"I saw as clearly as in a picture what an illusion my former personality had been...I had painted a picture of myself as a person who was in fact nothing more than a most refined and educated specialist in poetry, music and philosophy; and as such I had lived, leaving all the rest of me to be a chaos of potentialities, instincts and impulses which I found an encumbrance and gave the title of Steppenwolf."
- Herman Hesse (Steppenwolf 1929)
The homeless aren't generally thought of as a cerebral group. Media images often portray them as a drug taking herd of cows migrating to the areas that offer the most free services.
The images can range from sympathetic (down and out) to disgusting (drug user, etc), and the standard way to express the negatives is to quote a business or property owner who almost always says he or she was sympathetic at first, but came to Jesus on the issue and wishes that all those lazy asses would just go get a job or just go away, and that they're bad for business.
As far as bad for business, that can depend on your point of view. A large population of homeless can indicate that landlords are doing a bang up business with euphoric rent levels, and in some areas, it can indicate that the drug industry, both legal and illegal, has achieved maximum market penetration with so many wrecked lives.
Sky high rents indicate that the area is doing well. So well that it becomes desirable to squeeze out the lower tier workers to make room for those who can afford the higher cost of living.
The stark reality is that in society, certain people will benefit from the system, and some won't. There's no frontier or Foreign Legion to send the losers of the game to, and the cost of social services gets higher and higher.
Many of the negative stereotypes do have some basis in fact, but the basic image of a homeless person is shaped by a specific set of images, mainly the druggie/squatter and mentally ill types. Personally, I don't object to that, particularly if that'll get those groups some help.
The stereotyping was useful to my own homelessness, as it was for many of the homeless living in vehicles, as it makes it easier to stay off the radar. The focus tends to be on the more "newsworthy" transients on the streets and in camps, so the ones who can steer clear of those enclaves.
I wasn't some unique type, there were plenty like me. We tended to find each other, and had very similar characteristics that included being comfortable with solitude, a strong desire to avoid trouble, being an observer type who looked before acting, and most of all, a strong sense of self.
That sense of self is always there. It can be shrouded in layers, but it's there.
One of the things people will think when they read my book is that much of the former self was deconstructed out there. That's sort of true, my inner self had been shaped by 20 years of life in Silicon Valley, but what looked like a massive crash was also shedding layer upon layer of externals like lifestyle things, the trappings of an imagined life.
Like being an artist and musician type. That was how I saw myself before the fall. But a true musician, for example, might lament the loss of a favorite guitar (happens a lot around rent time, etc) but it'd never make him or her think they had lost their art. I had accumulated a wonderful instrument collection, but somewhere along the line it had become acquisition for it's own sake. As each treasure had to be sold to survive, it felt like my ability to make music was dissolving.
It wasn't any different when losing a loved house, or car, or any valued possession, and the cascading feeling of loss with each item was disheartening. It's not like in the movies where the most treasured one goes last. When you need cash, the most valuable ones go first, and early on, the feeling is not loss but relief that food, gas, or whatever is on the way.
The ones that hurt come later. There came a point when there was only a couple of cheap guitars left (the ones for backup, traveling with, etc), and those were the ones that really hit home. Most serious musicians use some "cheapies" that are expendable, but in my case (and others I imagine) those were as carefully picked as the vintage collectibles. It's like seeing the last of your water drip out of the canteen in the middle of a desert..
It's that continuous string of losses, not just of instruments, that would become part of the new life.
It can seem like a life is being destroyed, but it's not. I ran into people who were chronically homeless, and had come to terms with owning less. Sure, they loved their things, but it was no longer tied to status. The outside world might think that a beat up old RV was a sign of a fallen, nomadic life, but to the owner, it was home, and all the good feelings that can bring.
At some point those people stopped feeling sorry for themselves, and just got on with life. Some make it out, others make do, and in my case, I learned from both groups. The day that I stopped regretting things meant that time was on my side.
...a wonderful life...
The basic plot of my book is about an artist type who had a life of music and writing deconstructed into rootless wanderering.
In the 1800s, my life would have taken a different course. I could have taken the money saved for a job search and bought a rifle and camping equipment and headed west. The journey might have ended in my death due to one of many factors, or could have led to a new life, but it would be a free life.
