Survival Guide to Homelessness

No matter where you go, there you are.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Holy Crap!

I just got another long screed telling me that I must accept jesus or spend eternity in hell. Do you hear yourselves? Okay, look, save it for someone who wants saving, because I will never, under any circumstances, publish those comments. Here's a lovely film called Stairs to no end. Let it be my response to every comment of this type.

This does bring up an important point about homelessness. If you seek help for your physical problems (shelter, food, clothing) religious exploitation is never far away. If you legitimately want to believe, far be it from me to tell you not to, but you should not have to sell your conscience for a cot. If you are young and unformed in your philosophy, avoid indoctrination in exchange for comfort. The comfort is cold, and the mental game is hard to shake. The religious have been preying on the weak for a very long time, and they are very sophisticated.

When you are cold and alone the allure of an all loving, all forgiving, forever completely attentive caregiver is hard to beat. In the end, though, for most of the faiths that target the homeless and the young, you just become their tool, and get everything taken away from you. Stand on your own, and the rewards are your own.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Coming Out

The problem of coming out is the same no matter what secret you are hiding. When you are keeping something from the people you care about that is intrinsic to how you live your life, it means that you are alone. Being alone is painful.

You would not be keeping your secret if you were confident the people in your life were capable of understanding and accepting it. Coming out to people who don't understand or don't accept you can be just as isolating, just as painful, as keeping the secret in the first place, and if the people are cruel, it can cost you even more.

Anyone you come out to, you give a special weapon, a dagger designed to slip into you like a key into a lock. I came out to one of my coworkers, just that I had been homeless in the past and write this blog, and years later he'll sometimes give me a dig about my advice to use sex lube for a waterless shave. The sting of it is far more than he likely intends. That is the hazard.

My beloved grandfather did not understand that I had built a lifestyle I was proud of. He thought of me as a beggar, an addict, a failure. That image only changed after I was married, housed, with children. I know he loved me, but the pain of that misunderstanding is almost more than I can bear even to write about in this entry.

My father doesn't get it. He wants to edit my blog, and becomes irate with me if I choose not to publish his comments on my articles. I gave up trying to explain some time ago. Even the people that do accept and understand that I was homeless and unashamed, don't understand that I am proud of what I did, and of this blog. They don't understand how profoundly personal the blog is. There are exceptions, a best friend here, a relative there, sometimes my wife, but in the main it passes understanding. You, my readers, have shown a far greater depth of understanding than the people who know me. Strange, isn't it?

Everyone will advise you, unasked, unwanted. It is hard to prove to people that you are okay. There's something fundamentally wrong, immoral, unsettling, maybe unnatural about being happy and homeless. You want to explain it, because your story forms a foundation for your opinions and your values. You want to tell them that they shouldn't joke about the homeless, and that they shouldn't judge them. You want to tell them it could just as easily be them, they could face financial trouble that puts them out, too. You want to tell them there's more than one way to be homeless. There are dozens of solutions to the problem of shelter, and not all of them involve a mortgage.

You want to tell them, but mostly you can't. You can come out, but they won't get it. The people closest to you will use it against you in casual ways they don't even realize. It is like being the only atheist at a revival. It's like being the only gay guy in a group of married straight friends. It might be a little bit like being the only ethnic person in a white social circle. Even if they all forget it, you never do, and you always believe it informs how they treat you. You become forever separate. Every slight, intended or not, however small, starts the struggle over again from scratch.

So if I've told you about my homelessness, you should know that I've given you a high compliment. I've made myself vulnerable to you in a fundamental way. And if you are homeless, take care who you tell. Once they know, there's no going back.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

You Never Leave the Places You've Been

I'm haunted by the memories of places I've been, choices I've made, sufferings and pleasures. I'm still thirteen years old, joining a cult that promised love and acceptance, emotional treasures I, an awkward, bookish boy, had never elsewhere found. I'm still seven, watching a spider wrap a fly as my parents shouted out the end of their marriage. I'm still seventeen, wandering through the Perris night in my first doomed bid for freedom.

I still live in my car, years after founding a family and renting more permanent digs. All the police, and criminals, and false friends linger. It's still my wedding day, the days of the births of my children, the day we got the autism diagnosis. It's the day my wife left me, and the day I left my wife. It's today, my kids and wife in the ocean, me on the shore, scribbling this essay in the front leaves of a book. It's all those times, together with thousands more. Time doesn't exist in chronological order.

When you make truly significant life choices, remember this. Before you join the military, or commit a crime, use drugs, or get married, or choose to try homelessness, remember this. Some of these choices are a crossroad, and the direction you choose will change you forever, for good or bad. If you choose to be homeless, you will never be as committed to your social place as you once were. You will know you can leave. The traumas and terrors, and time and freedom, will be in your dreams and on your mind in the middle of work days, on social occasions, and in quiet moments. You'll know things others don't.

