What It’s Like To Be Homeless

people-850097_1280“Get a job, you bum”!
I slowly open my eyes, hearing a voice and those unkind words in my ears. Not anything I haven’t heard before. What I see is a suit, dark and cheap. Kind of like the ones I used to wear, when I had a job and a life. A face above the suit, nothing remarkable about it, except for the spittle forming at a corner of the mouth. Striped tie hanging down, almost touching my face. I look down along my prone body and see his leg moving back, as if to send send a kick my way. Perhaps to emphasize my ‘bumness’? I move a corner of the blanket I’m under (stolen, I mean donated from a ‘Goodwill’ box), just enough for him to see the switchblade in my hand. Wow, what fast reflexes he has! He is already moving away almost before I can cover up again. But not before I see the anger in his eyes; anger and disgust, that I dare to take up sidewalk space where he has to walk. Another day on the street begins.

I sit up and quickly scan around me, as a soldier might upon hearing a sudden noise. No cops around to try chasing me off before I can gather my things. Shoes still on my feet, blanket untouched. Backpack/pillow unopened; so far so good, looks like I still have all my ‘stuff’. It all does need washing however, so do I. When I can smell myself, I know it’s bad. Yes, reeking might be a better word. It explains how people smell me and wrinkle their noses in disgust even before they see me. Then the reactions get even worse. When I recover from my own stench, faces almost come into view. Nothing out of the ordinary, just random eyes and faces either looking or trying to not be caught looking at me. I hardly recognize faces anymore, too many go by to be anything but a blur. Well I do recognize the cops that usually chase me off, but have enough pity on me to let me move just out of their sight. I also (usually) recognize the one or two people that will put some coins or even a couple of dollars (breakfast!) in my gloved hand. No such luck in that way today, but nothing is missing either. In more good news, it’s not raining and I’m not freezing. Time to get moving and get going, somewhere.

First of course I think about what brought me to this living on the street; no home, family, job or money. For me it was …[Fill in the real stupid reason you ruined your entire life, here]…
Some suggestions: Cheated on spouse/drugs/drinking/stole from work/robbed someone or someplace/drove drunk and hurt or killed someone/hurt a child, well you get the idea. Or get creative and come up with something of your own. Whatever it is, someone has probably done it. Or just maybe it was something done to you, like being a casualty of military service. Or you just didn’t receive the help you needed when you needed it.Yes I am still to this day surprised and saddened at how I ended up like this. Every homeless person thought the same as I did at some point, that things would just work out. They always had. Until they didn’t.

I sling my backpack on and start walking (maybe trudging is more like it? I do have pain in my legs and everywhere else, the price of having a cement bed). I keep my clothes and myself as clean as possible, thanks to the kindness of priests at a nearby church. They let me wash my clothes and myself in their private area inside. As long as I don’t do it more than once or twice a week, the church doesn’t want me becoming a magnet for other homeless. I might not agree with that, but I can understand. I am in no position to argue it anyway. All I have to do is promise to attend services more often, which I do of course. I mean I promise to. The church does sound like a good place to start my busy (yea right) day.
I see a newspaper on top of a garbage can and grab it. Wow, I think it’s from today. I’m never sure what day it actually is, I never need to, but let’s see what’s happening in the world without me. Murders; wars, arrests and politicians making promises. Some things never change. Oh wait, the local team won, that’s different. I sit down on a bench near the church and against my better judgment glance at the ‘Help Wanted’ ads. I don’t expect to find anything, but I have to look, it’s a compulsion. Even though I can’t, I just can’t get my hopes up about anything. It hurts too much after. Hope is one of the many things I can no longer afford. Despite my reluctance, an ad actually catches my eye. It’s for a start-up in the field I used to work. Experience preferred; which I have, open interviews, and it’s only about a mile or so from here! The thoughts swarm (slowly at first, the only thoughts I have had for a while are about food and survival, but quickly gain speed and traction in my head); “what if, what if I actually got a job, this job! What if I could have a life again, a place to live with a roof and a refrigerator? And a bathroom of course”! Oh and keys. [Pop Quiz: how can you tell if you are in jail or homeless? Answer: you don’t have a key that opens anything. I no longer have any keys]. What if…what if… then I look at myself and realize what am I thinking? How am I going to get this or any job? How do I fill out an application with no address, no phone # and no references? With no way of proving I know the work? The next thought is how can I not try? The thought after is in the voice of an old drill sergeant “There you go thinking again”.

