Shelter Life Pt. 6, Homeless Identity

Empowerment vs Discipline & The Prison Industrial Complex

There is always a fight, and I am always on the front lines. Regardless of whether or not I feel defeated, I will fight. As long as there is a reason to fight, I will fight. More likely than not,I will fight until my dying breath. It is my curse. Perhaps I will die fighting a war I cannot win.
When my husband and I sat at shelter intake, I began to realize that the world in which I knew would look very different, very soon, but I hadn’t considered that the world, the humans I dance this dance called life with — I didn’t consider that they too, would be looking at me very differently, very soon. Sometimes we don’t choose the identity the world imprints on us, and that identity can be very oppressive. And, perhaps, for most of us, we don’t even want the identity that is given to us, but regardless of whether or not we want it, we’re forced wear it.

This became most clear to me when I got tossed into the welfare system, landing, not softly, into a New York City homeless shelter. Suddenly, my identity was no longer my own. I was no longer a writer. Or an academic. Or a skeptic. Or a fairly privileged, married white woman. Or a college-educated 20-something. I was suddenly a case number, but more specifically, a degenerate.

There is just as much internal struggle as there is an external struggle. We’re constantly fighting. Something. Someone. We’re fighting the system, while also fighting ourselves. I have tried to comment on this phenomena much in my previous chapters, but the complexity of it is not easy to digest. I am no psychologist, but I am, again, an academic, and very much a skeptic. Now, I’m beginning to realize that my internal struggle is yearning to choose my identity while also preventing it from being taken away. As I’ve mentioned, at least once before, every person that lives in the shelter system, if not now, did once, have a life. They had passions. They had goals. They had communities in which they belonged to. However, little by little the routines we collectively engage in, the language, the ideology, it slowly begins to re-write our sense of self. Each time we step through a metal detector, as we sign in and out of the building each day, at each room inspection, we reconstruct our identity. We’re internalizing the message that, hey, you’re not worthy — you’re sub-human. And, more importantly, this identity of a homeless vagrant, an exiled beggar, becomes reinforced, and we lose our real selves.

Again, my husband and I ponder, bouncing ideas off of each other, the psychological effects of living in a homeless shelter, but even more specifically, the disciplinary system that exists within the shelter system. The disciplinary structure leaves very little room, if any at all, for empowerment. Without it, we become crippled with the inability to create a life of structure that is distinctive to our identity. This is enormously true for us as students. Our privilege affords us mobile WiFi, among many other small conveniences that bring us closer to who we are. Again, homeless shelters are “not meant to be comfortable”, as we’re often reminded, however, as I’ve also mentioned many times before, maintaining a level of commonality that at least, minimally, protects routine and schedule, is essential to forward momentum — to the prevention of back-pedaling. Disrupting these essential parts of daily life, that makes things work efficiently, will inevitably create back-pedaling. Creating obstacles, as a form of disciplinary structure, is counter productive.

I’ve witnessed and experienced the process and order of adjustment first hand. It begins with hysteria, and this is true for everyone, but then, eventually, we adjust, and our prison is no longer a prison. What is strange is that, in time, we don’t see our chains, we become willful prisoners, subservient, in fact, and begin to bond, or even feel very fondly towards our jailors. In time, we internalize this idea that this is all there is, all we deserve, and all we can achieve. We start to believe that this is the natural order of life and we are simply where we belong — that there is no room for us elsewhere. Maybe this is precisely the reason why the family who lived here before us stayed for 7 years. Perhaps the system in place is simply not effective.

My husband, a student of psychology, is considering conducting research on the psychological effects of living in homeless shelters. This would be a difficult feat, indeed. There is virtually no research available on the New York City shelter system. Realistically, how would anyone conduct any? No one can come in or out of shelters. As a matter of fact, doctors and nurses must be escorted through the building by guards just to see their patients. So, the only way anyone could potentially conduct research is from the inside. Would it be unwise of us to take such a risk? Our lives, whether or not we are sheltered, could quite possibly be affected by each word I type.

Before I end this chapter, I would like to point out that, through Writer’s Journals, an assignment I have been producing for one of my courses, has encouraged me to consider not only its genre but also the direction in which I will go with this project. At this point, we know this is a form of the Personal Essay, however, I hope to discover, more clearly, what my goals are as we progress. Thank you for sticking around.

If you’d like to help support us by purchasing and reading Chapter One, titled, A Story of Landlord and Tenant: Exploitation, Eviction, and Homelessness, you can buy it here for $2 in either English, French, or Russian. We will profit a little under $1 for each sale. The money we raise will go directly towards helping us transfer out of the homeless shelter into an apartment.

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