In modern society, you can't do that. There's an immediate need to find shelter, as there's really no place to go except camping grounds and that sort of thing, and finding a job requires staying in a wifi environment. Going off to live like a mountain man isn't an option in most places, and even if I could, that's not the kind of life I want.
I was an unemployed homeless person with no place to go. I took off in my car and treated it as a road trip until a job came along, as it had always had in the past. In the book I describe it as entering a downward spiral, but not knowing it.
That beginning stage isn't well documented. There's plenty of media stories about what the down and out do, what they look like in camps and skid rows and how they act. How they got there tends to be a quick sentence or paragraph before getting to the juicy stuff like drug use or peeing in public.
That day I became homeless, how I handled it, and why it was a sure path into a life in a car was something I didn't understand until the second draft of the book. It seemed just like a temporary stage at the time, a period that one could just pass the time on a road trip till a new job came along, but there were elements of my prior life that was like an airliner that seems to be flying OK, but with a lot of little problems that just needed a final catalyst to become catastrophic.
I had a life full of good work, a rich musical hobby that was seen as a possible path to a dream life but was fun no matter how it went, and while I had a lot of sympathy for the homeless back then, it was still a case of thinking that it was a choice, or the result of choices that regular people wouldn't make.
That's why it's easy to go into denial, or swing the other way into panic when it happens. Most of us have an idea of what it's like, having been in transition at one time or another. When it becomes a state where there's no visible end game, where the present is all there is, the first feelings of denial or fear are due to a simple reason; it's not that common an experience after all. It's the unknown.
It's not good enough to know how to rough it for a couple or a few days.
Knowing what to do at first isn't taught in schools, and the media is more focused on the sexy stuff like shooting up in alleys. There isn't much to read to prepare you, even though there's a lot of collective wisdom that goes back to the pioneer and hobo days that's still in practice by a huge number that stay off the radar.
...let's talk about food again...
For example, the information about food in the United States has moved away from simple facts into the realm of religion, and away from survival and into psychological areas like self esteem and class based thinking.
It's perfectly OK to enjoy fine foods and exotic dishes. I love eating various ethnic foods, when I can afford it.
Out there in the car, my cuisine was what I could afford after gas and dog food (with almost all the homeless I ran into, children and dogs ate first). Luckily I ate simple most of the time before the homeless life, so there was no horror about eating a can of beans or anything like that.
In fact, my only horror was seeing how foodie trends had made many of the traditional staples like canned sardines seem like chewing dollar bills, turning the traditionally stuffed tins into oil filled aquariums with maybe four fillets floating about. Getting a tin stuffed with fish costs more than Kale chips.
Dinner was what I could afford that day, and it had to be what I could afford that week or even that month. People diet all the time in this country, but when you have to cut calories because there's no money to buy expensive stuff, then it becomes part of the misery, and it shouldn't.
I've said before, abject food misery disappears after seeing someone eat out of a garbage can. Then even spam starts to look like chicken.
...a word about budgeting on the road...
One piece of advice is to immediately cut common expenses like Netflix, four dollar lattes, and so on, and to not do it gradually. One common experience that people had out there was to gradually reduce expenses as the money ran out. Many told me that it was an extension of living check to check.
It's better to not even look at your expense sheet, and just make a very short list of what's needed to survive. Forget everything else, the comfort stuff, purchases to take the mind off troubles, and examine anything that costs over a dollar. The short list should be gas, food, and water (not as critical, there's plenty of clean free water out there).
In other words, don't just reduce expenses. Cut down to absolute basics, and examine each new expenditure as if it were your last dollar. Start from zero.
Imagine being broke. Picture any expense that seems necessary, like yoga class or Starbuck's lattes, and imagine how necessary it would feel if the only way to get money for it was to beg for it or steal. Meditate about having just twenty dollars, and what you'd buy with it if that's all you could count on for that week (or month).
Those aren't questions you'll learn in school or on a TV show. It goes against the American religion of winning, that a hard working individual can come out on top, and being optimistic. It can feel like it's giving in to the situation.
I believed all that stuff sitting in that car, and still do now, but until the good things happen, it's good to know what you'll do with that last twenty in your wallet or purse.
You might make a lot of mistakes at first. If you want to know how many are possible, read my book when it comes out, I made plenty.
...the fairer sex....