Treat your mind as a museum you must curate. Choose carefully the exhibits. Once they enter the collection, they aren't going anywhere.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Boat Living

(by guest author Jibbguy)

Living near the water, there is another option to cars... boats. A cheap old fiberglass boat (sail or power), of 22 to 26 feet, can be gotten very cheaply these days (i got my sailboat for $400). Even boats made in the 1970's are often still seaworthy (always make sure they are fiberglass, "wood" requires far too much maintenance).

Boat living is not living without shelter, but you face most of the same problems as the homeless. You are definitely discriminated against when living on a small boat, and are treated exactly the same as others who live "off the grid".

Some unique problems are: Very good anchors or concrete moorings are needed. Make sure the anchor lines do not chafe. A dinghy is needed to get back and forth to shore. An old canoe or kayak works well and they are cheapest. Stay away from inflatables (they don't last long and are thief magnets). The older and cruddier the dinghy, the better.

You can also be hassled by the various forms of police when living in boats. The main issue, is being able to prove that your on-board "porti-potty" gets properly emptied at a marina or by some other legally accepted means (receipts). You must also be able to prove that you have a working engine, or a viable set of sails and rigging. The good part of this is, once you can prove these things, they must leave you be, and generally do. Sometimes they require an anchor light to be on all night. For this, the best solution is a solar-powered garden / walkway light for about $20. Never buy something that has the "marine" title to it, it will cost at least twice as much.

The biggest expense and trouble is finding a place to go into shore with the dinghy, to get water and charge a battery (solar panels are very useful), and having a safe place to leave the dinghy while on shore. The cheapest way is to cut a deal with a local resident on the water for a monthly fee... and if they have a WiFi bridge transmitter set up, you can get internet access as well (it travels pretty far over water). Otherwise, you must pay a marina a fee.

The upshot to boat living is, you always have a bunk, it is fairly private and quiet, and it is often in a beautiful environment. But it is "camping"... fairly primitive camping at that.

A great item to have is a plastic water bladder that absorbs sunlight to heat the water for a shower. Called "solar shower", they are invaluable. Ways to capture rain water are also important.

The propane stoves mentioned elsewhere in this guide are best. Alcohol marine stoves are generally not very good and take forever to cook something. Cook stoves make a decent cabin heater in cold weather.

Always pick an anchorage that is protected from all sides; so no large waves can come in depending on the wind direction. I know many people living on small boats, some for decades. It is a unique lifestyle. Not "easy", but probably no harder than "car life" and once set up properly, it can be fairly reliable and un-stressful.. and you are "cheating the system" by paying no utilities or taxes.

Concerning Bad Weather

The issues with bad weather generally are about your mooring or anchors. Even well-set multiple anchors can drag (and the lines can chafe through), and you may end up on a rocky shore or some other bad place. Usually, you will simply end up on a mud or sand bank and its no biggie. What the oldie "insiders" do, is take an old truck wheel rim, cut-down 50 gal drum, or some other steel thing, and pour "wet-drying" concrete inside it to create a permanent mooring (or use an engine block). But there is no "ownership" of moorings... someone can come along and take it if you happen to leave for a time. Likewise, you can find an abandoned one and use it. Some marinas rent moorings on a monthly basis (and include shore amenities like bathrooms, etc). But this is generally too expensive, not much cheaper than renting a dock.

Hurricanes are very bad of course, and the thing to do is evacuate before they arrive... there are shelters available for the general population to stay in.

I guess the thing is, if you do this as suggested, you will probably have no more than $1,000 invested total. So if a big storm does sink your boat, it is not too huge a tragedy. For instance, most of the costly stuff (laptop, solar panel), can be taken with you on shore. FEMA might even pay you for the loss.

Even in a good anchorage that is protected in all directions, you will get small waves from high winds. These are not really dangerous, just uncomfortable. For this reason, people who get sea-sick easily are not recommended for this lifestyle... even if the boat never leaves the harbor. Same is true for those who get claustrophobia.

We here in the Keys have nice weather year-round. But boat living up North is a bit different. Any body of water that freezes in the winter, cannot be lived on then.... although some do try, using "bubblers" to blow air around the boat under water, that keeps the ice from touching the hull (this only works in totally still areas with no current, and it takes a lot of electricity).

But i guess one of the most important factors of boat living, is "location". There was a Supreme Court decision a few years back that upheld the right of people to anchor where they like, as long as they are not a hazard to navigation. So rich folks can't have the local police "move you along" if they don't like looking at you. But they can do it in other ways, such as limiting access to shore. Some towns are boater friendly, some are not. Generally, where you see a lot of small boats anchored, is the better place.

Many thanks to Jibbguy for this superb introduction to the alternative of boat living. Click here to see some of his other writing.


