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economic justice | homelessness

Once You’ve Been Homeless, You Can Never Go Back

Not a day passes, that I do not thank the gods for my housing. I have been homeless so many times this lifetime, that I do not take housing for granted, *at all.* When you realize homelessness can happen to you, it looks very different than some impersonal street scene. Because homelessness will forever be a wolf howling at my door, I am always too close to being a homeless woman, which is why I cry, most probably. I cry for me, in them. And them, in me.
Once You've Been Homeless, You Can Never Go Back
By Kirsten Anderberg (www.kirstenanderberg.com)
August 2006

I was riding the bus today, lost in thought, when the bus pulled up to a stop and I looked out the window I was leaning against to see several women, with their baggage and small children, sitting on the pavement in a parking lot, looking weary and forlorn. I was immediately overcome with a familiarity; it reminded me horribly of my mom and me, when I was a child. I immediately realized this was a pick up spot for homeless shelters. As my bus rolled on, I saw the next block was lined with women, young and old, carrying their bags, hovering around, looking agitated, anxious, hot, worn out, and desperate, waiting outside the YWCA in downtown Seattle, to see if they will have shelter tonight (as local shelters cannot accommodate all of the women who need shelter nightly). By the time we had rolled past that block, I was in tears. I looked around me on the bus. It seemed no one even noticed what was outside our windows for the full length of the previous block.

"Once you have been homeless, you can never go back," I scribbled on a piece of scrap paper in my backpack. It occurred to me that perhaps many of the people on the bus around me did not understand what was going on out there on the street around the YWCA. It occurred to me that many, if not most, of those on the bus around me, had never been homeless and thus would not recognize that snippet of street reality that just was in our windows, for the painful scene of suffering it was. The way that scene got my attention was something outside the window triggered a very strong feeling in me, a bad feeling, a feeling of discomfort and anxiety, yet a familiar feeling, and I looked out. What I saw was me as a child, and my mom, fretting in worry, as we waited to figure out where we would sleep that night. I remember that *feeling* so much that I am still shaken hours later after feeling it again.

Outside the YWCA this evening, there were many women pacing around outside. And in the brief moments I looked at them through my bus window, I could remember the feeling of homelessness so vividly. And it is not a feeling I remember with *any* romance or sentimentality. I look at the periods I was homeless as *pure survival* and am glad I survived them. I do not look at them as adventurous times, at all. They are not fun memories, but scary, sad memories. Tonight I saw those mothers sitting out there, waiting, with those looks of surrender, those looks my mom had, like she had just given up...but I saw that look on the younger women out front of the YWCA too. Homelessness is incredibly hard work. It is a slippery slope. If you do not get out of homelessness quick enough, it becomes like quicksand, on several levels. Not only does it get hard to find somewhere to live and work without housing and clean clothing, etc., but there is this thing where you lose the will to try after a while and once that threshold is reached, all can just implode irreversibly. I feel my mom went over that threshold, and I have hovered at it, but thank god, never gone over it. I always got out of homelessness just before I gave up, is how I look at it. And when I see homeless women, frustrated, hot, weighed down with their bags, I think, "there, but by the grace of god, go I."

People's reactions to poverty and homelessness can often be linked to the way they were raised. My dad was raised in a large single parent family in poverty during the Depression. My mom, in contrast, was raised in relative class privilege until her mid-30's when she went on welfare after the divorce. My dad was always embarrassed of his poverty and hated his mother for allowing them to be poor, basically. So his way of dealing with that, was to go into the Navy, get on the G.I.Bill, and to become an engineer. He then worked on making money and made sure to *look away* whenever poverty was anywhere near. He taught me not to look at poverty and to even shun it as well. But then my mom and I became poor, due to him not paying his child support and alimony and my mom being a single mom. My mom had taught me to be friends with poor kids, and also taught me that there was nothing wrong or "lesser" in poverty, as she had never been poor, and it really had nothing to do with her directly. Unlike my dad, who made every effort to LOOK AWAY from the poor and homeless people, my mom looked and spoke about the class oppression for what it was and condemned the powers that created poverty, such as racism, sexism, etc. *before* she was poor. I think that probably helped save her some sanity later when she became the poor.

My first homeless experience was with my mom when I was about 7. After that, I went through a series of institutional and foster care situations, then I went back to my mom. We were then thrown out of two different residences when we first moved to Seattle, when I was about 9 years old. It was scary being thrown out. I remember one time, we came home, and our bags and belongings were on the lawn and we were told to leave. And we had no car. And no money. And my mom freaked out, broke down, it scared the hell out of me. And when I saw those women tonight in that parking lot, I *felt* that feeling my mom used to sweat out her pores. I could smell it through the bus' thick windowpane. That sorrow is a smell I can smell from far away.

There are many religious axioms that have stories of people who were ignorant of suffering on earth, but then they see it, smell it, touch it, and they cannot go back. They are not the same. And once this is seen, one's duties on earth and to each other change. If one did not help others when one did not know there was suffering, that is one thing. If one refuses to help others, when he does know about the suffering, and he could help alleviate it, then that is considered sinful. And due to my knowledge that women are on their last legs, lining up at shelters, in my town, every night, makes me horribly uncomfortable. The others on the bus tonight had no feelings about it at all, it seemed. But me, it still is haunting me. I have just barely achieved sustainable housing in the last two years myself, and I would lose my housing if I brought a river of homeless folks into my apt, yet, the survivor guilt is very haunting and frankly, I am not sure what to do with it either.