One interesting change in media coverage is that some of the more recent stories have put a picture of a younger attractive woman as the main picture. That isn't surprising as the homeless demographic is much wider in scope than most would think. In one of my earlier book chapters, there's descriptions of female Millennial homeless based in cars, and later on, in camps. Some were there because of drugs, for others it was the alternative to living with an abuser in an area where even software engineers can have trouble affording a place to live.
One could argue that using a picture of a young female is a better optic on an article, but it depends on the slant. In many cases, the image of a wild meth head fits the narrative better. If you go to any large gathering of transients, particularly in urban camps like in San Francisco, there'll be a diverse mix of races and sexes there in the tents.
Personally, I think it's good to have more normal looking faces in the stories, and it would generate more understanding if the media would simply make it a point to show the same sympathy they give to disaster and war victims.
In my book, I described a woman who was briefly Ivy's dog sitter's life, and saw her, like many others, treated with the same broad brush used on meth heads and criminals, and it had the effect of trapping her in the street life. She got used by some men who promised a Cinderella type road out, and she wasn't the only younger female that was. It's a brutal life out there, and more so for females, whose prince was more often a pimp, dealer, or predator.
I doubt she'll drop that far. She was lucky in that there was a sprawling but cohesive group in that area that watched out for each other, and they stayed within a defined area for mutual support. Wherever I went, there were communities. People who stay off the radar, yet keep track of one another and help if there seems to be a problem.
On hot days for example, many would check in on Ivy and me, and offer cold water or ice, and even small amounts of cash. It was common practice in those groups, and I did the same. The book's center is the summer of 2016, and that time was probably the closest I came to dropping down into the camps on the river bank, and there were two main reasons that didn't happen.
One was that so many on the internet donated for food and keep my car running, and the other was coming under the protection of some very good people who, even though homelessness was a permanent state for them, would tell me that I was too smart for that life, even when I was telling myself that living in a car it was all I deserved.
When I see a media story that shows a normal person in the pictures, those are the faces I see, the ones who are better than the parts of society that think they're good for nothing. Many are worth a million of the respectable trolls that despise them.
One of the challenges out there on the road was keeping Ivy's hair trimmed and styled. It was one of the conditions of adopting her.
I decided early on that her hair (shih tzus have hair, not fur) was my responsibility, partially due to the cost of dog grooming, and because I figured it was a bonding situation.
Ivy never treated it as a bonding process. In fact, she'd run and hide the second the tarp and trimmer came out. I had to make sure to do it in a closed room and to never let her out of my field of vision even for a moment, like when switching the trimmer head or getting the scissor, or else she'd run for the hills.
It eventually became obvious that it was noise from the electric trimmer that freaked her out. Which no longer became a problem once we started living in the Cadillac.
Out there, it was all scissors. The first attempts looked bad, and once she had to walk around for a month with uneven ears and half her face almost bare. She didn't complain, maybe after seeing me cut my own hair in front of a side view mirror. My huge bald spot took a lot longer to grow back than her's. Probably decided that she gotten off easy.
My haircut made me look like a nutcase, and one of the early chapters of my book describes how I decided to go ahead and use that look to make some of the more aggressive homeless give me a wide berth at one place where we stayed. Kind of like how Native Americans treated the mentally with a certain awe and forbearance.
I never quite got the hang of comb and scissor cutting, qnd the haircut would be in three stages over the course of so many days. First day, it would be her face and paws. Second, neck and sides, and finally the rest of the body. I couldn't block cut without an electric trimmer, so we'd sit out there in a windy area (so the hair would blow away and not pile up), and gradually snip away until the hair was about half an inch long.
The process was later sped up by the use of a battery operated face trimmer waved over her body like a magic wand, lower and lower until the desired hair thickness was achieved. This could take a while, as I limited the sessions to about a hour per day. Any longer and Ivy would just lay down for a nap.
The ironic thing was that it did become a bonding process. She stopped running away at the sight of a scissor, and her only disappointment was that there wasn't the customary bath after. To make sure that the hair was being cut evenly, I had to smooth it down a lot, and she treated it as petting, and it was an interactive activity, which she always enjoyed.
The last haircut was when she died. I know it made no difference, but I combed her out and groomed the ears and face. It wasn't about how she was going to look, but how I'd see her for the last time, and that her spirit would see that right up to the end, I was still trying to get it right.
We went out with a win.
- Al Handa 9/16/17