.: Part 1 – Prelude :.
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 great effort, my eyes open to familiar surroundings. Good, nothing changed during the night.
Earlier I thought I heard someone walking around checking to make sure everything was okay. I guess it was. Lazily I get dressed and lay back for a few more minutes.
As I finally get up, 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 morning you were getting out of bed while your family got ready their day. Maybe that was the morning you were staying at a hotel in a distant city where you searched for a new job. That scene could be just about anything, but the truth is that morning, many years ago, I was getting up off a hard cement bed in the middle of a big city.
I should have seen it coming. I think I knew it was going to happen, but I kept telling myself it wouldn’t happen to me. One morning I was getting up from a warm bed and the next I sat up in utter shock at what had happened that day. I kept telling myself that I could have done more to prevent it; but it happened anyway. It wasn’t my intention to be homeless at the ripe old age of 18.
I was alone and scared.
My landlords had been trying to get ahold of me for a few weeks now – the rent was long overdue. One morning there was a notice on my door telling me to pay my rent within five days or get out. I didn’t know about eviction procedures and that I could have probably stayed there a bit longer. All I knew was that I was facing 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 that moment was a job so that I could pay for my rent and live in peace in my small studio apartment. I looked for a job every day, but it seemed no one wanted to take a chance on an immature 18-year-old. I was about to become another statistic in the vastness of Los Angeles.
Just before I left my apartment, I tried to find help from two Social Services offices. One office was in Long Beach, where I was living, and the other in Los Angeles. The social workers in both offices told me I was too young to be helped and that I should “go back to mommy and daddy”. They didn’t ask me about the childhood abuse I suffered under the heavy hand of my father. They didn’t bother to ask me if I needed help getting a job, nor did they ask me for what type of assistance I was looking. In fact, they didn’t ask me anything; they just told me no. The only question they asked me what how old I was.
I cried as I left the last office. I can still remember my thoughts as I walked out the door, “these people need help treat other people like people.”
It was partly my fault, though. You see, I was too proud to tell them I couldn’t go home. I should have shared my story. I should have been more forthright – right? I should have shared with them how my father had kicked me out and signed me up for the Navy when I was 17 – he was rather abusive, you see, and I had finally stood up to him one fateful day. After that, he got rid of me like an old rag too worn to be of further use; kind of like the social workers did, only they did it without the accompanying physical pain. I was out of the Navy (honorably) not long after I turned 18. For most of the country, it was a time of peace and I wasn’t needed, but that’s a story for another time.
I tossed and turned during what I thought was my last night in the apartment. I had no idea where I was going or what I was going to do next; I only knew I had to leave the safety of my apartment. That night I carefully took inventory of all my worldly possessions and did as the pioneers once did hundreds of years ago – I packed for what seemed like the impossible.
Up until that first morning waking up in the middle of a crowded city so many years ago, I had always thought I was in control of my own life.
I was wrong.
.:Part II – First Order of Business: What now?:.
That first day I left the apartment, I knew that I had to find a safe place to – wow, what the hell was I going to do? I began to panic inside. I literally had no idea where I was going or what I was going to do. I must have sat on that park bench for a couple hours before I was able to wrap my head around what had just happened. Somehow deep inside I knew I had to get moving – I had to find a place where I could hide my things and at the same time feel safe enough to sleep. I had always heard horror stories about what happen to those dirty people living on the streets.
During my last trip to the Los Angeles social work office, I thought I saw a place that might work as a temporary shelter so I did the only thing I could think of doing – I gathered my things and set out on my 25-mile journey back to the big city.
I arrived sometime in the early morning. I know it was early morning because I still remember the change of color in the sky – you know, when it turns that very soft lavender blue as the sun begins to rise somewhere in the east. I found that office that rejected me and began to head in the direction I thought would make the ideal hiding spot. But I was too tired to really care anymore. I just needed to lay down and rest for a bit.
