Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Joe Omundson

The difference between homeless and houseless

(Photo by Garry Knight, cropped to fit)

One of the side effects of living in my car is gaining a little bit of perspective on what it's like to be homeless.

There's a huge difference between being homeless and houseless. Some people, like me, choose to live in a vehicle or a tent for the fun of it. We have the option of returning to housed life at any time. We are houseless on purpose. Overall, it's fun; it saves a lot of money and we can tolerate the discomforts.

Homelessness is living outside because you lack the ability, resources, or social status to pay rent and live inside, even though you'd prefer it. There's nothing fun about that.

I remember reading about how homeless people will often spend their monthly welfare check to get a motel room for a few days. I used to think: well, that's silly. Why would they do that? They could be buying food, or saving it up for other things they really need. Why blow it all on a shitty motel room?

Now I get it. Let me explain.

Earlier this month I was invited to live in an empty room at a friend's house in exchange for some work, but they quickly found a paying roommate and I had to leave. Before that, I'd been camping on a property where I could use a heater to warm my car and prepare food with an outdoor kitchen, but I couldn't return there because I'd already told the property owner that I would be moving out, and broken down camp. Now I found myself in the same situation I was in when I first moved to Moab: stealth camping on the street, using public bathrooms, not having a place to cook food, with all of my belongings in my car. No big deal -- been there done that, right?

The difference is: now it's fucking cold. That IS a big deal. It's been dipping down well below 20 degrees, even inside my car, and the lowest temperature I've seen is 14.6 F on my thermometer. I'm essentially sleeping in a freezer. Technically, it's fine because I have blankets, and down bags, and when I'm all bundled up I stay plenty warm. It's not like I'm going to freeze to death. The thing is, I can't just be in bed whenever it's nighttime. Nights are really long.

Most days, the library serves as my living room. It's usually open until 8pm, and I can hang out in the warmth until it closes, but that puts me out in my cold car at 8:05 and there aren't really any warm places where I can hang out until the library opens again at 9am. That's 13 hours, only 8 of which I can reasonably be expected to sleep. On Saturdays the library closes at 5pm, and on Sundays it's closed all day.

So I've had some days where I'm lying in bed in my tiny car for hours trying to stay warm, reading books or using my phone. I feel trapped in my bed because any part of my body that I expose to the air gets cold quickly. I don't want to drink water because it's icy and it makes me cold, so I get dehydrated. This is frustrating psychologically because all I do is wish that the weather would be warm again so I could be comfortable. Every morning frozen condensation coats the inside of my car.

There are other factors that compound the situation. Without a place to cook food, my diet went downhill a bit. I used to think this didn't affect me much, but after a few months of eating mostly real foods like potatoes, onions, and rice, convenience food definitely feels gross by comparison, and is much more expensive. On top of that, I had a couple nights of bad sleep. A few days ago I woke up at 2am and never fell back asleep. That whole day had a layer of haze that made everything feel surreal. These things add a dimension of anxious helplessness to life.

But, I went to bed very excited the next night, because in the morning my good friends were leaving town for a week and they'd asked me to house-sit for them. I only had to make it through another night of the trapping coldness and then I'd have a whole house to myself! Warmth! Privacy! Kitchen appliances! Hot water! A real bed! Space to move around! Internet! Electricity! Oh my god, what a dream! I shivered myself warm with a smile on my face.

I woke up at 4am and again had trouble falling back asleep. Never in my life have I been the kind of person to wake up in the wee hours and have trouble getting back to sleep, so this was eye-opening. I knew my friends were leaving "really early" that morning, so I waited until 6, drove to their house, found that they'd left, parked in the garage, brought in my food, took a hot bath, and passed out. I spent that day and the next one simply vegging out and enjoying the fact that life was so damn easy all of a sudden.

I'm lucky to be in the houseless class and not homeless, because I get these kinds of opportunities to regroup. While I'm here I'm going to be working on my car to make it a bit more livable. I have a Coleman stove now. I'll sleep in it for another week or so after my friends get back and then I'll probably head down to Arizona for a couple weeks where it's warm. I can get through the winter like this, subsisting on these sporadic exchanges with friends and community members.

