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Jody's guide to homelessness

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 months 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 now 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.

address: address: Fort Wayne Public Library, Indiana

great story, Jody !! 29.Jul.2002 11:56

jds

this story is indeed "a good journalistic topic on Indymedia". keep posting !!

this would make a good weblog, too... 29.Jul.2002 12:48

lex da_roosta@hotmail.com

I think your writings would make an excellent web journal. It would be interesting to read and follow your experiences and such. You should start a free weblog at  http://www.diaryland.com/!

thanks 29.Jul.2002 14:43

Rob

Wow, that was a really informative article!! I live in Canada but I think the situation is the same or better here. Thanks to a generous roommate, I've recently had various street kids staying at my apartment for periods between a week to a month. I have to say it was pretty stressful since I didn't know any of them before they started living in my home, but I feel like I understand their situation better now. We never worried about them stealing, and when they left, they left their VCR, movies, colours, clothes, and two mice behind... should I consider this rent? :)

Amazing Piece of Honesty 29.Jul.2002 16:07

--

Enjoyable, informative, candid, thought-provoking. I laughed. I cried. Seriously though, excellent piece of writing Jody!!

Thank You 29.Jul.2002 16:39

foamytheclown

Thank you for writing this piece. First, it dispels any notion that the homeless are illiterate or plain stupid. Your diary is reflective and thoughtful...far more revealing than any high-minded garbage from a newsweekly.

In particular, your honest comments about pride were most interesting. Isn't it stunning that in an era when you can work 50 hours a week and still be homeless that people still could be so smarmy?

Question...what is the best way to help? I mean, I drop some cash off to folks I see downtown and I always buy copies of Street Roots. I volunteer when I can..but really...what helps (aside from dismantling the economic forces that perpetuate this system)?

Keep 'em coming.

Foamy

I Am Intrigued 29.Jul.2002 18:49

Interested

Hello Jodi, I do not mean to pry, but how did you end up as a homeless person. I realize that this is quite a personal question. Please forgive me if I am going to far with this question, I am just curious.

Almost there 29.Jul.2002 19:47

almost there too

I really identify with your story-I am always one step away from the street myself.Even though I have a job,I am self employed and can never seem to get ahead enough to move into a decent place.I'm always working just to exist and I feel that if you can live on the street and somehow enjoy your time,maybe that is better than just never getting anywhere and feeling like you're working to get nowhere. I used to be unemployed and although it was always a stress,at least I used to be able to spend alot of time in the library reading and really enjoyed that.I also used to just ride my bike around in the woods alot and i never felt like I had to be anywhere at a certain time.It's hard to say what is worse,slaving at a job getting nowhere,or being on the street.I am willing to work for my existence,but I'd like to be thriving,not just barely surviving.

To Interested ... 30.Jul.2002 09:43

Jody Paulson

I think there are basically 3 reasons why people become homeless:

1) Mental illness/alcohol or drug abuse
2) A severe psychological blow
3) They were already poor and have suffered a series of setbacks (injury, legal difficulties, etc.)

I mainly belong to category 2, but I have a little of 3 in there as well. For legal reasons, I won't discuss what that blow was, but it has taken me months to recover from it. Fortunately, I'm of sound mind and body, and I will recover, eventually, provided the political situation improves. I have not been a good Nazi as far as the current junta is concerned.

home.0 30.Jul.2002 13:56

dizazt0r blank1t pointoinfinity@yahoo.com

'what is the best way to help? I mean, I drop some cash off to folks I see downtown and I always buy copies of Street Roots. I volunteer when I can..but really...what helps ?'

--volunteering w/ any church (you don't have to be "religious" either, just do what Jesus would do) organization that does this; you'll run into them if you get some of the wonderful info listings provided by Transitional Projects Inc (TPI) located at 475 SW Glisan Street (@ 5th ave). this is a repository for info concerning low-income/homeless/emergency assistance.

There are many organizations that could use donations and volunteer help. Since the government only wants to make bombs and not feed the children of this country, efforts like "Food Not Bombs" are great to give your aid to.

Another thing that helps is to treat the homeless/poor like they/we aren't vile and disgusting beasts, but like we're friends and family (fellow human beings) who have "fallen on hard times" and need some sympathy and just emotional support. You can give away cigarettes and money, but they only go so far. Giving away glad smiles (though sometimes the homeless don't smile back—like me sometimes) and trying not to just gawk or stare (or do so looking condescending) really helps too. People are pretty good about that in the Pac NW. I guess seeing people lined up sleeping under overpasses and bridges and in the park and on sidewalks helps to 'de-sensitize' people.

