfortunately, at that time not many people wanted to hire an 18-year-old who didn’t have a lot of work experience. My rent had been due for weeks, and my landlords had been trying to contact me for just as long. Finally, one morning there was a notice on my door telling me to pay my rent or get out. My impending eviction woke me up and made me realize that I wasn’t doing well living on my own. I was faced with the possibility of being thrown into the streets if I didn’t act quickly. I had to seek out other means to keep from being evicted from my apartment. All I wanted in life at the moment was a job so I could pay my rent.
Just before I was kicked out of my apartment, I tried to find help from two Social Services offices. The intake workers at both offices told me I was too young to receive help and I should go home to live with my parents. They didn’t bother to ask me if I needed help getting a job, nor did they ask me what type of assistance I was looking for; they just told me no. They didn’t even ask me if was safe for me to go home. So much for the so-called public assistance program – it felt more like the public get-riddance program. My mind raced as I left each building and all I could think about was how those who needed help were treated as less than humans – we were numbers and no better than animals being rounded up for slaughter with crooked numbers branded into their foreheads.
That last night in my own apartment I had no idea where I was going or what I was going to do next, but I knew I had to leave the safety of my apartment, so I packed a few things into a duffel bag and early the next morning I left my apartment for the last time.
Part II – First Order of Business – Safety First
Stepping onto the bus, I knew I would have to find a place to sleep. Thankfully, just a day or so before when I was trying to get help from one of those social services offices, I thought I saw a safe place. I went back to the office and started retracing my steps till at last I found the right spot. It just happened to be right behind a major cultural arts building near the edge of Los Angeles. It wasn’t a comfortable space, but there was a security guard on duty in the lobby twenty-four hours a day and he would walk around every so often, so it had to be safe. There were some staging platforms piled up against a back wall that looked like they hadn’t been moved in a very long time, and I could see a sort of pathway through the structure of the platforms that lead to the back wall. I had to take a couple turns here and there, but by the time I crawled through to the very back, I knew I couldn’t be seen and I was well protected from the elements. The wall was warm and often stayed that way throughout the night. The guard never even knew that I was sleeping there; I sometimes wonder what would have happened if he ever found me.
After I settled down and made a sort of nest, I curled up to catch some sleep and began crying.
The next morning I woke up with that feeling like I was somewhere else – I could smell the food from nearby restaurants and could hear the muffled sounds of people greeting one another. I hesitated that morning. I just didn’t want to crawl out of the nest I had made. I knew, deep in my heart, people would instantly know I was homeless. Being judged by others was something I didn’t take very well and I would go well out of my way to avoid anything I thought involved judgments.
I had so many questions floating around my mind and a sort of anger was beginning to build up from somewhere deep inside me. I was angry at the situation I was in and I couldn’t understand how I got where I was. I wanted answers, but all I found were more questions. I had heard someone say, once, that the homeless were living on the streets because they want to be there. When was it, exactly, that I wanted to live on the streets? I couldn’t remember wanting to be homeless and back then I wasn’t about to admit I was on the streets because of my own stupidity. Despite my endless questions, I was determined to get off of the streets as soon as I could – a fool’s dream.
My first day of being homeless, nestled there in that labyrinth of staging, raised some important thoughts and questions, but tending to my “living space” was, of course, the first order of business. I needed to make sure that no one found my new living space and that if they did nothing important was ever left behind. It was pretty obvious that someone had tried to create a space once, but it was now empty and mine. After 4 hours of working quietly and diligently, I finally had my hidden entry, (through two of the upper platforms, around one and under the next) and my sleeping area (which doubled as a sort of living room). I just hoped the platforms weren’t going to be needed anytime soon.
My new temporary home was about six feet long and about 5 feet wide. I was able to sit up with my head slightly tilted forward so it wasn’t very tall. It wasn’t big, but that was the point; the heat stayed in the space at night due to the large brick wall right next to me. The best part, though, was I could leave my bag in there during the day. After all; if people didn’t see me carrying anything then perhaps they wouldn’t really know I was homeless. I could still remain an average citizen for as long as my clean clothes stayed fresh.
I found an unlocked door on the side of the building I was living behind and I discovered that the bathrooms were also kept unlocked. I had found the golden bathroom key and knew I could somewhat keep myself looking presentable – I just had to not get caught.
For now, I could remain the average citizen on the street pretending to walk off to a non-existent job and no one would be the wiser. But what was going to happen when I needed to clean my clothes or take a shower? My stomach quickly answered, “WHO CARES?! I needed food!”