I found a place to spend the night hidden under some discarded staging behind a cultural art building smack-dab in the middle of the supposedly great (and very dirty) city of Los Angeles. It wasn’t comfortable, but there was a security guard on duty in the lobby of the building and he would walk around every so often, so it had to be safe. I was able to make a niche near the building behind and under some of the staging platforms piled up against the back wall. As far as I know, the guard never even knew I was there. I wonder what would have happened if he ever found me. Anyway, after I settled down and made a crude sort of nest out of a couple towels and a blanket, I curled up into a small ball and softly cried myself to sleep.
The next morning, at least I think it was morning, I woke up in a sort of shock, which quickly turned into anger. I was angry at the situation I was in and I couldn’t understand how I got where I was. I wanted answers, but soon fear took over. I had heard someone say, once, that the “homeless are living on the streets because the want to be there.” Tell me, asshole, when was it, exactly, that I wanted to live on the cold and violent streets? I no more wanted to be homeless than I wanted a tooth extracted without Novocain. As I sat there arguing with this unknown idiot, more questions filled my head, as did more fear and anger. Being homeless wasn’t the greatest adventure I had ever known. That first day, or was it night, I spent curled up in my towels and blanket crying at my misfortune.
As I now recall, I slept the entire first day and night, and hid in that safe space the entire next day. As the now third night of being homeless approached, I was already beginning to feel the power of hunger. As I tossed and turned that night, I wondered what would happen to me and how would I survive? How would I eat? Where the hell would I go to the bathroom? How would I wash my clothes? Would I still make my bed even though it was just a cement floor?
I wanted to go to the nearest pay phone and call my mom, and ask her to come and rescue me; but “He” lived there… there was no going home, and something inside cringed at possibility of disappointment in my mother’s face.
Tending to my “living space” was the first order of business. I needed to make sure that no one found my new living space so that I could leave my things safely hidden from would be thieves. Looking around, it seemed that at some time long ago someone else was in my predicament. After 4 hours of working quietly and diligently, I finally established my hidden entry: from the side of the building = through two of the upper platforms, around one and under the next; finally, through the last drop to my sleeping area, which doubled as a sort of living room. The platforms blocked the wind perfectly, and so long as the sun shined down during the day it stayed warm through even the coldest of evenings.
My new space was about six feet long and about 5 feet wide. I was able to sit up with my head slightly tilted forward. It wasn’t big, but that was the point; the heat stayed in the space at night. The best part though was that I could leave my bag in there during the day. After all; if people didn’t see me carrying anything, then there were no preconceived ideas that I really was homeless. I could remain an average citizen for as long as my clean clothes stayed fresh. In the back of my mind I always feared the worst, but I had no choice. I instead focused on the hope that no one would need the platforms any time soon.
I found an unlocked door on the side of the building I was living behind and I discovered that the bathrooms were kept unlocked. I had found the proverbial golden bathroom key and was able to keep myself looking somewhat presentable. 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.
That night I slept. I dreamed I was back in my own apartment safe and sound, with no worries and a job to keep me occupied.
.:Part III – 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.
V. Don’t expect the ‘man’ to help. They won’t.
VI. Get over yourself, you’re going to die one way or another.
.:Part IV – Next Order of Business: Finding Food:.
I mentioned earlier that I had begun to feel the pangs of hunger. I think it was three days before I figured out that I needed to feed myself. My mind started to race – I just couldn’t dig through garbage cans to find half-eaten sandwiches like I had seen in movies. Again, questions filled my head. What on God’s green earth was I going to do?
Like a two-by-four whacked upside the head, I figured it out. This is California! There are fruit trees all over the place – food literally grew on trees! The trick, of course, was finding fruit trees in a big city.
I began my trek to find the ever-elusive fruit trees that would provide me the sustenance I so desperately needed. I instead found my first half-eaten Big Mac. It was just sitting there right on the table next to a half-drunk soda. I looked around – no one seemed to be looking, so I sat down and had my first meal in days.
As I sat there eating my half-meal, I looked around an noticed the dumpster at the back of the parking lot. After drinking my last sip, I gathered the now empty wrappers and walked over to the dumpster. I looked carefully inside as I tossed in the last remaining pride wrapped neatly in a Big Mac box – half-eaten sandwiches galore! I found what would ultimately be one of the best places to find a meal when I was desperate. For now, however, I had to find the rare lignum that would ultimately keep me healthy – and find I did!