It is true that once you have been homeless, you can never go back. I saw those women today in the parking lot as homeless mothers, when maybe the others on the bus just thought a bunch of women were hanging around together in a parking lot. But it was the grief on their faces that I recognized. And if you do not recognize that grief, having never been near it, then you have a sort of innocence, almost an excusable ignorance.

Not a day passes, that I do not thank the gods for my housing. I am serious. I have been homeless so many times this lifetime, that I do not take housing for granted, *at all.* As a matter of fact, that is why you can never go back. I never had fears of homelessness until I had *been* homeless. Until it happens to you, you do not really understand what being homeless entails and you do not think it has to do with you. When you realize it can happen to you, it looks very different than just some street scene you can roll by. I still have a haunting feeling about those women I saw tonight, and I can still feel my tears welling up as I even think about the front of the YWCA tonight. Because homelessness will forever be a wolf howling at my door, and I am always too close to being those women, which is why I cry, most probably. I cry for me, in them. And them, in me. I just think a world this full of riches, especially in a country claiming to be the last remaining Superpower, can only be shamed for lines of homeless women on modern streets praying for a night's housing in desperation. And my survivor guilt is something I wrestle with every night, as I sleep in my bed, in my housing, that I know so many do not have.

homepage: homepage: http://www.kirstenanderberg.com

Thanks 30.Aug.2006 13:12


Thank you for taking the time to react and reach out with your story. I think that your observation on the lack of understanding that your fellow bus riders showed was spot on. Empathy is often tied in with what we ourselves have experienced firsthand. I am sure that my response would have been the same as everyone else, due to underexposure and so I am grateful for reading your story.

This is a good article, thanks. 30.Aug.2006 13:16

a woman struggling

Kirsten, this article has touched me. It helps to remind me how lucky I am. I have been houseless many times, but never truly homeless as I have always had the benefit of friends and comrades who would take me in and give me shelter. As I am houseless yet again and struggling to find work in the city, not being able to work enough hours to live in the city because of the bus schedule, but being dependent on the bus because I can't live in the city... my poverty can get me down sometimes. I am thankful to be reminded that there are people less fortunate than me, and that my commitment to finding employment in the nonprofit sector, helping people, even though the pay is shitty, is worthwhile. Thanks.

I am reposting this comment 30.Aug.2006 14:35

from the other article,

but it still applies. I have no idea why we don't make homelessness our top priority--I'm sure we can all agree that if YOU, (ME, WE) were homeless, then getting out of homelessness would be our number one priority--so it only makes sense that society should take up its end of it, the part that is beyond the control of the homeless person.
And it really makes me sick that so many men are homeless because of something they did, and so many women and children are homeless because of something that men did to them----and yet men are allowed to make their children and their children's mothers homeless, just like in the "barbaric" days when rape was legal. Anyway, here is my post:
Homelessness is terrifying, especially to women with children, and if that's not bad enough, the sick social service system is a sick pill to swallow for anyone who has hit rock bottom in their lives. I swear that more people suffer under homelessness (poverty) and the fear of homelessness than any other kind of ill or evil. When you consider how many people are affected by this, and how it disempowers the whole country, I think poverty is the nation's number one problem.
This is why I think it's highly relevant to advocate for mother's rights, because amongst the impoverished, children are the majority, and motherhood alone is the number one risk factor to being impoverished. And on top of that, if mothers had their way, we would never get into this, and other, messes.
So, if mothers are respected, then children and society will be well, and mothers will see to it that we never run into these problems. As far as I am concerned, allowing mothers to be mothers is the perfect panacea solution to all social (and therefore planetary )ills: it covers immediate problems, and it covers long range problems as well. Like a pope once said, an ounce of mother is worth a ton of priest.
(And, one of the major obstacles to mothers being respected is other women believing that success, self esteem, and freedom for women is based on accomplishments outside of the home. That thinking has landed us nowhere, and because mothers can't be Donald Trumps, etc., it never will. OUR ONLY CHOICE IS TO RESTRUCTURE!!!)

making it real 30.Aug.2006 19:15


you are blessed with a functional conscience and your feelings are real..i view your sharing of this situation a healing act. As for the tears, perhaps some day you may find a few for those that are unable to see the suffering and hopelessness outside their window. Peace and strength. jb

Talk ain't cheap when your life is on the line 31.Aug.2006 02:21

Ben Waiting

Explaining the harsh realities is not easy but very Important and much needed in our media today
Living those real memories and feeling the pain as you drove by and passing the feelings along - I hear ya!
I wish I could help take that kind of pain away, from my fellow brothers & sisters
By exposing what many want to shuffle or look the other way .... we can begin to make changes
There is no reason for this to be going on as you mentioned


Thanks for writing this article 04.Sep.2006 02:24


This is so true. Priorities seem to shift when you are reminded again of how things are for some. Sometimes it's your own situation, sometimes it's somebody else's.

What do you do about it?

Any information about people who have done something constructive (including writing this article!) is gratefully appreciated.