Ten years ago, I was semi-homeless in the Quad Cities and had been that way for months. Since the end of the previous summer, I had been staying wherever anyone would let me crash. Most of what I owned I kept in a large duffel bag that was stashed either wherever I happened to be staying, or in someone’s car. It traveled, and not always with me. I worked multiple restaurant jobs to try and make ends meet, but it is not easy to survive on a server’s salary. I was relatively new to this town, and this was before the internet and all its tools were ubiquitous. So finding people to live with where I might have been able to put my meager salary toward a stable room with a bed was not as simple as it might be now.
Sometimes I slept on a broken down couch at the house of a friend-of-a-friend. When I stayed in that living room, my duffel bag hid out of site behind a different couch, and I had to wake up before dawn and find somewhere to hide out so I was not a visible and obnoxious presence. Usually I would hang out in the unfinished basement until the last of the footsteps overhead had died down, the front door had slammed for a final time, and most of the family was gone. Then I’d slink back to the living room and try to get more sleep until I had to be up for work in an hour or two. The mother of the house was an insomniac and would awaken in the middle of the night, pacing and smoking cigarettes in her bedroom directly above my head. I would hold my breath, hoping she wouldn’t come downstairs. She would not kick me out, but would be very obviously disappointed to see me there and would bombard me with passive aggressive questions about why I was not doing better for myself at eighteen or why I was not with my own family. When the insomnia was especially bad, she would plod down the creaky wooden stairs through the dining room next to where I slept, and she would sit at the kitchen table for hours. She sat just out of my line of sight, chain smoking, the light over the sink burning bright directly in my eyes. Her insomnia became my insomnia.
Sometimes I slept on a pullout couch bed in a dank basement. The couch was a deep goldish tan, worn out and faded, the fuzzy fabric matted and brown in several spots. A piece of plywood had been fashioned to supplement the sagging and delapidated frame. The “mattress” was little more than a threadbare sheath with lumps of bedraggled stuffing too sparse to fully cover the diamond-hard, aggressive springs. Separated from the couch, but in the same space, was the bed where my friends slept. They liked to fall asleep by turning on a local country music station, or at least that’s what they told me. Only years later did I realize this was less a quirk, and more a mechanism through which we all could avoid the awkwardness of me hearing them having sex. Not the kind of person who can easily fall asleep with television or music in the background, I would lie there awake in the darkness, clinging to a lumpy pillow and quietly crying.
There was a makeshift plywood wall with a poorly hung door that separated this space from the rest of the basement. When the door was shut, no light escaped into the space. It was pitch black, even at high noon. This made it challenging to wake up on time, especially as I battled constant and debilitating sleep deprivation.
Just outside the door to our sleep space was the washer and dryer, with a long row of clothes hung permanently on a rope clothesline. At the end of the long row of clothes was a working toilet. It was not a bathroom. There was simply a commode standing alone in the corner, dusty boxes of ornaments and baby clothes perilously stacked directly opposite. Next to the boxes was a large shelving unit that stood against the stairs. It was convenient to have a toilet nearby that I could use whenever I wanted. Normally, when I stayed somewhere, I had to sneak quietly to a bathroom in the middle of the night, shuffling slowly through a darkened foreign house, feeling along walls and ramming my shins into furniture. Even when I reached the bathroom, I wouldn’t use the light, lest it flood under the door and wake up the legitimate inhabitants of this space.* Having an accessible toilet nearby was a dream, except that it was just a toilet. And using it meant dropping your pants in hopes that no one would come down the stairs in search of a clean shirt or to grab something out of storage. Numerous times, I sat panicked, perched on the edge of the toilet seat as I heard footsteps overhead on their way to the basement stairs, and struggled to pee just a little faster so I could yank up my drawers before anyone saw my bare bum.
When I could get there at a decent enough hour to be let in, I slept in the bedroom of one of my girl friends, on a mattress on a floor with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle sheets that had belonged to her younger brother. That particular setup was truly luxurious. The only drawback was that her room was downstairs from the bathroom. The bathroom was directly next to her parents’ room, and dangerously close to the rooms of her slumbering brothers. When I woke up in the middle of the night there, I had to make myself go back to sleep and hope that I did not soil my TMNT bedding.
My boyfriend at the time was semi-homeless with me, and often we stayed places together. Some nights, we would spend the whole night just driving around, up and down the river, waiting for morning to come. Sometimes we would park and curl up in separate bucket seats, sleeping as well as we could until it got too cold, coats and extra clothes draped over our resting bodies. On nights when we had to do this because we couldn’t find anywhere to take us in, we would wait until the sun rose and then plot where we could sneak into for a few hours of daytime sleep before we each had to go to our restaurant jobs. Sometimes we would creep into his parents’ basement, which was brimming with boxes and uninhabitable. We would sit on the floor, our backs against mountainous piles of games, knicknacks, clothes, sports gear – a veritable treasure trove of forgotten items that had been purchased, used briefly (or sometimes not at all), and then discarded. Bleary-eyed and exhausted, we were surrounded by a world of consumption and abundance to which we had no access. When his parents had left for work, we would skulk up to the living room and collapse on the couch or floor.
One dire piece of surviving as homeless or semi-homeless is maintaining the appearance that you have not moved in to someone else’s space. Stay too many nights in a row and people start to get suspicious. Get too comfortable and eyebrows go up. Bring or leave too many of your own belongings and your presence is intolerable. You have to be nimble and nomadic, prepared to move quickly to avoid wearing out your welcome. Usually you can cycle back to a place, but not until after you’ve stayed away for a reasonable length of time.
A driving force in the life of someone who is homeless or semi-homeless is making every effort to be smaller and smaller. It is critical to be barely noticeable. You are an inconvenience. You are insufferable. You learn to make your presence as minimally invasive and impactive as possible. You develop habits like avoiding going to the bathroom in the middle of the night, and being content with as little as is available to accommodate you. When your ability to sleep in a warm space, to take a hot shower, to simply have a roof over your head is always precariously hanging in the balance, you learn to preemptively take whatever measures might make you least vulnerable. Shame and self-loathing become your baseline.
My own experience lasted only a year and a half, and I never had to sleep outside. I was always fortunate enough to have a job, and at least a vehicle to keep me safe(r) and warm(er). Because my jobs were in restaurants, I could squirrel away enough food to keep me from truly going hungry. The thing is, few people knew I had no place to call home or that I was struggling at all. I was not smelly or drunk or dirty; I did not embody any of the stereotypes of the homeless. I was young and employed and appeared healthy and well-rounded. I looked just like every “normal” inhabitant of Any Family USA.
That “normal” look was by design, because to admit that you cannot do it, to acknowledge that you are struggling and that you have no place to go and that you cannot remember the last time you had a substantial meal? That is to admit that you are defective somehow. You must not actually be trying, you must not be working hard enough, clearly you are doing something wrong.
My situation was nothing in the face of the plight of countless individuals who are at this very moment fighting through this. But the time I spent in that position was terrifying and demoralizing. It is only now, ten years later, that I am able to even begin to unpack the psychological and emotional trauma of that experience. In doing so, it is becoming increasingly clear to me what I have always known on some level: our system is broken. It is not our people but our culture that is defective.
*I started that practice after the sister of one of the people who let me crash complained that I used the bathroom in the middle of the night and the light was disruptive to her sleep.