But what if I were actually homeless? I only have a hint at what that would be like. What if on top of all the things I mentioned, I had the kind of social stigma that made people look down on me and see me as inferior? If the cold had been getting into my bones for years and not weeks? If I didn't have my secure warm bed in my car? If I was doing it not of my own agency, but because I had post traumatic stress from war, or a criminal record, or a mental illness, or a debilitating addiction, or no education, or childhood abuse or neglect -- all of which would reduce my opportunities even further? If I were anything but a white male in our society? If I was not only eating poor quality food, but actually going hungry? If I didn't have enough bedding to stay warm, and couldn't sleep well? These can be HUGE barriers to meeting even basic survival needs.

Many people who have never experienced homelessness don't understand why they don't pick themselves up by the bootstraps and start making the choices that will lead to "success". The reason is very simple: Maslow's hierarchy of needs. If someone faces extreme difficulty obtaining food, water, warmth, shelter, sleep, and safety, how are they going to focus on building loving connections and self esteem? If they can't build those things, how are they going to work on self-actualization -- the ingredient necessary for self-rescue from a very difficult situation? Planning an escape from that kind of hell requires long-term vision, yet all energy must be spent surviving today.

When you live in a house, life is easy in so many ways that you take for granted. It's easy to forget that you exist in a very uplifted mental and physical state compared to what a homeless person experiences. Tasks that are mindless for you can be exceedingly difficult for them. They are so busy just trying to keep their heads above water that they don't have the energy to swim toward shore, never mind learn how to water ski. It is no surprise that alcoholism and drug addictions are so common. They provide an escape from this dismal reality. People just want to feel OK.

The reason homeless people spend their monthly welfare checks on a few nights in a motel room is because they desperately crave a small taste of the quality of life that you experience on a daily basis.

If we really want to help homeless people, let's help them meet their basic needs in a secure, stable way. Let's give them homes first without presenting additional barriers. Let's not withhold financial aid because they suffer from addiction. Let's not make it hard for them to find bathrooms, water, or food. Let's not stigmatize them for mental illness or substance issues.

Don't be shy about giving them money. It doesn't matter what they spend it on. You have it and they don't. It gives them more power. If you can, give them shelter for a time, or at least don't call the cops to get them to leave a public space. Think about the basic things you have that they don't, and notice what they're missing, and try to help them have those things.

There are some actions we can all do to help, but ultimately this is a system-level problem. We live in a society that worships money and creates this class of people as a waste byproduct. The reality is, we have enough resources to house and feed all humans. It's a question of distribution, it's a question of our values and what we're motivated to do with our resources. Our economy is huge. There is excess everywhere.

Please believe in a future that manages our excesses in a better way, which will provide for the needs of those who are unable to navigate this hellish system instead of providing another billionaire with another billion dollars. Take the first steps in that direction, not only with your ballot votes but with the dollar votes you cast every day. Don't listen to the people who say homeless people deserve it because they did something wrong. It's inhumane, but more than that, it's shitty logic. Our current approach to homelessness costs us a lot, both in dollars and humanity. Adopting a housing-first approach would cost a trivial percentage of our annual budget and it would give hundreds of thousands of people a realistic path to regaining their dignity, stability, health, and productivity.

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Alex Wall
December 22, 2016 at 4:58 PM delete

We could not be more in sync.

People used to chide me about getting a motel room every now and then, that it wasn't keeping my mission to live at street level pure enough. None of them would have EVER been able to make it through one week--never mind whole months.

By the way, this is some particularly good writing...

"When you live in a house, life is easy in so many ways that you take for granted. It's easy to forget that you exist in a very uplifted mental and physical state compared to what a homeless person experiences. Tasks that are mindless for you can be exceedingly difficult for them. They are so busy just trying to keep their heads above water that they don't have the energy to swim toward shore, never mind learn how to water ski."