Going from tree to tree, dumpster to dumpster wasn’t great by any means, but it supported me, and I maintained some resemblance of health. As the days turned into weeks, and then into months, ultimately the day came when I couldn’t find anything to eat in any of my usual haunts. The dumpsters were clean, and the trees were picked. My route consisted of 5 dumpsters within a 5-mile radius and the trees within another two miles. I always had to be careful of walking into someone else’s dumpster territory – some “wanderers” were very territorial, but everything seemed okay with the ones I had chosen.
The day of true desperation came when I hadn’t eaten for almost a week. I had to find something to eat. I’m not proud of it, but I learned that some 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 and my pockets somewhat filled with sweets. For some reason they kept fruit and candy near the entrance, or was it exit? No one ever caught on to what I was doing and if they did, they didn’t stop me. Stealing meat and 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, during the shift change, 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, you try it.
If you think, so far, that it was hard living on the streets, honey, you don’t know shit. Try convincing yourself that you’re not a good-for-nothing thief, and that you’re stealing food to stay alive. That was by far harder than taking a few items to stay alive. I’m not proud of what I did and I’m not trying to justify my actions – I had to steal in order to remain alive, but the consequential self-flagellation was by far the worst part of living on the streets.
I didn’t have to steal the entire time I was living on the street, 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 that I could eat. It felt good working for a meal, and no one there cared if I was homeless or not. These were, after all, my people now. Heck, half the time they didn’t even know the difference. The soup kitchens that I went to in Los Angeles were good at providing hot meals, but the food tasted like my unwashed blanket smelled: terrible.
Boy did my blanket smell. Come to think about it, so did I. I didn’t realize it, but I had begun to smell like the people I used to point at as I ridiculed them for being so dirty. I, myself, began to smell homeless.
.:Part V – A Bath Every Day Keeps the Odor Away:.
“My God, my God – why have you forsaken me?” What is it they say? Karma is a bitch. In the now months that I had been homeless, I had experienced everything I had always put down.
I was raised in a well-to-do family. All I ever had to do was keep my mouth shut when being “punished” and I could have had anything I wanted in life. I remember we would take trips to the “big city” so that my mother could buy fabrics directly from manufacturers. While walking the streets, we would often make fun of and demean those poor innocents who smelled as if they hadn’t wiped their own asses in years. My mother would toss a few cents onto the ground and would laugh as beggar would scramble to pick up every penny. These were good God-fearing, read that to mean “Christian”, people – right?
I was beginning to smell like those we passed on the streets so long ago. Keeping my clothes and myself clean was not easy in a city of concrete. It wasn’t like I could just go down to the nearest river… Wait a sec! I could!
Being homeless in downtown Los Angeles means there is no 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 of staying clean. I tried everything from taking one garment at a time into that little bathroom in the building I lived behind, to setting my clothes out in the rain. Ultimately, the best way I found to keep clean, was to bathe in the Los Angeles River during the evening hours so that people wouldn’t see me. It wasn’t that far away from my nest, that’s what I began calling it, and I didn’t even have to get undressed. I could wash my clothes and myself at the same time, then wear the clothes for an hour or two until they were dry.
Shaving could still be done in the bathroom back where I was staying, but my hair was now growing long, and it was harder to keep it well quaffed. I realized I didn’t have a way to keep it from getting tangled. So, while I was at a river cleaning myself and my clothes, I would come up out of the water with my head tilted backwards so my hair was pulled naturally back, and then quickly put it into a pony tail before it dried. The result was the typical pony-tail style that everyone was wearing. The only hard part about keeping clean was learning to accept how I kept clean.
Up to this point in my homeless experience, my daily routines were not things that I enjoyed doing, but were things I had to do. 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 or being beaten by thugs who enjoyed picking on those unable to fend for themselves, I did. I did my best to NOT look like the stereotypical homeless person so the police as well as shop owners and other people leave me alone. As far as anyone knew, I lived close to the areas I frequented. Little did they know…
One night it happened… it must have been a few months into being homeless. I was walking back to my nest, fresh from my bath and laundry, when he pulled up next to me in his car. He was older and didn’t seem as well kempt as I was trying to be. I remember something about fifty-bucks and then a few hours later I was dropped off near where he picked me up with a wad of money in my pocket. I remember feeling numb and throwing up. I also remember he called me, “beautiful”. Earlier that day I had realized I had turned 19 – happy birthday.
