Common sense dictates that when you’re adrift with not much left in life beyond the clothes on your back, survival means keeping a keen eye out for anyone coveting your stuff.
Now, not every homeless person is a thief. But there are plenty of broken down street people suffering from drug or alcohol addictions, mental illnesses and a host of other anti-social behavior problems. And many homeless who, under other circumstances, wouldn’t think of taking someone’s candy bar can’t resist temptation now. So, since hitting the pavement, I’ve been careful never to let my few remaining worldly possessions out of my sight.
In much better days, I traveled all over the world, seeing the huge airport signs warning travelers, “Unattended luggage will be destroyed!” Out here, unattended or not, anything is likely to be stolen – including your Jockeys.
It happened on a day when I didn’t know if I’d find a bed at somebody’s home or would be in a shelter that night. So, when leaving where I’d stayed the previous few days, I took my clothes with me.
In midafternoon, I was using a restroom at a drop-in center. As always, I’d taken my pack into the stall with me, resting a plastic bag filled with dirty shorts and socks on top of it. As I was undoing my belt, the bag rolled off the case and fell to the floor. No sooner did it hit the tiles but a hand reached under the door and grabbed it.
I tried snatching the bag back but just as my hand closed around it, the thief yanked it away.
I struggled to fight back tears of anger, frustration, despair, hopelessness, rage, emptiness and grief. From deep inside me, an accumulation of the physical and emotional toll of the last few years came bubbling to the surface: Fighting cancer and apparently succeeding; the shock of waking up pennliness one day, thanks to a swindling investment advisor; being hit and injured by a car as I crossed the street, and the months of frustrating, tough physical, speech and brain rehab; the dismay of losing my home; the terror of not knowing where I’d sleep tonight or if I’d eat tomorrow; thegrief at seeing my beloved dog Prince go into foster care because I couldn’t keep him with me.
And now, this.
It was too much. Sitting in a stinking public toilet, pants around my ankles, I broke down and sobbed uncontrollably.
Pulling myself together after a few minutes, I left the stall, washed my hands and splashed cold water on my face. At the drop-in center’s front desk, I was told of an agency that provides free clothes so I headed over there to replace what was stolen.
A robust woman in her late fifties with short, medium-grey hair and intense but understanding blue eyes, gave me a form to list my needs and sizes. She strode briskly into a storage area, returning with new underwear and socks along with a bonus of a few shirts.
I didn’t fuss over being given boxers even though I’d worn briefs since abandoning diapers. As “Seinfeld’s” Kramer once proclaimed, “My boys need a house!” Yet I was in no position to quibble, all too aware that I wasn’t a customer at a suburban mall but at an inner-city charity gratefully accepting free haishka’s – Yiddish for underpants.
The more I experience the struggle of simply staying alive every day, the angrier I get. Our social priorities, far too many politicians, and even a disturbing number of ordinary folks, are brutal – and brutish – about how to deal with people who’ve lost everything except their dignity.
In America, an entire political party and the movement backing it with cash, organization and a yowling media voice, is so focused on self-absorbed greed that it has lost sight of everyone who’s not rich, white, male, established and content. Indeed, conservatives keep demonstrating how totally indifferent they are to anyone whose life has taken an unfortunate turn. Mostly, they’d like us to go away quietly.
Homeless people are too visible to ignore; we’re in even city, town, village and hamlet. We’re easily overlooked but there’s no way of claiming, “There’s no problem here.”
But hungry kids, abused spouses, struggling parents working multiple jobs, the unemployed, people trapped in poverty, and students who cannot afford the post-secondary education that would give them a leg up, are out of sight. So, it’s easy for Republicans to blame them – as they blame the homeless – for bringing on their own problems.
Except that relatively few of us out here strove to achieve the life we’re now living, something Mitt Romney and the entire GOP refuse to admit. And, frankly, too many “centrist” Democrats give little more than a nod at a massive national disgrace.
If – when – I manage to get out of this, I’ll do my damndest to change that attitude, even if just a little.
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.