Part III – The Next Order of Business
By the end of my first day on the streets, it became painfully clear my next order of business was to find food. Again, my mind raced. I just couldn’t dig through garbage cans to find half-eaten sandwiches like I had seen in movies. Again the questions started to fill my head. What on God’s green earth was I going to do? THAT’S IT, THAT’S THE ANSWER!
I said a quick prayer of thanks to my father would-would always use that phrase: God’s green earth. I would have never thought of trees for food, but I was in California after all and many trees in Los Angeles have fruit. It wasn’t difficult to find fruit trees in the neighboring suburbs.
While walking through one such neighborhood, I just happened to pass a McDonald’s were an abandoned table with a half-eaten Big Mac and soda beckoned me to partake. I sat down carefully looking to see if anyone noticed my incursion. No one did.
As time went by, I thought I could pretend I was a health inspector looking for rotten pieces of meat. When I found some meat that wasn’t rotten, I would just casually forget that I was placing the meat (usually in sandwich form) in my mouth. If there was a half-drunk soda, then happy me. If no soda or not enough edible food, well then, on to the next possibility for food. That style of eating wasn’t great by any means, but it supported me and I maintained some resemblance of health. Some days were good and filled with all sorts of delicacies while other days were leaner and I couldn’t find anything to eat in any of the dumpsters or trees on my route.
My route consisted of 5 dumpsters and a number of fruit trees within a 5-mile radius. I always had to be careful not to tread on another person’s territory, but everything seemed okay with the ones I had chosen.
At one point, I was desperate. I hadn’t eaten in a few days and a strange pain was starting to settle in my stomach. I’m not proud to say it, but I learned quickly that grocery stores were the best place to ‘shop’ in a ‘pinch’. I could walk in with a light jacket and walk out with one or two pieces of fruit in my hands and my pockets somewhat filled with sweets. No one ever caught on to what I was doing and if they did, they didn’t stop me. Stealing meat or canned goods was out of the question. Not only is it hard to cook when you’re living on the streets, but you try putting a frozen cow or a couple of cold metal torpedoes down your shirt and see how you feel when you get out of the store.
Bags of chocolate chips were by far the easiest to steal and every now and then, mostly during shift changes, I could come out of the store with a bag of pre-shredded salad, a small block of cheese, and a can of soda. If you think it’s easy to do, try it. I had to act embarrassed that I was having a male erection problem on a couple of occasions just to get away with it.
If you think so far that it was hard living on the streets, try convincing yourself that not only are you worthless because you don’t have a job and an apartment, but that you’re also not a good-for-nothing thief stealing food to stay alive. I’m not proud of what I did and I’m not trying to justify my actions, but I had to steal to stay alive. Not the entire time, mind you – I only stole when times were tough. Every now and then I would wander into a soup kitchen and volunteer to help so I could eat. I actually felt good about working for a meal and no one would really care if I was homeless. Those were, after all, my people – I was one of them. Heck, half the time they didn’t even know the difference. The soup kitchens I went to in Los Angeles were good at providing hot meals, but the food tasted like my unwashed blanket smelled: atrocious.
Wow, my blanket really did smell awful. Come to think of it, so did I. I hadn’t realized it, but I was begun to smell like the people I used to call filthy. I began to smell – homeless.
Part IV – A Bath Every Other Day, Keeps the Odor Away
Keeping my clothes and myself clean was a feat to behold. I didn’t have ready access to laundry facilities, not that I had the money to use the facilities I did find, so I had to think of creative ways to get clean. I tried everything from taking one garment at a time into the bathroom, to setting my clothes out in the rain. But the best way I found to keep clean, was to bathe and wash my clothes in the Los Angeles River during the evening hours so no one could see me. It wasn’t that far away and I didn’t even have to get undressed. I could wash my clothes and myself at the same time.
Shaving could still be done in the bathroom back where I was staying, but my hair was now getting rather long and messy. I realized I didn’t have a way to keep it from getting tangled. Well, I was at a river. All I had to do was come up out of the water with my head tilted back so my hair would fall into place naturally. The result was the typical ponytail style that everyone seemed to be wearing that year. The only hard part about keeping clean was all in my mind – it was accepting how I kept clean.
My daily routines were not things that I enjoyed doing, but I had to. If I walked down the street looking and smelling like I hadn’t bathed in weeks, then who was going to give me a job? Besides, whatever I could do to avoid being arrested by the police for vagrancy, I did. I never looked like the stereotypical homeless so the police, as well as shop owners and others, left me alone. As far as anyone was concerned, I lived close to the areas that I frequented.
