Every story you hear about homelessness starts the same way: Drugs, substance abuse, mental illness. These are the tropes we cling to, anchors that say this was their fault. That can’t happen to me. I work too hard, I try too much. Homeless people get what they deserve. I won’t end up like that. Not me.
I’m one of those people homelessness happened to. The week I graduated high school I was tossed out of my family. I was a good student who had already signed a contract to go into the military. I was still discarded and left to fend for myself in downtown LA. I was 18 years old and scared out of my mind. I learned a few things during that time that stay with me till this day.
1. If Someone Offers You Something for Nothing, There’s a Catch in There.
I was hanging in the park, close to Union Station, waiting for people to throw food away. The sun had set and it gets a hell of a lot more dangerous. I should have been hunkered down for the night but I was so hungry. Hungry enough to risk it, hungry enough to try. Some drunk college age boys came up to me with a nice looking sandwich. They offered it to me and I eagerly accepted. They all stood there smirking at me. Before I could take a bite one of the guys started laughing. “Hey, he jacked off in that and you’re gonna eat it! Man, that’s so damn cool.” I lifted the top piece of bread and sure enough, there it was. I tossed the sandwich and got the hell out of there, hearing drunken laughter following me. I huddled in my hideaway that night, hungry and pissed.
Oh, and if you ever wondered why a homeless person refused unwrapped food from you? Now you know why. People like messing with the homeless, because who’s going to complain?
2. Don’t Judge People Just On What You See.
One time a normal looking, clean cut guy started chatting me up, trying to convince me to follow him to the other side of the bridge. He had a business over there, could give me a job. Work. A place to live. One of the local gangbangers stopped us and scared him away. Turns out the guy in the polo and khakis was a pimp, looking for the underaged runaways. That gangbanger did me a solid I’ll never forget. He called me a bebe de calle, a street baby. He and his crew looked out for the new kids as best they could.
3. Some People Are Assholes. Because They Can Be.
I used to try to sleep during the day. A lot of homeless do. Why? It’s generally safer that way. You’re less likely to get messed with. I was sleeping in union station one day, curled up out of the way. A guy in a nice suit kicked me twice, laughed, and kept going. It happened more often then I care to admit. Some people are going to be assholes, because that’s all they can be. Take the kick and keep going. It might define them, but it doesn’t have to define you.
4. But Most People Are Kind
Still in Union Station, wandering around. An older lady was dragging her suitcase when it popped open. The suitcase was older than me and had seen better days. My ribs were aching but I hurried over to help her gather her stuff. She thanked me in Spanish and then haltingly told me, “Your eyes. They look like my granddaughter. Except pain.” She gave me a blanket before she left, a token that kept me warm for many nights.
5. Everyone Needs A Place To Belong
For my first few nights I was alone and scared. I barely slept. I shivered and hid, trying to be invisible until one day I was taken under the Sweeper’s wing. She was unfailing kind but plagued by mental illness. She used to sweep the front of her tent day after day. She introduced me to the other homeless people, folks who helped look out for me. If I had food I’d share, and we’d all eat. We understood each other like no one else could. That sense of community, belonging can keep you going when nothing else will. Learn to take care of your people and learn to belong somewhere.
6. Everyone Needs To Be Seen
One of my friends during that time was Min. She was bigger than life when the sun was up. Blowing kisses at the cops, picking up any small and shiny thing. Her coat was at least 3 sizes too big and dotted with her treasures. You could see her almost a block away, sun shining and flashing off of whatever she’d found that day. She was like an exotic bird, the exact opposite of me. I tried to hide, to blend in with the walls. She was an attraction, someone people stopped by just to watch, like a performance show.
At night we’d sometimes huddle together. After dark she was quiet, without the bravado of her days. Once I asked her why she was so very loud, so happy and free.
She sighed and told me “this is the only way I’ll ever be seen.” Min just wanted to be seen as a human again, for a single moment.
7. Be Damned Grateful For What You Got
A guardian angel helped get me off the streets. She gave me a voucher for a run down hotel near by. The first time I took a hot shower after my time on the streets I cried. I soaped myself up again and again, scrubbing everything madly. I was so very aware of how lucky I was, sitting alone and safe in a hotel room. I had a bed, I had a door. I had a toilet. It was all suddenly overwhelming. You might be working, struggling, reaching for more. That’s all right. Don’t forget to remember what you have.
8. Prepare For The Unexpected
No one expects to be homeless. It’s not something you can prepare for. The future never is, no matter how hard we try. But living on the streets teaches you to keep going after you’ve been kicked. I keep a go-bag in my car, rations in the house. Both places have a small cash stash, water, a first aid kit with extra meds and a list of everyone’s prescriptions. No matter what the universe throws at us, my kids will never go hungry or without. When the pandemic hit I already had extra supplies. We would have been bored eating peanut butter and canned foods, but we would have survived. This serves me well in the business world too. That curve ball you throw? Someone like me will catch it and juggle it. It’s all we know how to do.
9. Life Changes You. Be Grateful For That.
I was 18 and on my own when I slept on the streets. I learned to be fast, I learned to take care of myself. I learned to live lean. I also learned that pride doesn’t mean squat, but your word is everything. Being homeless changed my perspectives in a lot of ways. I’ve got more compassion than I did as a kid. I learned not to be my parent’s daughter. I built a life I can be proud of. Ramen is also still one of my favorite comfort foods, because of the restaurant that fed me every week. I picked up my pieces and made something beautiful. Because that’s who I am. I made me and I’m grateful for that.