.:Part VI – Ah ah ah ah Staying Alive. Staying Alive:.
Growing up with my father as I did, I had always dreamed I would live in places that were safe and free from physical danger. Being homeless, I learned quickly to only frequented open areas of the city that were not heavily populated with other homeless. It had now been almost a year, I think. It had been a while since I had seen a calendar. I didn’t even know if it was the same year as when I first left the safety of my apartment.
I had 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. I reasoned that the more I was seen, the less I would be considered a threat.
I would occasionally collect enough money I found on the streets, and through other means, to rent a hotel room for a night or two. Sometimes the person paying for the room would rent it and me for a few days. If not with someone else, the moment I walked through the door I would pretend that I was in my own apartment and that I really wasn’t living on the streets. I used the bathtub as a sort of laundry and would spend most of the night cleaning all my clothes with one tiny bar of soap. I would have been easier 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 at the same time I didn’t want to become too comfortable as I knew where I would eventually end up.
I tried, once, to stay in a shelter. Believe me, once was enough. I remember one of the staff members at that shelter told me that 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 under my mattress, not the bed, just the mattress. That way no one could steal my shoes 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. It was winter, and cold, and so I did what I had to do.
By that time, I had been on the streets for 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. At one point 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 the feeling passed, and I settled in for the night.
I remember arguing with myself about the pros and cons of being homeless. Pro – I didn’t have to worry about having bills while living on the streets. Con – I had worry about my safety and I was slowly becoming 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 was setting in. 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 in the past year. I had acculturated into a subculture of society and the best part was that very few people knew about it – it was a very select subculture. There were even unwritten rules that had to be followed. If the rules were broken, then consequences had to be paid just like with the government’s society. In the homeless culture, there were no courts, no juries, and most assuredly no attorneys; just the law and the enforcer.
You know those people that stand on the corners and ask for money? I was never one of those – or so I like to tell myself. I like to think I was more to my experience than just walking around and pan-handling, yeah – that’s what we’ll call it – for money. There were languages to learn, behaviors to recognize, social orders and hierarchies to follow.
.:Part VII – The Law?:.
The homeless laws 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, I might find myself being beaten or 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. One had to assume they all belonged to someone else, unless they were a part of your own established boundaries.
The “man” (anyone associated with the government) was the enemy and anyone who was not the “man” was still to be considered the “man” – they were just as dangerous to the homeless. Many new homeless were instinctively scared of police. The “man” was always arresting homeless people for vagrancy or just for kicks. Often, they would just take them to a remote area of the city and would beat them because they knew they could get away with it. Some police would pick up a homeless person and charge them for a crime they hadn’t committed just so that they could get their quotas filled. Of course the homeless person looked like they 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 means to stay alive.
We may not have spoken much, but all the homeless in certain areas 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 for each other. I remember one homeless man was being brutally beaten by some punk kid, and many of us went to his rescue. We beat the punk for a few minutes to get our point across – don’t fuck with any of us – you’ll have to answer to all of us. Who in their right mind would attack another human being just for crossing the road to ask for some change?
Oh yeah, 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 once read the following in some journal years after my experience on the streets: “ . . . 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! Homeless can create networks – we can create a functioning society! Wait – we could… I’m not there anymore, am I? The homeless have great resilience. The only thing I would like to see added to the quote is that homelessness also 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 attempting to leave what had become a very comfortable way of life. Despite all my ‘on-the-street-training’, one day I risked it all – I did the unthinkable – I asked for help to leave a community that had accepted me openly and fully. In the two years I had now been on the streets, I had seldom looked forward to a time I would again be a functioning member of the “man’s” society.
