On Homelessness

July 30, 2011 § 1 Comment

I’ve been living in a van. This isn’t technically my first time being homeless, but it is my first time being homeless that I wasn’t being sort of peripatetic and traveling about the country living in tents and off the land. Being homeless in a city is a much different sort of thing indeed. There are many things one doesn’t think about.

The most pressing: where to pee. You find yourself carefully gauging your liquids intake. You can’t, like when you’re camping, just pee in any old place. In a city, even in a liberal city like Portland, that tends to be frowned upon (not that I haven’t clandestinely done it, of course). It becomes a serious sort of catch-22, however, because when you do have to pee, you have to patronize some place in order to use a bathroom. The cheapest way to do this is to buy a beer or a coffee somewhere, which simply makes one have to pee more, and now we find ourselves in a urinary infinite regress.

Which also means that when you really need to pee, you sometimes have to spend like $2 for the privilege. And even if you don’t have to pee, sometimes you have to spend like $2+ to have a place to go, to hang out, so as not to spend all day sitting on the sidewalk or riding the train back and forth across town, or sitting in your van baking in the greenhouse that it is in the summer months. And so it isn’t actually all that cheap, being homeless, because you have to find places to go and then you must patronize those places for use of their bathrooms and the right to sit there and read. And if you want to eat, you have to buy a sandwich somewhere, because you don’t have a kitchen.

Plus the necessity sometimes of booze. It is not easy to fall asleep in a sweltering van, let alone on the street, unless one is basically passing out. Sometimes I think that it isn’t the drink that makes people homeless, it’s the homeless that makes people drink. And well that isn’t exactly cheap either. And plus the increased need to pee of course, which drives one back to places which must be patronized.

Things you don’t normally think too much about, like bathing, become paramount. You shower at every possible opportunity. A friend invites you into their home? You ask to shower. Unabashedly. You ask to use their washer and dryer. This of course depends on whether you’ve been homeless so long as to lose your friends with homes or not.

Likewise, food moves from being a situation of ‘what do I want to eat today,’ to merely ‘where can I get calories cheaply and at a place where I can pee.’ As you can see peeing really is the most pressing concern. I’m thinking of my next pee right now. And after that pee I’ll begin thinking of the next pee.

You move from being a guesser to an asker (obscure internet meme reference). This maybe is a positive aspect of being a man without a home.

One can see where this can become fairly cyclical, in a not-so-great way.

One might think that you’d feel free, without the binds of rent to pay and such. But in fact you are quite the opposite. You become bound by the laws of non-privacy, of the business hours of cheap bars and coffee shops and burger joints. Of the bookstore with the bathroom you can usually use without patronizing the place.

It becomes a secret, an inducer of shame. You stop looking people in the eye, as if you might give yourself away as a transient.

I guess the point is that when your life becomes consumed by a focus on basic needs, it becomes difficult to find the mental or physical time to consider things like ‘how might I become un-homeless?’

I realize I don’t have it nearly as bad as most people living essentially on the streets. But I have found a new sort of appreciation for small things, like readily available toilets, hand soap, a place of solitude, modicums of confidences. Whatever charm you might have had, the humility of sometimes having to piss into a bottle or suffering the looks of baristas who know you’ve been sitting much longer at their shop than your one cup of coffee purchase should really allow makes short work of diminishing. I long for a toilet at hand, for rest, for solitude, for anything clean, for a book you don’t have to try to stretch out just so it will last as long as possible before you must find a new one.


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