A day in the life.
What is it actually like to be homeless? What is the daily routine of a person whose entire existence is at the mercy of the weather, the availability of shelter, and the hours of operation of a county recreation center? What does it feel like, not from a larger statistical, “Face of the homeless problem” level…but as a man? While others are posting funny “It’s Monday again” memes on Facebook, and lamenting the loss of another weekend, what is Monday like for a homeless man?
There is a routine to it. There is a pattern to the survival mode I lived in for six years. It wasn’t a vacation from reality, or a break from labor. Homelessness is work. There are things you have to do each day, just to survive. Because that is the first rule of being homeless: “Survive.” You have to find that perfect hiding spot, and when you do, you have to guard it with your life. That’s key. You need to be safely hidden at night when you try to steal a few hours of sleep. If you can’t be both safe and hidden, at least be hidden. If they can’t see you, they can’t roust you for vagrancy.
Hopefully, if you’re unseen, you’re also safe, but not necessarily. Just because the cops don’t see you, or the pastor, behind who’s church you hide your car each night, or the church members who happen to come back to the church late one night because they forgot something, just because none of them saw you, doesn’t mean someone else didn’t. Even the slightest sound is a cause for alarm. You just never know who else is out there like you are, in survival mode, looking for a place.
The second rule is “Get out of this somehow.” Because few people really want to be here. True, there are those who prefer this life. Folks with mental issues that force them to the shadows and the outskirts of society. I’ve met them. I used to work with the homeless ministry at the church I attended, (They felt it lent some authenticity to have an actual homeless man working with the homeless men they shipped in one night a week during the coldest months) and I met the guys who preferred homelessness. They eschewed the shelters and the Mission. They avoided the places where the other homeless would gather. They seldom panhandled. Most were veterans suffering from PTSD or other mental issues, coupled with chemical dependencies, losing a daily battle with the bottle. They had a meager monthly income from the V.A. and that was how they survived.
These men weren’t comfortable around others for long stretches of time. They stayed to themselves, carrying on conversations in their heads to keep themselves company. They were the loneliest of the lot. The others knew them by now and avoided them for the most part. They respected the fact that these men wanted to be alone and the code on the street is “Respect my space and respect my stuff.” You didn’t touch another man’s backpack and if he didn’t want to talk, you didn’t try to force him.
There were always troublemakers who would violate these rules. I saw this as well. Guys who poked fun at the quiet ones. Guys who would rob another man of his last cigarette, his last dollar, or his last clean pair of socks. They would steal because they wanted it, and they would steal because they needed to feel superior. Even homeless people need to feel like they have some sort of power and control remaining. Sometimes stealing another guys stuff was the only way they could show it. Alpha males exist even in a homeless shelter or under a bridge.
Sometimes these guys would show their strength by ridiculing those with deeper problems. They’d find the weak spot in a man’s armor and pick at it nonstop until the man broke. Often this was violent in nature. A homeless man with obvious mental illness being pushed to the brink by another homeless man is an explosive mix. You didn’t want to be near that when it happened.
For the others, though, the goal was to get out of this situation somehow. That was always my goal. I wanted this nightmare to end, and end as quickly as possible. So in addition to the routine of survival, there was the daily effort to find work, and end this.
I have to admit that as I wrote those two words just now it brought tears to my eyes. Until 2008 I have never had to find work. Work always found me. I was always working. I have been industrious, diligent, and hardworking since I was a little boy. I have the natural work ethic that the grandsons of immigrants seem to always have. At eleven I started a lawn mowing business in my neighborhood, to go along with my newspaper route. (At a time in America when an eleven-year-old boy could go out at five a.m. and deliver papers and be perfectly safe.) At fifteen I started working in a fast-food restaurant.
I graduated from high school and went immediately to work full-time.
I’d never been out of work in my life. Even in college I worked thirty to forty hours a week. I’d been self-employed since 1986. I started a carpentry business and did that until 1998 when I started in the mortgage business. The mortgage business is straight commission and there is no room for the lazy. I had to go find every loan I closed. So hard work and diligence were not foreign to my nature. And yet here I was…jobless.
