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"Hitting The Pavement:
A Journalist's 2-Year Memoir of Homelessness"


"It Begins With A Single Step . . ."

For an Alzheimer's patient, the most disturbing time of day is at sunset. The reason for this (if they're not deeply enough into the disease to lose their grasp of the passage of time) is because they know they're letting go of yet another day of themselves. It's called Sundowner's Syndrome.

A similar affliction occurs for a homeless person any day their search for a place to sleep has proven fruitless. The search suddenly becomes more rigorous as daylight turns to night. And city blocks become the measuring tape toward what they term "someplace safe". It's called homelessness.

If they're fortunate enough to have a mobile phone, they call local shelters to see where there's still space available (they need the cell phones because public phones are rapidly becoming obsolete). But there's a narrow window of opportunity for this: it must be after 4:00 P.M. and before 5:00 P.M. Also, if they've been homeless long enough, they know which ones accommodate single adults and which cater only to families or to recovering addicts. This is at the top echelon of the street rules: make sure you're at the right place at the right time on any given day, or else. And it's the "or else" that keeps the wheels of your shopping cart moving.

And the search for safety and peace of mind can sometimes last well into the night. But the seasoned homeless know to always have a backup plan. Some go to the bus station after hours but only if they recognize someone there to share in guard duties. Some homeless, if they're brazen enough, go to all night restaurants and drink coffee and make their plans for catching up on sleep the following day.

As a journalist who was fully embedded in this everyday sub-world (through personal circumstances surrounding injury and subsequent loss of income), I became privy to the skills set needed to survive such a lifestyle. Like most, I had no car and no way to obtain more money than I allowed myself (just enough to buy food with no place to store it or cook it). And, contrary to popular opinion, the vast majority of homeless do not panhandle: most consider their lives demeaning enough without it.

There's a sub-culture for the homeless which its members only reveal to those they recognize as homeless too. They know where and when the food banks offer nourishment. They also know who they can trust and who they can't. When they find a relatively "permanent" place to bed down, they tell no one where it is. Even the trusted ones aren't told about such a valuable find.

Also there are certain times of the year when it's better to be homeless than others. Christmastime is the best because people are in a giving mood (and there's no need to ask for help, they just give it). Summertime is also good because vacationers want to soothe the guilt of having everything they need and vacations, too. It's all about human nature and the long-term homeless know more about it than anyone else. It's the most valuable weapon in their arsenal of surviving life on the streets.

But there was another side to this coin of desperation: it's what I call the strange sense of entitlement the long-term homeless sometimes develop. When they do find long-term shelters like I did, even though they pay nominal rent (about $350/month), they believe that their struggle to get there and pay even this modest "rent" entitles them to 5-star accommodations. As a result, for many, the complaints are lodged daily with this surrogate "management". I found the pettiness, at times, was downright astonishing.But there are those who are trying to repair the situation. For years, there has been in place what's called the 2-1-1 System. This is intended to refer the less fortunate to housing and other essentials. After contacting several different cities and following up on their referrals, I found that more than half led to dead ends. One typical referral was for an apartment complex offering transitional housing (usually lasting 6-18 months). When called, they indicate they haven't offered that for over two years (and no one bothered to update 2-1-1. So I did).

Without a doubt, however, in my journey through homelessness was the worst part of this unchosen lifestyle. Namely, the treatment received from people who have apparently never been in such a predicament. If they had been homeless, they would know how hurtful it is to judge someone who finds themselves in such a Godforsaken place in their lives. And, as a rule, it is the result of a life-changing event, such as long term illness or injury. It is not, for the most part, due to bad choices like drug or alcohol abuse. The overall majority come from prosperity lost and the subsequent loss of friends and family. Fair weather friends lost hang over the homeless like a common cloud of judgmental proportions. Especially since they know that these long ago friends can never be convinced that they have emerged from homelessness a better person and a more caring and thoughtful one when encountering someone who has not yet survived such a fate.

And, in the meantime, the homeless receive assistance but at the expense of their own self-worth. Social programs (especially government ones) are in place to accommodate the here and now: not future plans of growth and self-reliance. They make sure (or try to) there is enough food to go around, and they can accommodate as many people as possible with a place to sleep for the night. Very few ask the homeless participants to envision themselves back to their way of life they became educated for and worked at for years on end. Sometimes it's just a matter of reminding them that they can. Homelessness should not be something you accept as your plight: it should be a temporary continuation of your education for life. You will emerge with not just the education and experience you had when you entered this lifestyle without roots, you will also come out a better person and, more than that, a far less judgmental one.

What follows is my mind's eye snapshot recollections of this journey of what turned out to be over two years in length. My injury took place on commercial property due to negligence on the part of the property owners. My personal losses were profound: both physical and spiritual. The ones responsible refused to help in my healing and recovery so I was forced to file a lawsuit on my own behalf (given the difficulty in finding legal representation for what is termed a "slip and fall" lawsuit). As a result, I jumped through legal hoops for over a year afterwards.


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