I rush into the church and my luck is holding out. I run (stumble?) my way to the priest by the alter and show him the help wanted ad. We talk and he convinces me, and/or I convince myself to go to the interview. He writes down a phone # I can say is mine, then we then say a prayer for my success. I know he is a good man who wants me to get a job and a life again but; I do wonder though if deep down he is praying for me to succeed, so there is one less homeless hanging around. I shave with an old razor and sponge bath in a bathroom sink. After my stomach growls loud enough to be heard, I eat a couple of pieces of bread I am offered, along with a glass of water. I don’t think it was communion bread, but that couldn’t hurt if it was, right? I pull a pair of slacks and a collared shirt out that were buried in my backpack, not too badly wrinkled. I don’t even remember where I got these from. Then the priest comes out with gifts, a tie and a pair of shoes that are just a little big on me (they might have belonged to him, ‘God bless him’). Believe me, too big is a lot better than too small. After I dress, I don’t even recognize myself. That can’t be a bad thing. A final quick prayer and a final “God Bless” and I am on my way to destiny, I hope (uh oh, there’s that word again, hope).

My luck is still holding out, (although I know at some time there will be a price to pay for all this ‘good luck’) it’s not raining. I know where the place is and the walk is not bad at all. I almost feel ‘normal’ and I’m almost smiling. Now I am at the place and handed a clipboard, pen and an application. I look around at all the other hopefuls, I don’t think I look too much worse than them. I fill out the application with the name on the ID (that has a pasted picture of me) and matching social security card I got from somewhere. I put down the phone # the priest gave me as well as an old address I used to live at. I finish and hand it back to the receptionist, who actually smiles at me! I then dash into the bathroom and stare at myself in the mirror, thinking of all the ways I could improve myself. I haven’t even finished this list in my head when my ‘name’ is called.

I actually remember how this goes, shake hands with the ‘younger than me’ interviewer and exchange ‘how are you’s’. Then the usual questions; which I have no trouble answering, even surprising myself (I had been told many times I should have been a sales person). Then the question came I had been dreading; “Why are you no longer employed at your last job”? The bull**** I came up with was that did not leave on the best of terms as I had quit to start my own similar business, which my former employer didn’t appreciate. Therefore they may not be ‘honest’ if asked about my work there. I then had to say that my business was not successful. This line actually seemed to work, somehow. Then the interview was over; we shook hands and again I actually received a smile, while being told that I should get a call from them in a couple of days. I think I may have even smiled back! I walked out smiling at the receptionist, trying but failing to not deceive myself into thinking that I could actually have a chance at getting the job. I’m surprised my mouth doesn’t hurt from all the smiling.

The next day was pouring rain, so I stayed huddled in my sleeping bag, only interrupted by the quick runs to snatch some food. As the interviewer had said they would call me in ‘a couple of days’ and having had better dreams than usual, I went back to the church two days later to find out if the company had called. The priest saw me and ran over. “Where have you been? The company called you later that day, they wanted to talk to you again”! “They must have really liked you”. He then dragged me inside to a room where I could have some privacy and handed me a phone, “Call them”! So I did. My heart sank and my head exploded as the voice on the other end told me how impressed they had been with me and that they had wanted to talk to me soon as they could. But when they didn’t hear from me, they had to offer the position to someone else. They would of course keep my application on file. Somehow I managed to not throw the phone against a wall, but I did rush out of there before I could do something not nice in a place where one should not do not nice things.

I managed to go to sleep that night on my concrete bed (with one eye open of course) , almost hoping someone would try something with me so I could hit them. I knew… I knew… I just knew to not get my hopes up and that bad luck or just my luck would strike. I still don’t know how I slept with all the self-recriminations running through my mind. But I did. Then I woke up to an all too familiar refrain in my ears:
“Get a job you bum”!
My hand tightened around my switchblade under the blanket and all I could think was:
“Why do I have a sudden urge to kill him”?

by Larry Shields
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