My routine was tiring. It wore me down. It was hard. The day started at about 4:45 a.m. You have to get up long before the sun because darkness is your ally. You can’t be seen coming and going or you’ll lose the spot you worked so hard to find. You essentially spend your whole day trespassing, so when it’s time to try to sleep, you need to not worry about being discovered. So moving in and out requires darkness. This is hard in the summer months when the sun is up early and lingers until late in the night. When you’ve had four hours of fitful tossing and turning in the passenger seat of a car, you wake up tired and move toward total exhaustion by day’s end. Sometimes it was that exhaustion that made sleep even possible at all. I would collapse at night and the first two hours would be unbroken. But there was always a sound or a nightmare or, eventually, the discomfort of that folded-down car seat that woke me up. The rest of my short night would be spent in a series of naps until my cell-phone alarm woke me and it was time to move on. I rose early to avoid losing my hiding spot at the church, but it was something more than that. There was so much shame involved. I just didn’t want anyone seeing me living in my car.
A year later, a friend found out about my plight and offered me a spot to park on her little mini-farm in Franklin, just a few miles from the Church. Of course I took her up on it, but my habit remained. Even after I had a spot to park, and was welcome there, and was not at risk of being thrown out by the cops…I still rose before dawn. I was still embarrassed at sleeping in my car. I still didn’t want anyone to see me.
Thankfully I had the luxury of a gym membership. Williamson County Parks and Rec has wonderful facilities. They have four main locations and for $225 for a year, it was a steal. Thankfully I had a paid membership when my world collapsed. After that, renewal was cheaper and somehow I managed to scrape together the $150 it took each January to stay active. So I had a place to shower. I used the necessity of my going there to work out each day, doubtless the most consistent I’d been my life. I walked about five miles each morning and then lifted weights, showered, and went out to face the day. I accomplished all this by about 7:45 a.m.
The internet is crucial when you’re homeless and job-seeking. So I had to find free Wi-Fi connectivity. These days that’s easy. What’s not easy is finding restaurants where you can sit for hours and not spend any money while you used the free broadband.
It’s not their job to provide internet to the world and not get anything in return, and so I always felt guilty. My favorite spots were the Panera restaurants in Franklin. There were always other folks there working on their laptops or having meetings and so I didn’t feel out of place. I’d scrape together the two dollars it took to buy a large iced tea and then I’d rinse the cup out when I was finished and bring it back the next day for free refills without having to buy another one. It’s not the way the policy is designed, I know, but two dollars was a lot of money to me.
Sometimes, just eating was an exercise in creativity. There were days when I would literally be down to no more than the change in my pocket or what I could scrape together from the ashtray in my car. I would catch a sale on Ramen noodles at the Kroger. The trick was to buy one “Cup-of-Noodles” and then use the rest of the money for Ramen noodle packages. That way I had a cup to re-use to make the Ramen. I would feel so horribly guilty taking my cup of noodles the Panera. I’d hide it in my backpack and get a cup of hot water from the coffee bar. After making the noodles at my booth, I’d arrange my laptop, and later when I’d started college classes, my school books, on the table in such a way that (I hoped) nobody could see what I was eating. It was humiliating. I felt like a thief. Looking back, nobody likely even noticed or cared, but I felt like every set of eyes in the store was watching me and knew what I was up to…and what I was.
There were days when there simply was no money at all after buying gas. Days when the refills of iced tea had to get me through until the next day. Or the day after that. I learned the value of my Sam’s club membership then. When I was down to nothing, I would go to Sam’s and walk around hitting all the free sample displays. I had to take my time and not go to the same ones too frequently or the sales person might recognize me. Now I don’t know if they would ever have said “Hey…you’ve had enough!” but you just never know. I’d eat samples and walk around the store, looking at things I could never buy, remembering a better time when I’d be in this store every week, buying supplies for my office.
Back when I was a success. Back when I was someone. When I felt human.
