originally posted May 28, 2016
Homelessness. Nobody thinks it’ll ever happen to them and my wish for the world is that it doesn’t. Not in a cold country like Canada. It’s hard to sleep in alleys and parks during a winter temperature that can drop to -40° even without a wind chill. And the downhill slope that takes you from under your own secure roof out to the world at large can happen fast. And you spend each day knowing that when the daily shit hits the fan, you now have no safe place to ride it out.
This is the spotlight on my encounter with homelessness.
By January 2015, I had been out of work for about nine months and my roommate had been carrying both of us. But he had to decide to either stick with his job, which had become increasingly dangerous for him with no resolution in sight, or declare “take this job and…” Well, you know how the rest of that goes.
So, one day we’re living in a nice rented condo with three bedrooms, our own washer and dryer — nice, no more laundromats — cable and internet, and free range bunnies in our backyard. And the next day our stuff is all packed, most of it shoved into a storage unit, and our new home is on wheels and goes with us.
We lived the first few months in motels while my roommate tried his hand at self-employment and I recovered from surgery. Unfortunately, he had no start-up money to fall back on while he worked to get established. He also had a few customers who didn’t think it was necessary to pay just because it was a new business. So motel living didn’t transition into the stable home we’d hoped for and we were back on the road again.
We were lucky enough to own a vehicle when this adventure started. Many people don’t. And we quickly adapted to sleeping sitting up. We had no choice. The back of the van was crammed like sardines in a can with all the stuff we needed while embracing this new life. Good thing, though because as time changed and the lack of work did not, the storage unit finally went the way of the condo. And it took all our stuff with it.
Summer involved a lot of travelling. Looking for work by day with nights spent parked in various fast food and shopping mall parking lots. We washed up in park and truck stop bathrooms. We received help from local churches through food store and gas station gift cards plus various food bank donations. And we cooked our meals over a camp stove in small parks or when lacking that option, on the grass behind our van. Once church graciously provided us with money to buy camping equipment and paid for two weeks in the local campground. We got a good-sized tent on sale, propane bottles for the camp stove, and the campground was beautiful. We could almost forget we were homeless.
By fall life in a van transformed into five months in a shelter for me. My friend wasn’t willing to leave our vehicle unattended and vulnerable to vandalism. He spent another two months in the van before he got income support to rent a room in a house.
Life in a shelter is, in a lot of ways, a solid improvement over living in a van. But there are some definite trade offs. One such trade off is the loss of a certain type of freedom. That being, we controlled our own movements as long as there was gas for the vehicle. Shelter life is not synonymous with freedom. To start, you sign in late in the day when the mats open up.
Yes, that’s right, mats. No beds in this shelter, though some have them. Set up in a huge warehouse that could accommodate roughly 370 individuals, mats were laid out in rows on the concrete floor. As an individual signed in, they were assigned a number to a corresponding mat. Once past the check-in desk, you tracked down your mat and settled in for the night.
And here’s where the loss of freedom makes itself felt. Once you’ve signed in, you can’t leave that night or you don’t get back in till the next day.
And there are lineups for everything. A lineup to sign in to the shelter. Another to wait for an available locker — for long-term stays — as well as to access them since they’re only open during specific hours. Another lineup for the hygiene room; to get a blanket if you don’t have one, a towel, donated hygiene products. We also lined up for meals. And for the clothing, room, if there are volunteers available to open it, where you can look through donated clothing for anything you’re missing.
But the trade off to this regimented movement is you always get to lie down to sleep. No more weather worries or hoping you still have enough food hamper donations left for supper. And no worrying that you have any cash to pay for any of that.
Days change little in shelter life and time becomes fairly circular. You spend a lot of time on library computers looking for work. Without money for bus travel, it’s hard to walk the miles it could take to apply in person. After that much walking in all kinds of weather, you don’t arrive as presentable as you want. And often without that personal presence you can become lost in the cyber shuffle of countless searchers doing the same thing you are. So the circle continues.
After five months circumstances shifted enough to enable me to rent a room in the same house as my friend. And though my new space is only a bedroom, it’s definitely a huge step up from the shelter. Is there any doubt it wouldn’t be?
To not have to be up by 5:45 am very day to make time to shower and clean up your “area.” That means packing up your bedding and backpacks and hauling everything upstairs to a locker. If you’re lucky enough to have one. All before breakfast every day, regardless of the day of the week, weather or health status.
To not have to worry about who’s in the mat beside you. Or whether there’ll be a pissing contest over who claims the two inches of space available on each side of your mat, since living in a shelter also means living out of bags. Bags that you drag around with you everywhere because the lockers are never big enough. Or because you might need something when the lockers are unavailable.
And to not have to look for a place to hang out when you don’t have money to ride the buses waiting for the shelter to open.
So now that it’s unnecessary to watch the time all day — can’t afford to miss that mat — the focus can step up towards finding work. Living in an actual home with a proper address is definitely in my favor when dealing with prospective employers. It’s disheartening how many people have an instinctive reaction to the concept of living in a shelter. Something I experienced the hard way while negotiating for a job. Despite the 40% employment rate in my shelter, most couldn’t afford housing. And too many people still believed we were there because we were too lazy to get out.
Time and experience are conspiring against me with the job market but I refuse to believe it won’t happen. I’m too old to spend the rest of my life like this and too damn stubborn to give up. One of my biggest fears once I moved out into the world on my own was always that I’d end up living in an alley in a cardboard box. And while I went from a motel to a van, to a tent and then to a shelter, I never made it to the box.
Today’s economy and my age are in my way. But if I can hang out for a few more years, I can get old age pension. That should hold off that cardboard box.
So, onward and upward.