Updated: Jul 16
The New York Times recently spoke to 30 homeless and formerly homeless people. This is one man's story:
“I had been going along my merry way as a regular user of meth while leading a life as an adjunct professor of anthropology. I had made some foolish decisions with my money while using. And I got to an impossible place where I could not pay my rent and was forced to couch-surf with friends. I bounced around on a lot of couches.
I got back in stable housing but didn’t stop using meth. And problems got worse again, as they do when one uses drugs. I next became homeless in July of ’09. I was evicted. I wound up moving in with my drug dealer for two months until I came to again. I stabilized, cleaned up some. You know, the cycle repeats. I once again found myself homeless.
I found a friend to take me in, but when she found out I was using, I was out on my ear again. When I was living in my landscaping truck, this one church set up their parking lot for car camping. There was a communal bathroom and a communal kitchen, and it felt safe. We have to meet people where they’re at — and sometimes where they’re at is in a car. The last time I was homeless, I was living in a broken down van, and I used to have to push it from parking space to parking space every day because the neighbors would complain.
Hospital restrooms were a favorite of mine. At the time, it was really easy to walk into a hospital and act with authority, like I was visiting a patient or had an appointment. Also, hospitals are open 24 hours and have single-stall restrooms with locking doors. I’d take my shirt off, use paper towels and the soap from the dispenser, wipe under my armpits, wipe down around my crotch, douse my head in the sink. I still think about restrooms a lot: where they’re located; if I have access to them; if they have toilet paper; if they’re private.
I ate using food stamps and food banks. And if I wanted a luxury item, like wine: shoplifting. I would go to a Walmart or Fred Meyer, grab whatever food or alcohol I wanted and walk with it in my shopping cart to a less visited part of the store, like where they keep the sheets and towels. I’d hide behind a display, crouching down, as if I was looking at something, and sneak it into my bag.
I bathed in Keller Fountain before I’d go to church. I realized as I was sitting in church that people could smell that fountain water on me, that rank chlorinated odor like fishy garbage. I was never more embarrassed in my entire life, because we had to do the hug of peace. I definitely did not want people to think that I was homeless. It was important for me to maintain the appearance that I was not living on the street.
At parks I could just blend in and relax: There wasn’t anything that had to be bought, there wasn’t any task that had to be done. I always felt embarrassed if I was hanging out in a spot where I had to buy something, and daily living was so involved — just taking a bath was so involved. I could go to a park with a library book and just hang out for hours.
All through my bouts of homelessness, I held onto oil paints from art school in a red fishing tackle box. They were a connection to my life. And I felt that if I lost these things, I would be absolutely unmoored. I finally got rid of the red paint box a couple of months ago, but I still have some of the paint. I have the two license plates from the F10 truck and the van that I lived in. Those hang on my wall to remind me of where I was and where I don’t want to go back to.
I was unable to pay my rent. I was so high, I was unable to go renew food stamps or ask for help with rental assistance. I had spent my last $40 trying to get meth, and didn’t wind up getting any. I knew in my bones that I would become homeless again. And I just couldn’t do it. I was finally willing to do whatever was asked of me to not do drugs.
I am almost seven years away from that period in my life. I’m sober, I’m relatively sane — whatever that means. I’m able to hold down a good job. I’m able to just be a human among humans.”