By Alison Barnet
Every time I forget my keys and have to sit on the front steps waiting for someone to come home and let me in is more than I ever want to know about homelessness. Well, I’ll just go into the bathroom or get a glass of water, I think. But I can’t! At least no one calls the police on me the way they do when less together-looking people sit on their stoops.
If I were actually homeless, within the first couple of days I’d undoubtedly be drunk, taking drugs, and smoking anything I could get ahold of. How else could I bear it? Pretty soon, I’m mentally ill, out of it, and look that way, but I feel a little better because of the substances I’m on. I sleep on park benches, bus shelter benches or wherever I can, desperately needing sleep but afraid of being raped.
When I see people walking around with shopping carts full of stuff, I think what my shopping cart (s) would be like: hundreds of books, notebooks and framed family photos. Could I bear not traveling with my treasured possessions?
You wonder why I don’t go to a shelter, but I’m afraid the belongings I carry with me will be stolen. I’m afraid it will be too noisy to sleep.
Then there’s food. I have a lactose intolerance and I wonder what would happen if I went to a free lunch place and ate something I shouldn’t eat. The next day I’d be in pain, needing to lie down, and in desperate need of a toilet. No “respectable” place is likely to let me in, so what do I do?
Kip Tiernan, founder of Rosie’s Place, once told me she didn’t think she could survive on the streets either. She said you have to be really tough.
Imagine not having a roof over your head, no privacy, no nothing! You know how it is when you can’t find your glasses or your keys, so imagine what it’s like not to be able to find anything because they’re not there at all.
I remember in the early 1980s when homelessness began in force. Wasn’t Ronald Reagan in office then? I was at the bus stop on a very cold day and there was an older woman, apparently homeless, without a sweater or coat. The other people at the bus stop were horrified; it was the first time we had encountered this. I also remember seeing a man walking toward the hospital, nicely dressed and trailing a suitcase. When I saw the same man a couple of weeks later, his clothes were ragged and he had very few possessions. Is anyone horrified anymore or are we used to it?
What about the hatred directed our way, the meanness of just about everyone? What happened to the rooming houses where people used to live? What was so awful about them (today’s point of view); weren’t they indispensable?
I call it “wrecked humanity” and often quote a friend: “You cannot be deluded about what’s happening in America when this is what you see.”
This article first appeared in the Fenway News in August 2019.
By Alison Barnet