Some people say that little things don’t matter. Some people say life is made up of many little things; moments, pieces, atoms, candy. One thing I think most people can agree on is that self-respect and personal joy are KEY ingredients for success. Here’s a little story about a time that I saw that most vividly.
When I was couch-surfing for the second time (see: homeless with an ok network of kind people who hadn’t given up on me yet) I was feeling particularly depressed about my situation. The previous times that I had struggled financially, there was purpose and promise on the other side of a small hill. But this recent financial infliction had nothing but more long darkness at the end of the tunnel. There are a lot of unhealthy, cyclically dangerous side-effects of homelessness but I truly believe the mother-load is hopelessness. For the first time it was clear that I was not going to avoid sleeping in the street and/or a shelter. I had a job but it was very part-time and minimum wage. I was in the process of getting foodstamps until I lost all my identification. Then I found myself walking into the The Pine Street Inn.
I was scared, numb, shocked, confused, and yet somehow very observant. I had been in similar places as a volunteer. This was the first time that I was a member. You had to be searched and empty your purse, then give up your purse and put it in a closet of purses and coats and bags. I had no idea what was going on, they explained a little then told me to wait, which I did for upwards of 3 hours. I was sitting in a room filled with women in various states of decay. There were elderly women (bag ladies as some call them), young to middle-aged drug addicts, transgender women (possibly also addicts), seemingly normal women that end up having seriously debilitating mental illnesses, and then there was me (there was another sober and clear minded young-ish person there but for some reason she and I were too afraid to speak to each other.) I couldn’t look around and say, “that’s not me”. I saw myself everywhere. When anyone spoke to me I would engage until the conversation became odd or oddly hostile. 75% of the time it did. Some people paced back and forth. Others sat in the chairs or stood if they didn’t have a chair (as it got later this did happen). They were all waiting. This was limbo tea time to a lesser hell than cold concrete in the city. There actually wasn’t tea, but its good imagery.
There was, however, candy. One young lady, who was dressed quite cool and fashionable albeit accessorized with the scars of addiction on her arms and face, bounced around the room passing out little packages of candy. Halloween sales? 5 finger discount? However she got it–she quickly distributed it without a single thought of keeping it all for herself. This candy, laced in dangerous coloring and high-fructose corn syrup, was an oasis of joy in the dreariest days of my life. Even as she hopped about offering it up I was reminded of my favorite TV character of all time: Rayanne Graff; I felt a tiny wave of glee tickle the back of my neck and dance its way to my eyes and cheeks. My brain became just a hair active so when she came to me I said, “oh yes please!” as if it were diamond earrings. I saved one for later but popped the first jolly rancher quickly and looked around. The energy of the room changed in a very small but positive way. I also then began to notice some women who had makeup on even though they had a horrible wig or torn clothes. One woman (one of those seemingly sane ones) offered up an inquiry about her dress, “I just got this at the goodwill, isn’t it just nice? It’s getting cold but I feel so comfy and pretty in dresses.” I decided to doodle to pass the time. It was better than staring out in to the silence that remained stagnant among the heavy air of hopelessness and madness.
Dinner came long after the candy had my stomach, the joy had left my face, and I was left with useless gurgles. I noticed clean, smartly dressed people passing through and began to recognize the smell of cooked meat and coffee. My anticipation was to be abated however in a very unpleasant fashion. Dark coffee with no creamer, some sort of “chicken” surprise with bland gravy and even more bland stuffing, rice (with the bland gravy) and peas, a tiny cup of super sweet juice, and one day old/slightly stale piece of cake found its way in front of me. As I poked at it and forced myself to eat it and be grateful (dammit). A piano sat in the corner and I suddenly imagined all of the women dancing, singing, and clapping. Instead there was a dull hum of monotone conversation interrupted only by shouts from some of the more vocal and much more mentally ill guests. A random set of people sat at my table and told me about the lottery. Many of the women that night would not be sleeping in a bed. I would. Everyone is guaranteed a bed on their first day/night. That guarantee took me through the rest of the night. Previously I had been facing conflict with the last remaining people willing to house me. The reality that I had no solid place to stay in the near future tortured me through that time and I felt a dark depression working its way into my heart. That night I had a bed. I didn’t have to sleep on the floor. I was a real, civilized human being, still worthy of and possessing my civilized charms such as hope and integrity.
Autonomy and Identity are both powers that one can only truly understand when they have looked down that tunnel of homelessness, saw more nothing, had to throw away everything non-essential, and was completely at the mercy of the kindness of others (who often had their own agenda). Having a bed gave me something to own even if it was only for that night that was for me. It kept me from losing myself to the darkness. The bed allowed me the ability to keep my freedom of choice in a sea of beggars-can’t-be-chooser-sharks. In my life at least, I have gotten the impression that a lot of people don’t realize the difference between making some hard choices to survive and having to constantly give up your rights and freedom to choose in order to meet basic needs. It’s that difference that I believe allows us to establish who we are and govern ourselves.
Thankfully, by the unknown power that governs the universe and the completely coincidental actions of myself and people within my vicinity, I am now partially employed and home-full.
I’m not saying its only because of the candy and the bed that I had for one night (in a place that appeared similar to low security prison) but I believe these little moments gave me what I needed to keep going. They say what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. I disagree with that implication. In my experience, being homeless kills you a little bit more every day. What doesn’t kill you now, will make you weaker and eventually leave you too weak to fight back.
If you want to know some great ways to help homeless people who will also empower them I found this super awesome website: http://thehomelessguy.blogspot.com/2009/12/what-do-homeless-people-need_06.html
But I also want to add to the list: Give them an opportunity to make a choice.