I’d always thought of myself as a bit of a hermit – many writers are – staying indoors for days, sometimes weeks, except for walking the dog or running a necessary errand.
Yet even at my most isolated, I’d never really shut out humankind. I’d chat with Cathy and Mike who lived on one side of my house or with Jeff and Tara on the other. Ron and Norman at the corner spent every nice day sitting outside their place and always invited me to join them. Pat, an artist who lived across the street and puttered in her garden daily, was happy to talk about what she’d just planted or dug up, or her next show, or what I was writing. A long-time friend, Lisa, who lived a mile away, would drop by with coffee when she had time to chat.
I used e-mail constantly, keeping in touch with friends, editors, other writers and colleagues. Some I’ve known since 10th grade and most are scattered everywhere. The internet was a constant link to the world. During the Arab Spring, I streamed Al Jazeera’s amazing coverage onto my desktop all day. I dropped in on Paul Krugman and Maddowblog several times each day. I read this newspaper and everything else, from “The New York Times” and “The Guardian” to Juan Cole’s outstanding Mideast blog and countless other news and opinion sites – even Fox and Drudge. If I missed “The Daily Show,” I’d watch it on-line in the morning.
When I became homeless and lost regular access to people I knew, I lost my connection to the whispers of life.
“The loneliness kills me,” Erik said as we waited in line outside an agency that serves free meals. “Sometimes, I want to scream.”
Erik had been a teacher before getting laid off three years ago. In his 30s, he was short and stocky with flyaway brown hair. His deep-set green eyes had a hollow look. He ended up out here after losing his job and his wife lost hers which cost them their home before the marriage ended, too. Erik lived for a while with an aunt until she retired and sold her home. Since then, he’s stayed in shelters or slept on the street.
Erik’s story is typical for many people living on the edge, or at least those who didn’t drink, snort, puff or inject their way onto the streets. To an estimated 60% of us, a series of unconnected events, none good, pile on top of each other. And then you freeze, emotionally and psychologically, like a deer caught in the headlights of an onrushing auto because you don’t know what to do or how to get out of the way. It’s precisely what happened to me and many others, even though the specifics vary.
“Towards the end, I saw what was coming but couldn’t figure out how to stop it,” he shrugs, resignation in his voice.
Erik seems reluctant at first to give out too many details about his old life, a fairly common situation among the homeless. But as we stand in the bright sun waiting for the doors to open so we can shuffle through the line for our meal, a little prodding gets him opening up more. Maybe it’s been a while since anyone asked Erik for something other than spare change or a cigarette and he needs to talk.
“When things fell apart,” he continues, “friends disappeared like I was bad luck. When the ex and I split, all I had left were a few relatives. They helped some but they’ve got their own lives and families to worry about.
“The worst part of it is that I haven’t seen my kids in two months,” Erik says sadly as we walk in for lunch. “I really miss them a lot.”
My turbulent ride has been buffeted by supportive friends – and total strangers, many of who have been reading my reports here. Both left me amazed, touched, grateful and, at times, weepy.
With the exception of a few nights, I’ve always had a place to sleep. While at times the only money in my pocket was loose change, somehow a meal usually appeared because someone thought to check up on me and then ordered food delivered to wherever I was. And when I was very lucky, people who couldn’t really afford it themselves found a way to give me a few dollars.
The biggest obstacle to getting off the street is finding adequate support, whether from family and friends, social service organizations, charities or government.
While I don’t have a family – my parents and sister all died during the 1990s – I didn’t realize I had so many friends. What bothers me is that I am an unusual case. For those who don’t have what I do, there aren’t many places to turn. Charities and faith-based groups are overwhelmed, and governments won’t spend the money it’d take – and it wouldn’t be a lot – to get us off the streets.
America learned in the 1980s that tax cuts only enrich the wealthy and nothing “trickles down” to anyone else.
We learned during the 1990s that triangulating social issues simply cuts people off at the knees without doing anything to actually help them.
We learned from George W. Bush’s reign of error that destroying the social fabric of the country only makes us poorer – even the rich among us.
And we’re learning today from Republicans that they have no interest in doing anything to make America a stronger, more just and equitable place.
I’ve known this for more than three decades. Living homeless has shown me, in a much too in-my-face way, that there are too many zero-percenters with no one to help them up.
Author and journalist Charley James’ next book is about his experience becoming homeless. When published, Charley will donate a percentage of his advance and royalties to homeless organizations.