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But they offered no comprehensive housing program, no job training or retraining—only transitional housing and encouragement to get out there and scare up a job.Many people I met in rehab hadn’t held jobs or had a place to live for years.Then there are people like me—the long-term homeless, or what social scientists call the chronically homeless, as if we had contracted some sort of disease that is as difficult to treat as it is for many people simply to countenance. You are tied to whatever community resources you are able to access. I’m wasting my life away like a fool, some would say, but it’s all I know how to do anymore. An amazing number of them poke about in the predawn city—delivery trucks, trash trucks, people getting up and about to do who knows what.
And all of these things take time, particularly when there are other, less clear-cut issues involved with the situation.
Issues like mental illness, which masks itself behind the substance abuse that many homeless people turn to in a sad attempt at self-medication, unaware of the real cause of their suffering. That’s the most important thing I’ve come to understand through all of the years and different treatments I’ve been exposed to.
Every person I’ve met—whether in the hospital psychiatric ward after a particularly nasty case of suicidal depression, or in one or another rehab clinic—brings their own set of problems to the table.
How could I explain to anyone what has driven me to do the things I’ve done? None of which were properly diagnosed and fully explained to me until recently.
Sometimes I’ll see a fellow homeless person dead asleep in the middle of the day on the sidewalk along some busy thoroughfare, but I don’t know how they do it. I’ve tried to stay away from drugs and have succeeded for the most part. We all have our poisons, something that helps to carry us through, that gives us pleasure, whether good for us or not.
But when you’re homeless, you definitely need something to take the edge off being so exposed, every minute of every day.Finding a place to shave, take a shower, or just brush your teeth can take up much of your day.The social service organizations inevitably emphasize personal hygiene, but their facilities are always filthy and overcrowded. Often, I simply choose to go without, or I do a birdbath sort of cleanup in a public washroom.It may be another homeless person looking for a good place to sleep.Or one of the nighttime criminals who beat the homeless and steal from them.One thing has always separated me from most other homeless people I’ve met: the laptop computer I carry with me. Some homeless people have seen it as evidence that I hold myself above them, that I’m somehow better than they are.What they don’t know is that when the library is open, there’s a good chance I can be found there with my laptop—writing, reading, and writing some more. Nothing about my time outdoors has been “peaches and cream,” as the saying goes. It is as difficult, as challenging, as mind-numbing, and as humbling as anything I can imagine. When I first found myself on the street, it was an adventure. I was glad to be out of a particularly bad situation—one that had led to severe depression, isolation, and alcoholism. I managed to sell some of my belongings and left the rest in the alley behind the building for the city’s many scavengers.I’ll try to explain, though I don’t expect you or anyone else to truly understand.But it’s worth a try, if only it might lead to a little more understanding, a little more compassion, on the part of those who have for those who have not.It’s difficult to explain this to someone who has never had to live outdoors in the midst of several thousand people roaring around them at all hours.All you have in the world is what you can carry—in my case, a medium-sized tote bag that has become quite heavy over the years. But in all of its manifestations, it has held the little things that I’ve needed to survive. How can a person survive on the streets of an American city for more than a decade?