Saturday, May 28, 2011

Play Against Type

Showering in my own apartment I looked down at my hands. I have cuts and nicks scattered across their fingers, calluses, worked in dirt that won't wash away, and a burn from an errant bit of molten metal on my right index finger. When I look in the mirror I see I am sunburned across my forehead, cheeks, and the back of my neck. I'm wearing a beard and mustache. I look homeless.

That's okay. It's okay because I have a union job and a place to lay down at night. When I was actually homeless, I would never look like this. I'd be manicured. I wouldn't have a sunburn because I would have made careful use of sunscreen and I would have kept out of the sun. I would be clean shaven.

The Hollywood set calls this playing against type, and it is an essential skill. Imagine yourself a fugitive from the law, which you actually are if you are homeless. The last thing a fugitive wants is notice. I don't care how rich he is, Grizzly Adams gets noticed when he walks into town. For the same reason that you must be comfortable lying, you must maintain a look that is cleaner than the rest of society. Don't wear torn clothing. Don't get tattoos or visible piercings. Don't participate in fashion counter-cultures. Look normal, only better.

Don't get me wrong. I am not morally, politically, or personally against any kind of fashion statement. I am not only accepting, I'm eager to see. This is survival advice. Fashion statements are for those who don't need to blend in. Fashion is for the rich.

I have the great luxury to look homeless because I am not, and everyone knows I'm not. They see me in my work clothes and work truck and they know I'm a union man. The homeless look is a look of prestige if it belongs to a union man. It's stupid, but it is what it is. Mind games, subtle psychological nudges like manicured hands and a close hair cut, are important tools for getting what you need done each day. Play against type. Look good.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

How to Solve Homelessness

I get too much praise for this blog. The praise is extreme. I think I have an idea why. I'm one of the few people that doesn't try to give you a path to leave homelessness, and that is a welcome relief. I don't try to save you. I don't humiliate you.

Homelessness is isolating. No one understands what you are going through. People who know you are homeless are constantly trying to cure you of the condition. Cure you, like you have a disease. They have telethons, church fundraisers, comedians get together and have television specials to raise millions for the homeless. By the way, where the heck did that money go? Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, Whoopie Goldberg, if you are reading this, please explain how Comic Relief ever assisted me, or really anyone.

The first problem with relief efforts is they reach the rich. It's easy for a donor to find Comic Relief and make a donation, but it is very, very hard for Comic Relief to find a homeless teenager, figure out what that child needs and provide it, even if the charity had unlimited funds. The second problem is the charity is deaf in a far more profound way than a person might be deaf. Deaf people find ways to communicate, form communities, learn to listen with their eyes and talk with their hands. Charities, by contrast, and I don't mean to single out Comic Relief, never talk to the people they are "helping". They are deaf, blind, and stupidly attached to their assessment of the problem.

As a homeless person, I do not want someone to feed me. I do not want someone to house me. I do not want a blanket, and I will not work for food! You have to ask me what it is I need if you want to have an effect. As a homeless person, I am not even trying to find a way out of homelessness. It is too simple to say that I was going just fine until someone took my shelter away, and now I am in chaos. If only someone would give me back my shelter the chaos would abate. Nonsense. I'm not in chaos. I have a definable set of problems and giving me shelter won't solve them. It is only a tiny piece. Furthermore, I don't want a cure for my life. Most people who write to me who are homeless chose homelessness. Homelessness was their answer to another problem, a foreclosed home, a lost job, a catastrophic disease which left them bankrupt and disabled, an abusive family, a lack. Alas, this is the hardest thing to explain. Homelessness was a positive step toward solving other problems.

Robin, Whoopie, Billy, I love you guys. I watch your movies. I like your stand up. I could do without The View but you can't please everyone all the time. I don't expect you to solve homelessness. It doesn't need solving. People who are homeless could use some help sometimes, but you have to listen and see and think about how to offer that help. Money and laughs won't do it. You are just salving the guilt of society. Don't do that. Society needs to be uncomfortable.

I've thought a long time about what would be useful to the homeless. We need public toilets. Not filthy portapotties, but proper restrooms that are private and clean. We need safe places to sleep. Capsule hotels, which are found in Tokyo and some other places in the world, would be most excellent. The rooms should be very cheap, and I mean five bucks is too much. They should be subsidized, and there should be twice as many as there is a demand for them. They should be extremely secure, and you should be allowed to stay for as long as you want. We need showers. Safe, secure, single occupancy showers. Those are answers that would help people.

If cities want us off the streets, they should offer these alternatives. They would be cheap and easy.

Teen runaways who declare that they are without guardianship should not be treated as criminals, and should not be compelled to live a criminal life. They should be issued cards which confer the right to work upon them. Forget child labor laws. They have a perverse outcome, effectively forcing children to become prostitutes, drug dealers, and thieves. Emancipation should be an on-demand right for all children.

