What surprised me the most about being homeless was just how much time I had on my hands. Remember: no TV, no Internet, no video games, no inviting people over to hang out (tell you what, just make a list of how many of your leisure time activities require having a place to live). And at least I had a job -- but even then, it was one that had me working in the backcountry for a week at a time (Great! Meals and a place to stay for a whole week!) with a week off when I got back ("Hey, I just met you, and this is crazy, but ... shit, dude, it's really fucking cold out and I'm covered in a week's worth of trail grime, let me shower at your place, maybe?").
Andreas Rentz / Getty
You'd let her do it.
So ... what the hell do you do with yourself? Me, I went to the library, I visited the park, I tried going hiking, I spent time at friends' houses -- but each time, I ran into problems. I was new in a small mountain town and didn't know many people all that well. As for the parks and libraries, keep in mind that I looked like shit from spending so much time in the woods and having limited access to laundry and showers. Want to guess how I wound up spending that free time? Here's a hint: An estimated 50 percent of homeless people are addicts.
Yep, having nothing to do and nowhere to go got so stressful that I ended up finding a good source of LSD (at a shitty little dive bar), and this became my last resort for filling time. The thought process was basically "Yay, I have an activity for the next 12 hours! I'm going to manage an acid trip! I feel so productive!"
Keystone-France / Gamma-Keystone / Getty
Fifty-two of these is basically a year's employment!
And here's where I'll lose a lot of readers (think about the last time you considered giving money to a beggar, only to have a friend say, "He'll just use it to buy drugs!"), but I've found that there's a misconception here. The assumption is that all of these people are homeless because they're addicts -- they blew their rent money on drugs, right? But that's not always the case -- what often comes first is having nothing else to do (an especially big problem for people staying in shelters), and the boredom literally drives them crazy. I finally understood, in a very immediate way, why people who've been living on the street for a long time tend to be addicts: Drugs not only get you high, but also give you a schedule and a routine.
And once again we see how a short-term problem can turn into a cycle that threatens to suck the rest of your life into it.
Yuri Cortez / AFP / Getty
Much like this cardboard tube has sucked up a homeless man.
Digital Vision/Photodisc/Getty Images
Let's acknowledge what many of you have already noticed: Mine was far from the worst-case homeless scenario. Aside from the obvious (I had no disabilities or children to look after), being homeless made me aware of how much I had going for me: stuff like coming from a stable home, having a college education, knowing how to clean up after myself, and having a keen understanding of social cues -- all of that ended up being absolutely essential.
David De Lossy/Photodisc/Getty Images
As was the car.
Think about it: To spend a night on someone's couch and use their shower without paying 50 bucks for a motel, I had to convince people that I wouldn't steal from them, make a mess, creep out their friends, or just wear out my welcome in general. For example, I became very grateful that I'd learned how to cook -- people love having someone cook up a gourmet meal for them. Hell, just the fact that I'm a well-spoken white man with all my teeth makes all the difference when that's the face of a person who has shown up on your doorstep asking for food.
I have come to find out that people in my category -- those who live in cars and couch-surf their way through homelessness -- have been given a name: the "hidden homeless." These folks don't look like the "stereotypical homeless guy" with the crusty beard and bag of liquor. They're making the lifestyle work by being clever and funny and cool to be around, with the added bonus of us never noticing that they exist.
Digital Vision./Photodisc/Getty Images
Someone else's home doesn't count.
But here's the thing: The more time you spend homeless, the less likely you are to be a charming little rascal. It's hard to keep a smile on your face when you know you're just one quirk of fate away from sleeping in the dirt. It's hard to keep looking and smelling presentable when your hygiene and haircut budget is being spent elsewhere. Everything starts working against you, and you wonder how anyone ever makes it out. But they do ...
George Doyle/Stockbyte/Getty Images
The word "homeless" typically conjures forth a particular image -- usually a man, usually bearded, dirty, and mentally ill. This is not the typical homeless person. About three-quarters of them are homeless for less than two months, using shelters only once or twice the entire time. Only 16 percent of those without shelter are chronically homeless -- the rest are just riding out a tough time in their life, like I was. "Homeless" doesn't necessarily mean "worn out," either: Almost 39 percent of homeless people are under 18, and almost half of those are under age 5.
George Doyle/Stockbyte/Getty Images
This kid barely weighs anything, why can't he pull himself up by his bootstraps?
Obviously, this completely blows apart any argument people have that relies on homeless people being lazy or making communities look bad. These aren't roving bands of shiftless, alcoholic drug addicts begging for change on the street; they're normal people who hit one or two snags while going through a life just like anyone else's. In the case of the kids (which, remember, are almost half the population), they're normal kids whose parents hit snags -- they literally had no other choice or options.
Ditto for the 100 million homeless children worldwide. Pretend we wrote a dick joke here.
As I said, compared to what most people go through, my experience with homelessness was pretty cushy, but I was still only able to escape it through pure luck by taking a risk and moving to Seattle when my job ended -- and I've been housed ever since. For a lot of people, they never turn that corner, and they spend the rest of their life paying for one mistake they made, or a mistake someone else made, or random goddamned chance.
So, yes, I was one of the lucky ones.
William Bonnie lives in Seattle with his fixie bike, Blue Dream. JF Sargent is a Workshop Moderator and Dick Joke Journalist for Cracked.
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