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4 Months And Counting: Lessons From Homelessness

Ben Jackson: "The adjustment from having a home to being homeless is a conglomeration of realizations swift and slow, empowering and terminally depressing." (Gudbjörn Valgeirsson/Unsplash)
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Ben Jackson: "The adjustment from having a home to being homeless is a conglomeration of realizations swift and slow, empowering and terminally depressing." (Gudbjörn Valgeirsson/Unsplash)

It has been four months since I lost my home.

In those four months, there has been much to learn. The adjustment from having a home to being homeless is a conglomeration of realizations swift and slow, empowering and terminally depressing.

The very first thing you learn is that the bureaucracy is ill-equipped to help you. For example, in order to obtain a post office box, you must have a street address. So, you lose your ability to receive mail, which you will quickly discover is something you need to have when you start applying for housing and any other benefits. In some cases, it’s as simple as “no mailing address, no benefits.”

I wasn’t irresponsible. I didn’t sell drugs or make too much noise or waste my money on lavish and unnecessary things. It doesn’t matter.

The next thing I learned is that it is easy to find inexpensive food. You can go to almost any fast-food restaurant and obtain enough calories to both sustain you and make you feel full for under $3. However, it is nearly impossible to find inexpensive healthy food. Vegetables and fruits quickly drop out of your diet as your financial reserves decline. I’ve been very lucky; people leave fresh fruits and vegetables from their gardens at the food pantry in the town in which I live. They may not be the prettiest — this is another thing you learn: fresh food needn’t be pretty — but it is delicious, and it is free.

If you’ve been evicted, as I have, you’ll find that you will be punitively banned from renting no matter the reason for your eviction. In my case, I lost my job and my income because I had to care for a very, very sick daughter, who had spent a large portion of the first half of this year in the hospital. I wasn’t irresponsible. I didn’t sell drugs or make too much noise or waste my money on lavish and unnecessary things. It doesn’t matter. As soon as you write “evicted” on your rental application, the 'why' is irrelevant, and prospective landlords disappear.

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You’ll learn that you’ll consider lying on rental applications out of desperation, and that this doesn’t work, either. Evictions show brightly on credit reports.

Soon, you’ll discover that people who you were absolutely sure would be there to help you no matter the situation have nothing but judgment and disdain for you. You’ll also discover that people you barely know, or maybe have never even met, are astonishingly generous — and they, along with those friends who stand by you — sustain you in ways you would never have imagined.

It will become apparent that as generous and kind as individuals will be, the businesses you rely on — hotels, laundromats, banks with whom you hold credit accounts, restaurants — will not be so generous. You will not get breaks on hotel rates, for example, and three months in hotels will eat a lot of money.

The first time your debit card is declined at the gas pump, you will know panic.

...you will get up in the morning, groggily discern where you are, and rise to meet the new day, hopeful it will end with a home.

Throughout all of this, however, you will learn gratitude. You will be awed by the efforts of those who, despite all the obstacles thrown in their way, move heaven and earth to help you. Social workers at local charities and service councils are creative; they will help you get around roadblocks. Friends will open their social and professional networks to you for everything from reduced hotel rates to finding a sustainable living situation. Strangers will offer you their couches. You will make mistakes, and people will still be there to hold you up.

And you will learn that you can be more creative and resilient than you thought. You will find your way to happiness in unexpected places. You’ll find beauty that you observed because you really had the time to see it. And you will get up in the morning, groggily discern where you are, and rise to meet the new day, hopeful it will end with a home.

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Ben Jackson Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Ben Jackson is a writer.

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