Get rid of laws which forbid sleep. Who are you kidding? Those laws contribute to the meth problem in this country. Those laws destroy lives.

You want to solve problems? Homeless people have problems, they are not the problem. Don't treat them as something that needs a cure.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Running Away

When I ran away from home, I knew nothing about how to make my way, homeless or sheltered. I had a few skills, but very few that could easily be converted to money. I didn't know what challenges I would face, and I had no idea how much danger I was in.

I was bullied in grade school, and I quit high school when I was sixteen, a year before I ran. The alienation I'd learned from this fueled my decision to leave home, but did not teach me how to do it. I ran naked, no money, no work, no future, no plans, no rights. I survived by luck. Had my environment been even a little bit more hostile, I should have died.

My early bouts with homelessness cannot be termed anything but failures. I escaped my homelessness by relying upon friends to take me in. It took years before I found my own way, and in the process I became every kind of victim.

Homelessness, while it falls frequently upon the weak, is not for the weak or the unprepared. Teen shelters are virtually non-existant, and if they do exist, you wouldn't want to be in them. They'd resemble youth authority jails or group homes, and either model is miserable and dangerous. Adult shelters will not accept a teenager. They come with too much legal murkiness, but in any case adult shelters are horrible even when kindly intended. I spent a week or so in a place called 1706 House in Hermosa Beach, California. Their chief mission was to intervene with the family and get the teen runaway to return home, and they had a two week policy. You could stay there for two weeks, but then you were out, for good. Nothing comes up for them on a Google search now, so I can only guess that the outfit folded. No loss. They served the system, and were indifferent to the individual.

I look back on this time with a detached horror. I can hardly relate to that earlier self. When kids write to me asking me to help them run away, I never know how to respond. The one thing I know is that they should never run without a plan. You have to know where you are going, and how you expect to earn money. Without that plan, your survival will be a roll of dice.

I learned to survive homeless simply by increasing my knowledge in a general way. I had far greater analytical skills when I was twenty eight than I had when I was seventeen. I had the experience of teen homelessness to inform my meditations. Perhaps most importantly I had a driver's license, a car, and the right to legally work. Those are powerful tools.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The First Time I Ran

I write now about my family property in Perris, CA. The darkness at night is only mildly mitigated by the lights of neighboring properties. It is alive with sound, dogs, the crowing of an insomniac rooster, crickets, the hoot of an owl, the lowing of a steer, the engines of a jet. People who have never lived in the country imagine a quiet and serene place, but nothing could be further from reality. The stars are bright, much brighter than in the city, and they light the landscape eerily, stark, black sillouettes of trees cast wild shadows as if reaching out to seize passersby. It is a beautiful place to have a campfire and watch a meteor shower with a group of friends. On the night I left though, it was a place to strike fear in the bravest of young men.

At that time I believed myself the bravest of men. Seventeen and willing to face down anything. Seventeen and not willing to be dominated by parents. Seventeen and ready for war, but even so, knowing how weak I was.

I knew in advance I would be caught. I knew I would be caught before I left the door of the trailer I slept in. I knew, too, that with the knowledge I gained from the first attempt, I'd get away the second time.

How can I tell the story? I was seventeen, and I had not yet conquered all fear. I was terribly afraid of dogs, of my father, of myself and what I might be capable of doing in my adolescent pain and rage. I ran not only for myself, but like a werewolf, I ran away from the people I thought I would hurt if they caught me at the wrong time.

I set out around 3:00 a.m., in a night of noise, and the baying of dogs seemed to follow through the darkness. Hell's furies could not have terrified me more. It was several miles to town, and I had only the vaguest idea how to get there. I had taken the back route, over dirt roads, to avoid my father if he noticed me gone during the night, but I deeply regretted the decision as the baying of the dogs seemed nearer and nearer, and the darkness seemed almost complete, closing in on me like a physical thing.

I ran, fear making the sweat from my exertions stink and cling to me. My only thought was that I must reach town before the dog pack found me. I was lost, though, in the deep darkness so like a nightmare. I only knew the direction I had to run, and the notion that I had gotten turned around and lost even my sense of direction was too chilling to contemplate.

Finally I found the main road, and the light of the sign of a Circle K was as welcome to me as the sight of land to a person in a lifeboat. I went in and asked how to get to the town, and the clerk told me I was nearly there and how to finish the journey.

My father picked me up at the Greyhound station the next morning. I cursed myself for being so obvious, and began to plot my next escape, barely noticing the angry dressing down my father directed at me.

I was running to be homeless. Nothing could stop me. The pimps, prostitutes, thieves, drug dealers, cops, social workers, preachers, and various other villains didn't scare me. They were waiting, but they didn't scare me. Only the baying of family pets, joined by the pets on the surrounding properties frightened me. Only the dark and lost feeling I had brought real fear.