You Know Someone Who Was HomelessPublished December 06, 2021
Many people have a complex relationship with homelessness - a mix of sympathy and disgust that I see almost every day. The attitude I see most often is, “sure, homeless people have to live somewhere, but why are they on my train/block/walk?” I often think we don’t realize, day to day, how close we are to the homeless adults and children we might see on the street. We also might not realize that we actually know people (whether partners, close friends, coworkers, or acquaintances) who have been homeless. For you, maybe I am that person, because for around four years when I was a teenager, I was homeless.
It began with things that, as a kid, I didn’t know were signs of financial instability that would lead up to homelessness. We started going on fewer vacations, then our power was shut off, and then we started to use food pantries. Soon enough we got a horrifying knock on our door — a sheriff coming to leave a brightly-colored eviction notice taped up for all to see.
What was it like being homeless? In short: terrifying, restless, and (as I realized after lots of therapy) deeply traumatizing. I remember living in shelters for a few months, sometimes sleeping on a cot when there weren’t open beds available. We kept our clothes in transparent plastic garbage bags, both so we could move them around and to avoid bed bugs. I remember a day when a classmate asked our entire class a mortifying question - “who smells like piss?” I knew with absolute certainty that they were talking about me, because when we were at our lowest with homelessness we didn’t have a chance to shower or the money to do our laundry. I remember walking around Chicago at two in the morning on a school night, looking for a place where we could sleep overnight, sometimes settling on a hospital waiting room or police station where we could stay until morning. I remember not seeing a doctor or a dentist for years, which had consequences far into my adulthood. I also remember being separated from my Mom for several weeks, living with my brother in two youth shelters and a foster home, and having the excruciating thought that living a stable, safe life with a kind foster family was better than being homeless with our own Mom. No matter what I accomplish or how much time elapses, I remember all of these events and far more.
Despite all of that, I still remember most of the people I met while homeless quite fondly. Many of the people I met in shelters were as smart as could be, their intellect honed and sharpened by having to make tough choices far too often. Most of the time the stories of those living in shelters with us, for instance, didn’t feature some extraordinarily horrible event, but utterly ordinary tragedies: a woman and her teenage son leaving an abusive husband, a family on the edge whose breadwinner suddenly lost work, and more. I also met many kind and overworked volunteers and staff members, sometimes even fellow high schoolers who were serving my family a hot meal.
I have lived most of my life keeping this a complete secret. Until quite recently, even my very closest friends (some who met me at school while I was homeless) didn’t know. I have dated people for years who I never told about this part of my life. But secrets, especially ones this deep, have a high cost - although it seems simpler at first to never tell anyone your past, the reality is that it is incredibly difficult and isolating. When someone asks me, “where did you grow up?”, I have to lie to avoid explaining that I’ve lived across the city, moving from shelter to shelter. When someone asks me, “what do your parents do for work?”, I lie to avoid explaining that I support one and don’t even know the other. I even remember, in high school, lying because I could never tell someone where I was living, much less that I was homeless or squatting in a vacant apartment.
I had hoped that, after high school, when I lived by myself in a place I was paying for, I would be able to move on from that part of my life. However, as I remember U.S. Representative Cori Bush saying in an interview, homelessness always stays with you. The fear that you’ll be back in that place again, not sure night to night where you are going to sleep, and for how long you can close your eyes; not knowing where you are going to shower or do laundry; and not knowing when you might have a hot meal. If you’re like me, you might respond to that trauma by trying to keep as few belongings as possible, because you’re terrified you’ll suddenly have to uproot your life and put it all into a suitcase or backpack. Maybe you’re the opposite, and you respond to the trauma of losing every single belonging that you cherish by keeping everything you ever get, no matter what it may be. I think the trauma of such an extreme event truly never leaves you.
When you’ve never been homeless, I know it is far too easy and convenient to pretend that the people you see on the street are far from you, worse off than you ever could be, and that what is happening to them could never happen to you. You might even mentally justify their situation, thinking that something they did is the reason they are homeless. I am asking you to not give in to that simple and completely wrong way of thinking. Homelessness is far closer to us than the incredible wealth of celebrities that we might aspire to - uncomfortably close. Most Americans surveyed say they could not cover an emergency expense of just $500. What do you do if you get a large surprise medical bill in the thousands? What do you do if that is combined with a sudden loss of income? It truly only takes a few unlucky events for an ordinary American to cascade into being no longer able to afford a place to live and becoming homeless, just like my family was.
So why am I telling you this - whether you are a stranger, an acquaintance, or a friend? Because by hiding poverty, by hiding homelessness, we make it feel more shameful and rare than it truly is. By not talking about poverty and homelessness, by not considering how close many of us are to it at any moment, we don’t have to think hard about the policies that impact those going through it. It becomes easy to criminalize the homeless, to toss out their belongings, kick them out of encampments, and cut social services when we fail to see that the only difference between us and those who are homeless may well be a few bad days.
I am also telling you because I am tired of hiding, tired of being ashamed, and tired of lying to people, pretending that I have had a life that was pleasant and care-free. I am not the way I am because of a life free of burdens - I am the way I am, trying to live every day with gratitude and humility, because of what I have lived through. I worry about and fear returning to the situation I was in before, and I never want anyone to go through what I did. I donate to charities like the Chicago Food Depository not just because I believe in their mission, but because they personally kept me and my family fed. I also vote for candidates and support policies that do the same. After what I have been through, I can assure you that I would happily pay more in taxes to ensure nobody has to experience what I have. I know that choice is worth it.
I encourage folks to read stories from other homeless folks and to learn more about policies like Housing First. A good start might be Cori Bush’s writing on homelessness, as I think she writes about it far more eloquently than I ever could.
Finally, I want to thank my incredible friends, therapists, and most of all my brother, who have all been so supportive and encouraging in the process of putting my story out into the world.