'I am willing to work for my existence,but I'd like to be thriving,not just barely surviving'

To 'almost there too'—I've worked my whole working life, from 13 to now (27). I've worked 2 jobs at times, and I've always worked 40-hour weeks until my last job when I just couldn't take dealing w/ co-workers. I was very depressed and so I said I can't take it and stopped working. I work here and there now and I don't stress myself out as much. I love to just wander around and think and look at the pretty clouds. Life is so simple, why die living it? The death I'm implying is a 'spiritual' one.

I chose to let my mind-soul thrive, not my wallet. ("I open up my wallet, and it's full of blood.").

You can do it ATT, you just might have to 'ease your mind' and we can all help each other do it by caring sincerely about each other, not using each other (I'm talking to you johns, dope dealers, politicians... ). I love living in ideal worlds, even if they are only in my head... but at least I can see it. I can dream it.

(also, check out  http://www.streetroots.org/ , Portland's rag for the low to no income people..people like me. very inspirational--like the PSU paper "Rearguard")

I love IndyMedia!!! 31.Jul.2002 18:38

Jubin JubinRahatzad@hotmail.com

Jody your article is a great example of why Indymedia works, and how awesome it is!!!!! I don't have much to say, except that I loved your article, but you've already heard that a million times.

Christianity 31.Jul.2002 19:28

Intrigued

Jesus said do not worry about what you will eat or drink or put on for clothing. Look at the birds of the air they niether reap nor sow and God still provides for them. How much more do you think that your Father in heaven will provide for you?

Christianity is about giving your life to Jesus and serving the poor and homeless and ministering to people about Jesus, his mercy and his love for all people. It has nothing to do with fighting wars and destroying despotic leaders. Jesus was not an emperor nor was he a politician. He chose to spend his time with people on the lowest ends of society. He identified himself with those people.

This piece that Jody writes reminds me of how monks in Egypt lived. They lived in the desert not worrying about food nor clothing and relying on God to provide them with what they needed. They were in constant prayer and fasting.
This is a very difficult life to live and there is no wonder why so few Christians do this.

I hope that all Christians can aspire to be like Jesus (not like Mike) and I hope that I can also give my life to Jesus as well.



A note on shleter space in Portland. 31.Jul.2002 23:00

Jamie jamie@sistersoftheroadcafe.org

Good article. It's great to see how many people responded to it. However . . .

Jody, writes '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.'

I would just like to point out that your results with this may vary. In Portland there is a waiting list to get into the TPI shelter, the same is often true for the missions, and Salvation Army actually charges something like $7 a night. Rumor has it that they are going up to $10. Do the math folks thats $300 a month. JOIN did a head count a while back and esitmated that there were at least 1600 people sleeping out side on the night of their count. We have, if memory serves me right, around 800 shelter beds in this city, so that is at least twice as many people sleeping outside as in shelters.

But if you are sleeping outside, you are breaking the law. Portland's anti-camping ordinance allows for campers to be given a $100 dollar fine for sleeping outside.


Different places... 01.Aug.2002 20:59

jypd jypd@imsa.edu

One thing I have found "interesting" is how homeless people seem different from region to region. For example, I lived in Albuquerque, Denver, Chicago, and Corvallis, and I have also visited Seattle. In Corvallis, various homeless people hang out and are treated as regulars by both the store owners, and the customers themselves, often spending hours chatting with people. Yet, in Seattle, it seems like I am the one that is not a human being and more of a mark. I usually give three to five bucks to people who ask me for money, but up in Seattle, a number of different people would keep asking me for more to the point where they'd follow me for blocks. In Denver, it seems most of the people just lie down outside store windows and pretty much act dead, yet in Albuquerque, they walk up and down the street singing songs and playing guitar.

Maybe this is a bit stereotypical, but it does make me wonder what kind of devices in a community or culture can cause differing views not only of the homeless, but on how the homeless view the community.

sisters of the road i love you! 02.Aug.2002 09:08

in love

i just want to give sisters of the road praise for their incredible service in the community. hows about somebody do a feature on them - nudge, nudge, wink, wink...