Part V – Ah ah ah ah Staying Alive, Staying Alive….…
I never wanted to live in an area where I would be in any physical danger so I only frequented open areas of the city that were not heavily populated with other homeless. I found that I could keep several places of “residence” instead of just staying at the same place night after night. When I found a place that seemed safe enough, I would spend some time making the nest and then I would stay there for a while. I liked to stay in each place for as long as possible so that people would become accustomed to seeing me. The more I was seen, the less I was seen as a threat.
I would occasionally find enough money on the streets to rent a hotel room for a night or two. The moment that I walked through the door of the room, I would pretend that I was in my own apartment and that I really wasn’t living on the streets. Unfortunately, I would spend most of the night in the shower trying to clean all of my clothes with a tiny bar of soap. I would have been better off trying to climb a mountain with a spool of heavy-duty thread. It was nice to be able to have somewhere warm and comfortable to stay, but I didn’t want to become too comfortable and I wasn’t too concerned with finding permanent housing. I first needed some sort of income.
I actually tried to stay in a Salvation Army shelter once, and believe me, once was enough. One of the staff members at the shelter told me I should sleep with my bag as my pillow so that no one would steal it and that I should make sure my shoes were tied on really tight, that way no one could steal my shoes off of my feet while I slept. I took his advice, but I didn’t sleep well that night. I preferred sleeping where I knew I would be safe, like behind that cultural arts building downtown. Strange I hadn’t thought of going to a shelter sooner. I had been on the streets for almost a year, and I was starting to get used to the idea of spending the rest of my life diving through trash or trying to survive in a truly hostile environment.
Slowly, I realized that I was starting to feel safe living on the streets. Let’s face it, when you are living on the streets you can’t be kicked out of an apartment. You may not have the basic necessities of life, but you learn to make do. The fact that I was beginning to like living on the streets startled me a little, but I quickly turned to more important issues – finding food, staying clean, and picking out safe areas to sleep.
If I had a job while I was living on the streets, I would have been able to save my money without much of a problem. I sure as hell didn’t have any bills while living on the streets. I only had to be concerned with my safety.
Looking back, I can see I was slowly growing fearful of anyone and everyone. I had no idea if the person I was walking close to was going to attack me because he or she knew I was homeless. Paranoia began setting in, but I continued my routines and kept trying to make something of myself – the perfect homeless person. I sometimes felt as if my sanity was flying out a window and I started to understand why some of the homeless I had met were so ‘weird’. They had to be in order to accept their way of life. I was simply becoming “one of them.”
There was so much I had learned. I had become part of a different subculture and the best part was that very few people knew about it. Only those who lived the life would ever understand the minute intricacies of living on the streets. There were even unwritten rules that had to be followed. If the rules were broken, consequences had to be paid just like the government’s society. There was no court, no jury, and most assuredly no attorney; just the law, and the law enforcer.
Part VI – The Law!
I. Covet not thy neighbor’s camp.
II. Covet not thy neighbor’s goods.
III. Covet not thy neighbor’s food.
IV. Covet not thy neighbor – they’re gross.
V. Covet not.
VI. Don’t expect the ‘man’ to help. It won’t.
VII. Tread not where others tread first.
VIII. Tread not in another person’s dumpster lest ye give up half of what you find.
IX. Better stay by yourself.
X. Everyone is suspect – protect thyself at all times.
Part VII – The Law?
The rules of being homeless were rather basic and unassuming. For instance, if I had to spend the night away from my normal sleeping area, then I had to choose my ‘camp’ with care. If I didn’t, then it didn’t matter because chances were that I would have been killed during the night. The same went for any food that looked like it had been hidden for later consumption as well as clothing, blankets and the odd shopping cart filled with cans.
The “man” (anyone associated with the government) was the enemy and anyone who was not the “man” was just as dangerous. Many new homeless were taught to be instinctively scared of the police. They were always arresting homeless people for vagrancy and they would usually beat the homeless just because they knew they could get away with it. There were also those police officers that would pick up a homeless man or woman and charge them for a crime they hadn’t committed just so that they could get their brownie points. Of course, the person looked like they could fit the crime, but then again, so did the other ninety-nine percent of the homeless in that area.
The golden rule, though, was to never dive in someone else’s dumpster or panhandle in someone else’s territory. That was always grounds for the death penalty because then you took away that person’s livelihood. We may not have spoken much, but all the homeless knew each other and could tell when things were not right in the community.
No matter what people may say about the homeless, they have a sense of responsibility to each other. I remember one homeless man was being brutally beaten by some punk kid, and many of us went to his rescue. We almost kicked the kid’s butt and the kid ran off screaming, but he had it coming. Who in their right mind would attack another human being for crossing his or her path? Oh, I almost forgot; the homeless aren’t human. They’re animals.