On that fateful day, I was on one of my walking trips through Hollywood and found yet another welfare office. As I walked by, I noticed a man in the window. He looked old and hunched over, slightly grey at the temples, and had long hair drawn into a pony tail. His clothes were obviously worn and he looked sort of sad. I saw a tear stream down his cheek and felt the warmth and stinging of the salt on my own cheek. At once I realized, that man in the mirrored-window was me.
I lingered in that same spot outside the door for a while, I’m not sure for how long exactly, at that point in my homelessness I had nothing to lose. Something inside me moved and I found myself inside the office filling out some paperwork. I waited for a couple of hours until my name was called. My heart raced with hopeful anticipation, but my head was already thinking about how long it would take me to walk back to the safety of my nest.
A young man not much older than me was my interviewer. He called me into his office and invited me to sit down. It had been a very long time since I had been treated with such dignity. I looked at him sideways expecting to be thrown away yet again, but there was something different about him. I felt on my cheek that same salty sting as earlier and suddenly the past two years poured out of me in what seemed like a 10-minute run-on sentence. Tears flowed and once or twice, when I got up the courage to look up, I could see that he had been crying too. I’m not sure how, but I got my story out. I felt like I need to throw up and just as suddenly as the story flowed, the fears came flooding back when he excused himself to go and talk to his supervisor. Ten minutes passed – it felt like an eternity.
When he returned, he was visibly upset, and his eyes were still red. I could see a sadness in his face as if he had bad news, but he didn’t return alone. I froze in terror thinking I was going to be the next victim of a brutal and deadly beating at the hands of the “man”. The signs were all there. There was no way out now as they blocked the only means of escape. One of the most basic rules of living on the streets is that whenever there are two or more of the ‘man’ and only one of the homeless, it usually meant bad things for the homeless person – what the hell was I thinking walking into that office?
As the young man began to speak, I cringed half expecting the worse, 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. I just sat there staring blankly at the wall. I heard the words, but the just didn’t seem to register. They weren’t going to beat me. This wasn’t what was supposed to happen. He continued by telling me I qualified for the new program. My vision blurred.
All that time waiting for him to return to the office, I KNEW I was either going to die or be kicked out and severely beaten. Instead, I heard words I hadn’t heard in years – that someone cared about me. Out of nowhere I asked him, “How old am I?” I remember the horror in his eye when I asked that question. His answer struck deep – I had been homeless for two full years and a few months. I was 20 years-old and just barely qualified for the newly developed program.
.:Part IX – Reflections:.
Many years have now come and gone since those days of living on the streets, but the memories are still as fresh in my mind as the days they were formed. It still pains me still to look back and remember those days and nights when I would long for a warm bed in which to sleep or for the comfort of a warm shower. It is especially hard for me to remember how people treated me just because I was so dirty – because I was homeless.
It deeply pained me whenever someone looked at me with those telltale eyes – you know, the ones that said, “You are beneath me.” Because of those eyes, I did everything in my power to not look like the stereotypical homeless man, but in so doing I became what I hated and feared most – a hypocrite willing to give up his own people for a chance at salvation.
I sometimes 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? It is very simply this: 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 from dumpster to dumpster, nest to nest; fearing for your life in a daily battle of survival. Try to visualize what life for that homeless man, woman, or child is like. Try to put yourself in a box next to that person to experience the fullness of homelessness.
Maybe your box isn’t cardboard. Maybe it is a box created from social norms from which you fear reprisal should you step outside and voice your own opinions. Maybe your box is the rigid social inequalities you hurl at others while claiming to follow teachings of compassion and love. Maybe the box is something you created in your life – your own stubbornness and rigidity on maintaining a certain social standing while putting others around you down for their aberrant ways.
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, at the very least, humane to your neighbors 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 and no one to help them.
But then maybe they will find a home in their box. Maybe they will become so used to their way of living they just can’t find a way out – they may not even want to find a way out.
When you hear someone say to you, “it could be worse,” they aren’t kidding. It really could be worse.
Today, this moment, count your blessings and give thanks for all you have, then, look towards those who have nothing and help in whatever way you can! Maybe you will have the chance, like I did, to see life through another set of lenses and to find peace in living in the company of people who put no price on true Christian living.
Go find your box and rip it apart.
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.