I USED to wonder what it would be like to be homeless, needing to survive ``on the street.'' Then one day I was in that situation - without a home. I experienced firsthand the homeless ``life style.'' I now feel the deepest empathy for anyone in such a miserable situation.
Although my period of homelessness was relatively short, I continue to see a part of myself mirrored in each homeless person I see. I've come to conclude that most programs (private and governmental) designed to help the homeless cannot succeed (i.e., eliminate homelessness), because they fail to cognize, let alone directly address, the root causes of the problem.
How did homelessness happen to me?
I became homeless in the aftermath of a divorce. It was difficult at that time for me to stay focused on clear decision-making. Due to the complex situation surrounding the break-up of the marriage - mortgage arrears, unresolved aspects about the ownership of the home, and bad decisions - I found myself homeless within months of moving out.
Even though I owed money to the bank holding the mortgage, I found I was unable to support myself. At times I found that I just couldn't work. I was self-employed - writing, teaching, publishing, lecturing. Those jobs I did work at seemed increasingly futile. Not knowing how I'd pay the bills, I saw myself lose my house. As if from afar I watched myself go through a living nightmare. Of course, I'm simplifying a miserable, deeply chaotic period of time.
My first ``home'' when I was homeless was the unused cellar of a residential home in my neighborhood. The cellar was empty, convenient, and incon-spicuously located. I'd seen the open door to it when I visited a friend who lived nearby. The house was on a two-level lot. The owner lived and kept his car on the upper level. During the weekends he would sometimes garden in the front yard on the lower level. And so I generally stayed away on weekends.
While living in the cellar, I had to be very quiet. I usually came ``home'' around 11 p.m. when the owner was asleep. To this day I don't believe he knew I resided in his cellar - with my few bags of clothes, my full backpack, and my hammock. ALTHOUGH at this time I had no full-time job, I did manage to maintain a few part-time jobs. I struggled to do them. To make myself appear ``civilized,'' I took a long time to clean up. I had no bathroom, but there was a hose just outside the cellar door. I bathed with the hose when no one was around, and I vigorously scrubbed myself clean with my boar-bristle brush. My ``toilet'' was a hole I dug with my small shovel; occasionally I'd use public facilities.
In the evenings, I'd frequently stay late at inexpensive caf'es. Then, having no electricity for TV or light, I'd sneak back into my dark ``cave'' (as I called it) and quietly crawl into my hammock.
I was never really ``on the street'' like so many of today's homeless. I did have a roof over my head, even if that roof was the floor of an unsuspecting homeowner's living room. But I still experienced the starkness of no stable home. I stared into the vacuum of all that I took for granted: stability, cleanliness, order, warmth, availability of toilet, bath, hot water, telephone, etc.
During this period I was forced to call on my latent talents. On one hand, I could detachedly view it all as a positive ``freedom''-promoting experience - which it was. On the other hand, I realized how limiting such a lifestyle was. No one could easily contact me, and thus dollar-earning possibilities and social activities were nearly nonexistent. Projects of any sort were nearly impossible to implement without some sort of solid home base. So although I was ``free'' of most home and social responsibilities and the need to ``perform'' for a boss, that ``freedom'' was wanting. The large number of ``freedom-froms'' that I experienced radically limited my number of ``freedom-tos.''
I constantly attempted to improve my situation by finding ingenious new ways to wash my clothes, to go to the bathroom, to carry my gear less conspicuously, to stay clean.
Eventually I was invited to live in the abandoned lower section of a local house. I was given permission by the caretaker and I paid a small rent and utilities. Although abandoned and unsightly, the lower section of the house was definitely several notches better than the cellar I'd been living in; for example, it had electricity.
Later, I rented a warehouse from a man I'd known for many years. He thought he was renting me an office and storage space, and I wrote into our contract that I could live there. Which I did. At the warehouse fear of ``discovery'' was no longer an issue.
For most of the previous eight years I had been more or less successfully self-employed. When I became homeless, it was more difficult to maintain any sort of meaningful employment. I did maintain a few part-time jobs. For example, I got a job with a Pasadena church, opening and closing up after services. I also worked as a part-time day camp counselor teaching wilderness survival skills. I'd see hundreds of children and dozens of adults each day. I didn't need to be ``neat and clean'' to do this and these people did not know where I went at night. My closest friends were extremely supportive. The places I lived - the abandoned cellar, the house, the warehouse - were all possible only because of these friends' support. I was by no means ``lonely'' or ``alone'' as a homeless person, but I was embarrassed and determined to get myself out of the situation. My co-workers did not know about it. During this time, there was never a moment when I was not filled with a driving desire to rise up out of homelessness. That constant drive - and help from loving friends - is what forced me to explore viable work possibilities and actively to ``find home.'' WHEN you have nothing, it is very easy just to go along, day by day, and convince yourself that ``things aren't really that bad.'' I knew that this attitude, although seductive, would be deadly. I knew that to allow myself to settle into ``homelessness'' and allow my ``drive'' to slow would mean a prolonged period of misery. I needed not to wallow in the experience, but to learn from it and move on. Thus I made the effort to elevate my thinking and stay active.
I frequently encountered the homeless when I worked at the Pasadena church. I was regularly approached and asked for one form of assistance or another - usually money. These people have very real needs, but I've learned that putting money into their palms will not attend to those needs.
I've often wondered: Is the homeless problem today symptomatic of a greater spiritual crisis, a spiritual void, that has occurred as a result of the largely media-created, me-centered world of consumerism? As I continue to encounter the homeless, I keep coming back to two ideas. One is that much of the solution to homelessness lies deep within the volition of each homeless individual. This is how the problem needs to be solved. The best help is to show someone how to help himself. Mindless giving - without an actual self-help program - is of no real help in the long run.
The second idea is that part of the solution to homelessness also rests within the hearts of those more fortunate individuals who are in a position to help.
My period of homelessness was relatively short. My ``recovery'' took ``only'' two years. In my process of recovery - my gaining of the ability once more to seek stable self-employment - each step was shaky. I never took anything for granted. The fear of being homeless again was hard to shake. Rising up from the bottom is VERY difficult.
This is where more fortunate individuals can help. We must begin to see that there is not a mass called ``the homeless.'' Instead, these are distinct individuals - our brothers - with distinct problems each requiring unique solutions.
In my interactions with the homeless, I continue to abide by the old Chinese axiom ``Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he eats for life.'' It takes both sides to make this work.