Keep expressing man. I feel like you are talking for me too (and many others). I'm sharing this post.

December 24, 2016 at 12:07 AM delete

As a formerly homeless man, and about to re-enter that same life, I can tell you that is completely accurate. Most people on the street are not there by choice, and the general attitude that they've done it to themselves is often wrong. Yes, I am in the situation because of choices I've made, but it's not as easy as just doing the right thing and I would get out of it. Employment gaps, educational gaps, child support payments, and other factors prevent me from working at a good job and getting a good paycheck, and the lack of a place to shower and sleep makes it a huge challenge to even get a crappy job. Even McDonalds, if it paid well enough to overcome the aforementioned child support payments, looks poorly on coming into work rain-soaked and smelling like you slept outside... because you did.

The hierarchy of needs part is especially true. When working the kind of jobs that I can get, I don't get enough money in my pocket to actually feed myself, let alone get an apartment. On the other hand, if I spend my day not working and roving from soup kitchen to salvation army, I can get a few decent meals, even tho I remain broke. Hunger is a powerful motivator, and if I can work and starve or remain jobless and eat, guess what I have to pick? Even Food Stamps aren't an option if I work, since my "need" is calculated based on gross pay, not net take-home pay. So when I work the government welfare that so many decry as just adding to the problem won't even help me. And yet some people say that we need to drug test everyone before giving them food stamps, because obviously they're all just drug addicts.

And don't think I live in some backwards area. I'm in Raleigh, one of the more Progressive areas of the South, and rated as a fairly decent place to be homeless. I won't starve out here, but then again, I won't thrive either.

More people need to think like you. Maybe then the world wouldn't look as bleak as it does from this side of the tracks.

Joe Omundson
December 24, 2016 at 3:33 PM delete

People are certainly good at having opinions about situations they don't understand at all, hey?

Thank you, again, like always, for your confidence and support.

Joe Omundson
December 24, 2016 at 3:42 PM delete

"Most people on the street are not there by choice, and the general attitude that they've done it to themselves is often wrong. Yes, I am in the situation because of choices I've made, but it's not as easy as just doing the right thing and I would get out of it."

The other thing I feel like people don't realize is that we're not all on a level playing field in terms of what life choices we make. Someone who grows up in a high-crime culture being physically abused and with poor education will likely have an inherently harder time making the "right" choices in life than someone who grows up with all their needs met and with good examples to follow. Not that it makes the bad choices any less bad, but it makes it easier to understand that our baseline perceptions and expectations of life are not the same, and that tends to have a real impact on the choices we make. We don't get to choose what we're born into.

Thank you for adding your perspective. It's rough out there. It makes me so frustrated that people don't take the time to understand what it's like, and rather stick to the easy dismissals and excuses.

December 30, 2016 at 9:45 PM delete

Your post moved me. Since I've taken to vanlife, my hearts opened to the problems of homeless folks. We have some in common, but I got means to get my needs met when I want.

I wrote something a few months ago on this topic, comparing my vandweller experience to my dad's living in a van because he had no choice.

Joe Omundson
December 31, 2016 at 1:33 AM delete

Thanks for sharing your article. Well said, and we are definitely on the same page with this.

I think it's a good point: "what's your safety net?" For homeless people it's the roughest option (if there's one at all) - shelters, random luck etc. Whereas if you have money, or a good community, you're not as worried about what happens.

Even hiking the PCT when I slept in a tent every night and had fewer belongings than an average homeless person, I had money and I had a very supportive community. Really made it obvious that it's not about where you sleep, it's about your social structure and autonomy and safety net etc.

Let me know if you come through Moab

August 1, 2018 at 2:32 PM delete

11yrs .. And it start as fun .. Just the fucking storm . from houston .. Yup lot alot ppl out here .. Everyone dead .. Now there is a new bunch of mf outhere . being a female.. Im blessed to still be here .. And no i have no "home" or "car" to go to .. And trust me this last strom was bad but im always scared when they come