There was one more source of food I’d rely on when things were at their worst. It was probably the most embarrassing of all, simply because of the people around me. The Kroger around the corner from the Panera in Cool Springs that I frequented, always set out cookies and coffee for their customers. They set them by the deli department. Some days, when I had no money and didn’t have the gas to drive over to Sam’s, I’d go to the Kroger. I felt too embarrassed to just walk in and head for the cookies, so I would pretend to shop for a few minutes, sometimes, to keep up the appearance, I’d even pick up a few canned goods. I’d walk around like a shopper, then head over and grab a couple of cookies. I’d walk around for a while longer and do it again. When I had four or five in my pocket, I’d return my canned goods to their shelves and head back to Panera. I always felt terrible taking cookies from the Kroger, mostly because this particular store was in a rather affluent area and the customers were always well dressed and well-heeled. I felt like an intruder into their neighborhood. No one ever said anything to me. I am sure nobody ever noticed me taking the free cookies. But I noticed. To me it wasn’t crafty or smart. It was just survival and I was tired of just surviving.
I guess they’re funny, these stories. And maybe they would be if I was 19 and this was my college life we were talking about. But we’re not. We’re talking about a forty-five-year-old man. Someone’s dad. Having to come up with ways to find food. Even now, three years beyond this situation, it breaks my heart. It hurts to write these words about myself. It hurts to see the image in my mind of me skulking away from the Kroger with a pocket full of sugar cookies, and calling that my dinner.
Beside finding food, part of each day was the job search. I always did this part first, because I’d hoped that my resume would find its way into some early-rising employer’s email before anyone else’s did. Each day I would search the job websites. Each day I widened my search just a bit. At first I’d hoped to find something similar to what I had been doing. I knew the mortgage industry was all but dead in those days. But I had managed sales people and I had run an office and I was a very good teacher and trainer.
Each day I would send out my resume to eight or ten or twelve possible employers. Each day I would not hear anything back. I never stopped trying. I don’t remember many days going by without my sending out resumes. But no one replied. The economy was terrible then. Unemployment was high, and the outlook was pessimistic. The president, for all his talk of hope, offered nothing in the way of solutions. He ignored people like me.
Days became months. Months, unbelievably, became years. Hope became a numb spot in my heart. A faded memory of a time when I had a career and when I walked upright like a man. Not the stoop-shouldered, vagabond I had become. Hiding in plain sight. Trying my best not to look homeless.
After my morning routine of sending out resumes, I would write. Writing became my solace. My voice. My safe place. I had always loved to write, and in happier times, long before, I was an entertaining, humorous writer, making my high school teachers laugh with my wit. But I also enjoyed the crafting of a great sentence or the impact of a weighty story. Blogging had just begun to get noticed. I started a blog. I wrote about life. About being a dad. About my faith. I wrote about the world out here where I was living. But I didn’t write about being homeless. Not for a long time. I think it was because I was trying to not be homeless. I was trying not to be the voice of a demographic. I was trying to be more than a guy in an unfortunate situation who was journaling his plight. I didn’t want to just be a “homeless writer.”
It wasn’t long before I felt like maybe I could have a career as a writer. If not full-time, then at least in conjunction with whatever else I was doing. I worried that if I only wrote about my homelessness, I would be pigeon-holed into only ever writing about homelessness…or other social issues, for the rest of my life. I didn’t want that.
I would write in the mornings, perhaps as a means of relieving the pressure of sending out resumes and not getting a response. I’m sure it was -in part at least- a means of just saying the things I would say if I had someone, anyone, to talk to. I wrote a lot about my divorce and my fatherhood. I wrote sometimes revelatory things about myself. My search for my own father, and the subsequent disappointments. My search for work. The way I missed my home in the country. The way I was missing my daughter growing up. I wrote to give vent to the pain that built in my heart every day.
After writing, if I had gas in my car, sometimes I would go to the little park nearby. I would walk. Walking became therapy for me much as writing had become. In fact, much of what I wrote about in those days was formulated on those early morning walks at the rec center, and often it was digested on the mid-morning walks at Pinkerton Park. I walked to think. I walked to escape from the thoughts I was thinking. I walked for hours sometimes, just hashing out my situation and trying to find the escape hatch. I walked sometimes, just to keep moving, because sitting still made it feel like this whole nightmare would catch me and consume me. I walked sometimes, just to stay away from the lot that was befalling me.
It was lonely. More lonely than I have ever been in my life. I had conversations with no one else but myself. I can understand how that can drive a person to madness if it goes on long enough. No one counters your desperate thoughts. Nobody holds your sadness in check. You voice those things to only yourself and nobody says “Come on man…I’m here. You aren’t entirely alone.” I had friends I could call, but they all lived somewhere else. Or the ones close by had jobs and families and they didn’t have time for a homeless guy sitting on a bench in a city park in the middle of the morning. They cared, but they had no idea how really desperate I was and so there was no urgency. And I felt guilty even asking them so I never did. So I walked. Alone.
