Monday, November 25, 2013

Remembering others

This is life for thousands this time of year. Insert your own name for the personal pronouns. For additional clarity, sit on your front steps while reading. Leave your warm coat and gloves inside.

We're all out by 6. You have to leave the shelter at 6 a.m. or be arrested for vagrancy, so we all get up earlier than that, maybe 5:40. When you don't have to take a shower or change clothes getting ready doesn't take very long, so I try to sleep as long as possible. Most days it's so loud that I get up anyway though.

We go out in a herd as we flee the building in search of two things: food and somewhere warm. I feel like cattle now, because that's how it feels - stabled in close-quarters at night, out in the open while it's still dark, and milked for all we're worth by exhaustion. No matter how tired I am, I try to keep moving. It's too cold to stand still in the dark, not to mention dangerous.

The shelter's in a bad part of town. The men's shelter is right across the street; some genius thought it was a good plan to empty a bunch of men and women at the same time every morning, pre-dawn, into the street. I'll let you fill in the blank. I haven't been raped. I refuse to add "yet;" that would admit defeat. I've heard the stories, but now I shut my ears to them. When someone tries to tell me I walk away. I still get nightmares from the stories I've heard, and I need my sleep. Compassion is a luxury I can't afford.

I always leave that neighborhood during the day for two reasons. One, it's not safe for a homeless woman, like I said. Two, you can't get any money or food or anything from people who have nothing to give.

Every day is scheduled like a clock. Get up, leave the shelter by 6. Find a food pantry. The church I go to opens at 8 a.m. on weekdays. You have to hurry to get in line so that the food doesn't run out. The lines are always longer in winter....

The people at the church are very nice; they don't try to force any messages down our throats along with the food. One time I went to a church where they made you sit and listen to a sermon before you could eat. You know, when you're tired and cold and hungry, all you can think of is food. The only thing that sermon does is make you mad, and sick. We told everybody to avoid that church.

I try to drag out breakfast as long as possible because the church is warm. I sit with the same friends every day. You have to be careful who you trust. I don't talk to anyone that I know is on drugs or alcohol, because I don't trust them. At first I didn't trust anybody, but that was so lonely I couldn't stand it. So then I started talking to some of the older women who know the rounds, got their advice. This one woman in particular became my mentor. You have to have a good mentor, that what I tell all the newbies. We have to stick together and help each other, because the city sure won't do that.

Next part of the day is trying to make some money. I panhandle in the tourist district because they're less jaded. The business crowd will walk right by you, and they never look at you. You might as well be a light pole. Kids will sometimes talk to me because they haven't learned that I'm not a person, but if their parents are there they get jerked away and told not to talk to strangers. And I get that. But these adults, these men who walk by - what do they think I'll do? One time I yelled "I don't bite!" At least that got them to run away, so they acknowledged my existence.

In the tourist district, your best bet is to be as personable as possible. Make a sign, that always helps, and say that you'll take food or coffee. Sometimes there are people who won't give money but they'll buy a cup of coffee or a sandwich, which is nice. It won't help me pay for the bus or laundromat, but it helps. My sign says "I'm homeless because I left my abusive husband." That's different and true, and it gets people's attention. That's what my mentor told me: be unique. Everyone says "help the homeless get something to eat." People learn to ignore that.

The best is if you can play an instrument; people like to be entertained. I don't play an instrument and I can't sing, but a good friend of mine is a Baritone. He likes to sing praise music, and sometimes Christians will give him something. Most of them just say "God Bless You," which is nice, but it won't help your hunger at all. He's such a sweet man, he always shares with me.

But whatever you do, don't talk to yourself. People are scared of crazy people, and they think it's a sign of sanity to be happy and smiley when you're cold and hungry. I think the crazy ones are sane, and I wish I was sane like that. Maybe it's easier to bear, emotionally, when you can talk about politics or the hit man that's after you. Gives you something to get up for besides just avoiding arrest.

I close up shop before it gets dark. This time of year, that's around 4:30. If I have the money I take the bus back to the shelter neighborhood, because now the clock is running. The lines at the shelter are long, and so usually they do a lottery to see who gets in. Sometimes I make it, sometimes I don't, but I time it so that I've got a fighting chance. Those of us who don't make it stay together, because there's warmth and safety in numbers. Sometimes I give my lottery number to someone who's older, especially if my mentor didn't make it in time.

We sleep right outside the shelter because it's safer than wandering the streets. Night-time is always the worst no matter where you sleep. If I make it to the shelter, I don't get up to use the bathroom, so I always go first thing and then stay put. The restrooms aren't safe in the middle of the night because that's where people go to make drug deals. If I'm stuck outside, I also hold it because I don't want to have to go out alone. Also, I only use the bathroom outside if I'm desperate. I still have pride even if it's taken a beating.

I thought that I had been afraid before I was homeless. I didn't know then what it was like to live with fear, eat it, breath it, feel it all the time. I didn't know what it was like to have no where truly safe to go, to never be alone except in a public restroom stall, to never be able to lock a door and take a deep sigh of relief. My skin is constantly tense; my mind is always on alert. I think that even when I'm sleeping, some part of my body is ready to jump. My hearing and eyesight have never been so good; they never had to be.

I thought I had been cold before too, but that was a joke. I never knew the cold that never leaves your bones, the cold that can only be escaped temporarily. I never knew what it was like to dread the early morning so much, to dread being kicked outside in the icy dark. I never knew what it was like to plan my day around the weather, to miss out on afternoon cash because it's sleeting, to know where all the public libraries are.

I thought I knew what loneliness was, but back then I knew I was a person. And everyone else knew it too. People might not have liked me, but I wasn't ignored, treated like an innatimate object. I never saw the quickly averted eyes, the hurried feet, the turned head. I never knew what it was like to be lectured for my "greed," for my "entitlement" by people holding Starbucks lattes in leather gloves. I never knew what it was like to rip out the brand name from the jacket I found in a dumpster, because if people see a brand name they berate you for "wasting money."

If I ever get out of here, I'm going to buy a shack. I don't care what it looks like as long as I own it, as long as a landlord can't kick me out if I miss a payment. And I will look at every single homeless person I see and ask what they need the most. And I will hug every woman and tell her to hold on.

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