Homeless men and women have a unique culture that is well connected with other homeless communities even if there is little in the way of communication between them. I think Steven Vanderstaay expressed it best when he wrote, ” . . . while homelessness exposes the fragility of our lives and the vast inequalities of our society it also points up the great resilience of people and their ability to create networks of support and connection under the most harrowing of circumstances.”
Imagine that! The homeless are able to create. The homeless have great resilience. If only he knew how right he was. The only thing I would like to see him add to that quote is homelessness shows us how to be thankful for what we have in our lives right now; even if there is nothing at all.
Part VIII – The Final Battle
Near the end of my life on the streets, I risked even my own sanity in an attempt to leave what was becoming a very comfortable place to be. Despite all of my ‘on-the-street-training’, one day I risked it all, I did the unthinkable – I asked for help to leave a community which had accepted me openly and fully.
I was on one of my walking trips through Hollywood and found yet another welfare office. I fought with myself about going in and lingered outside the door for quite a while. At this point in my homelessness, I had nothing to lose and everything to gain, including my own self-worth, so I went inside, filled out the paperwork, and waited for a couple of hours until my name was called. My heart raced with anticipation, but my head was already thinking about how long it would take me to walk back to downtown and whether or not I’d have to fight for my spot due to some newcomer to the area.
A young man not much older than me was my interviewer. I looked at him for just a brief moment when all of a sudden I let out a year of my story. The tears flowed and once or twice when I got up the courage to look up, I could see that he had been crying too. Somehow I got my story across without sounding like a madman, but the fears came flooding back when he excused himself to go and talk to his supervisor. It took him an eternity to return: ten minutes.
He was obviously upset and his eyes were still red. I could almost see a sadness in his face as if he had bad news, but he hadn’t come back alone. That was either a good sign or a bad one and my developed instincts told me that it was bad. The signs were all there. Whenever there are two or more of the ‘man’ and only one of the homeless, it usually meant that the homeless person was going to get beaten.
I started to cringe half expecting him to tell me there was nothing he could do, but I was shocked as he, with tears in his own eyes, explained to me that a program had been recently developed to help the younger homeless, like me, get off the streets. I was stunned. They weren’t going to beat me. This wasn’t what was supposed to happen. He continued by telling me that I qualified for the new program. I started to cry again. All the while I thought he was going to tell me to leave, but then I heard those magic words flow from his smiling mouth. After a year and a half, I heard the words, “I care.”
I could finally keep clean, warm and safe, but more than that, I would finally be able to care about myself again. I could be ‘normal’. Walking into that office at that point in time probably saved my life, and it was the insight of one man that made all the difference in the world.
Many years have passed since I lived on the streets, but the memories are still as fresh in my mind as the days they were formed. It still pains me at times to remember those days and nights that I would long for a warm bed to sleep in or for a warm shower to clean myself in. It is especially hard for me to remember how people treated me just because I was young and homeless. I was deeply hurt whenever someone would look at me with those telltale eyes. Those eyes that said, “You are beneath me.” Because of those eyes, I did everything in my power to not look like the stereotypical homeless man.
I often think about that young man who had the guts to help me when no one else would. If that young man didn’t have the courage to look inside himself and see himself in my shoes, I would have never gotten my second chance in life.
So, what’s the point of my story you may ask? Well, the next time that you see someone living in a cardboard box, ask yourself if you could live like that. I mean really ask yourself if you could live like that. Try to visualize what life for that homeless man, woman or child would be like. Try to visualize yourself in that box next to that person. If you don’t want to visualize that, then maybe visualize yourself in a box all alone. Maybe your box isn’t cardboard. Maybe the box is made up of social norms and/or other social inequalities or maybe the box is something you created in your life. Maybe the box is a viewpoint or an illness or an unwillingness.
Whether the issue is homelessness, social justice, or personal growth the solution is the same. There is inequality in everything we say and do. Be humane to your neighbor and to yourself. Respect the rights of others. Get back to the basics of living. It could be you or your spouse, your son or daughter, mother or father living in that box; trapped with no escape.
But then maybe they will find a home in their box.
When you hear someone say to you, “it could be worse,” they aren’t kidding. It really could be worse. I may not feel like it at the moment they share that bit of insight, but it is the truth.
Today, this moment, count your blessings and give thanks for all you have, then, look towards those who have not and help in whatever way you can!
The Rev. Father Kenneth Nelan is the pastor of the Sacred Wandering Pastoral Center in Milwaukee Wisconsin. He is also the celebrant of the Sunday Mass broadcast on Facebook.