Some days, there was rain and I would sit under the pavilions on the picnic tables. The rain would pour down hard enough that I was invisible under there. Had anyone come to the park, like the Franklin PD who rolled through every few hours, they would have never seen me for the sheets of rain that formed a curtain around the gazebo. Those were the days I could cry. I cried a lot but much of it stayed inside. But when it rained and I felt invisible, I could let it out. And I did.
I would walk sometimes all day, alternating between sitting on a bench and walking the trail. When afternoon came and people who had been there earlier were going home to their families and their dinner table, I would cry again. Sometimes I couldn’t hide it under a pavilion roof. Sometimes I had to turn my head as a stranger walked past me on the trail. “He’s going home,” I would think to myself. “He’s done his walking and he’s going home to his wife and his family and his home.” I would think of this stranger sitting at a dinner table, having a conversation, laughing, smiling. I would think of him relaxing in his favorite chair, taking his dog out for a walk, climbing into bed. Then I would think of the car, and the pain in my back and the stiffness in my neck and the shame.
Some days I would walk around downtown Franklin just to be near other people. Downtown Franklin is a beautiful little area dating back to the late 1700’s. Main Street bustles with shops and shoppers and café’s and artsy people walking around with seven-dollar latte’s and trendy clothes, talking mainly about the music industry. I walked among them with no latte, and no trendy clothes. I remember catching my reflection in a storefront window once. I was noticeably thinner. I was clean, my clothes were clean. I had shaved. Nothing about my appearance, save maybe the weight loss, betrayed my homelessness. But I saw it. I saw it in my eyes, me…looking back at me.
I know myself well enough to recognize all those tears I was holding back and the memories that were, even in that instant, flooding my mind. I saw what no one else could have seen that day. I saw who I used to be, overlaid with who I was now and it broke my heart. After that, I no longer looked into windows. I no longer could bear seeing my reflection. It just hurt too much.
Some days I had some work. I found an odd job from a friend and I was busy trying to earn a few dollars. I built a chicken coop once for the woman who would eventually allow me to park on her property. I had never built a coop before and she showed me a picture and I set to work. When I was done, her mother said it was the nicest chicken coop she’d ever owned and she’d had them all her life. I was proud of that. In a world that was spiraling daily and tearing out my hull on the rocks of an economy that would not relent…I could build the nicest chicken coop this woman had ever seen. You take your happiness were you find it sometimes.
Afternoons often approached with a sense of impending doom. No matter what kind of day I’d had, good or bad, in the back of my mind was that car and those weeds. It was there like a specter. It was there like the feeling in your gut when your dad pulls up in the driveway and you got an “F” on your report card and he was about to find out. It was there like going to the doctor and expecting a bad report. The car. The weeds. The hiding. The tossing and turning and exhaustion. The nervousness of racing into the hiding place and hoping that no one saw you one more night.
Afternoons were the great blank spot in my day. The great void. Summer made it worse because it was light until nine p.m. and I was tired by seven. Regardless of what time the sun set, I still had to be up before five to avoid being seen, so summer months just meant I slept less. A lot of time, if I had gas in my car, I would drive to my daughter’s school and pick her up. We’d go to McDonald’s for a Coke and to spend time together. Not too many months after this all began she discovered I was homeless. I had left my sleeping bag rolled up behind my seat and she saw it. I couldn’t lie to her any longer. It broke my heart.
Finally, night was here and time to hide the car. This, for me, was as close to pulling up in a driveway as I could get. I waited, I circled the church, and when I had a break when no cars were coming, I made the mad dash for the back side of the building. There, lights off so no one would see me, I’d back my car into those high weeds until they sprung back up around me like a curtain. Then came the waiting. Then the sigh of relief when enough time passed that I realized no one saw me. Then came the routine of sleeping bags and warm clothes and trying to find some spot in the positioning of the seat that didn’t hurt too bad. Then…when I was settled in and still, there came the memories, and the tears. There was my sleeping companion…hopelessness
And another day in my journey was over.