Imagine for a moment that you were faced with the experience of being homeless and had nowhere else to turn.
Where should I go?
You find a local shelter, but a woman half your age at the counter lets you know that the shelter tonight is full. She takes your name and says to check in tomorrow and maybe something will come available.
“I have no place to go,” you tell the shelter worker. “How can there not be enough shelter beds?”
“Right now, we’re dealing with a large number of people sleeping outside, ma’am,” the shelter worker tells you. “We’re doing everything we can.”
The woman offers you a blanket. You take it.
You knew that times were tough. You wouldn’t be in this situation if you hadn’t known that, but the idea of literally not having a place to call home is more than a little overwhelming at the moment.
You have everything you own on your back. Everything else was either thrown out in the eviction or you left it with your sister, who as hard as it was to do, also asked you to leave because there simply weren’t enough resources for you to stay there any longer.
Should I sleep in plain eyesight of people, or should I tuck myself away where it’s hidden?
You find out quickly that sleeping under a bridge near the river feels unsafe and means sleeping with rodents. This is unacceptable, you think to yourself. You can’t imagine how anyone could stand it. Rats. It gives you chills just thinking about them scurrying in the park.
If I sleep downtown I will feel unsafe. If I sleep in the neighborhoods, I will have to sleep on someone’s property. I may scare people. How can I scare people? I use to be one of those people.
You begin to realize the noise. It never seems to stop. You wonder where one goes just to find some solace and to collect their thoughts.
Should I sleep alone, or with a group of people? I don’t know anyone.
You begin to panic and your heart starts to race. The anxiety that has overcome you over the past several months as you were losing your home has returned. You have to sit down and simply breathe. You feel a panic attack coming on, but now’s not the time to be paralyzed by fear. Your thoughts are racing so fast it’s hard to even concentrate. Your entire body is tense.
Should I spend my last $50 on a hotel and think this through? What if the hotel isn’t safe? I’m sure it has bed bugs.
You start to lose daylight. You walk near an abandoned business where you see several other people bedding down. You ask if it’s OK to sleep there too. No one seems to mind.
You ask if there’s a restroom around. Someone hollers, “Four blocks down, but sometimes the gate is locked.”
You go to the restroom. Thank goodness, it’s open.
A stainless steel sink and toilet with no seat cover stares back at you. The narrow concrete walls feel like they are closing in on you. There is no toilet paper.
Given the circumstances, you do your best to navigate in the small restroom with your backpack and blanket. You change into your last pair of clean socks and underwear. You decide to throw the others away. You clean your hands and face with cold water and walk out into the night. The cool air hits your face. You still feel dingy.
You bed down. You’re lucky to have found an awning to shelter you from the rain. You try to sleep, but the concrete, your backpack for a pillow and the blanket you have are little comfort. You slip into an imaginary state, dreaming of better days, even as you wake up and acknowledge every single sound.
Groups of people walk by, laughter ensues. You remember a time when life was carefree and simple. You hear the moans of the man sleeping closest to you. They terrify you. The moans last all night. They will stay with you.
The sounds of cars and trucks driving by keep you awake. It’s almost impossible to sleep given the circumstances. The late hours of the night bring large crowds of people coming and going from local bars until closing time. You feel vulnerable.
Someone makes a sideways comment about all of the bums downtown. You feel small.
You estimate that on your first night sleeping outside downtown that there was around two hours of silence, between the time when the bars closed and when the sounds of the delivery trucks started to arrive. You wake up slowly. Your back hurts. Your feet are tired. You are exhausted. The day is just beginning.
By noon, you notice sleep depravation setting in. If you were thinking clearly before and panicked about the circumstance that you found yourself in, now you are just a walking shell of yourself. You become disoriented. Dehydrated.
Possibly you’ve been able to maintain your hygiene; possibly you’ve let it go. A group of people near the Greyhound Bus Depot tell you where the soup kitchens are, what places may or may not have a place to shower, and where you may go to find some help. You go back to the shelter and ask if anything has become available. Nothing.
You feel hopeless. You realize that the living hell you find yourself in may not end anytime soon. You start to feel disconnected from everyone and everything around you. You think about asking a stranger to borrow their cell phone to call a family member, but what would you say. Everything is surreal.
The thought of actually taking your own life enters your mind for the first time.
You walk through the city alone. You go to the library but people clearly don’t want to have anything to do with you. Some people are kind enough to say hi and show compassion. You catch the eye of someone walking out of the library.
“Sir, do you have a dollar or two to spare. I just became homeless and I really don’t know what else to do.”
You remember the time when your father took someone a lot like yourself out to eat at a local café. You remember feeling uncomfortable and being embarrassed that your friends might see you with your father and a homeless man. You feel guilty for being mean to your father after the dinner. You wish someone with his kindness would appear before you now.
Am I going crazy?
The constant dampness makes you feel like you are carrying a hundred pounds of extra weight. You imagine a nice hot bubble bath with candles and watching meaningless sitcoms for hours on a couch with a big furry blanket.
Then the rain turns into a downpour and you are forced to huddle under a downtown bus stop. Your socks and shoes are soaked. You feel your feet beginning to wilt. You start to get a chill and feel a sickness coming on.
What does someone do if they get sick? I can’t handle this, I just can’t.
You let it all go and begin to cry. An affluent businessman with an umbrella walks past. Young students looking at their phones pass you by. You are invisible to them.
It feels like the only person you’ve talked to in days are the voices in your head. The loneliness you feel is unbearable.
You see a police officer and ask him for help. He gives you the address of the shelter where you’ve already been.
“They don’t have anything available right now. Where should I go?”
The officer shrugs and walks away. “Have a nice day.”
You take a deep breath and sigh. A mother walks past you with her child. She pulls her close, shielding you from her as you both make eye contact. Your dignity is stripped away, little by little, with every passing person.
Your feet begin to swell, but you continuing walking.
You learn from talking to a newfound friend on the streets that you could actually go to jail for being homeless, or sitting down on the sidewalk. He lists off so many different laws that the police could use against you that you can’t even comprehend what he is saying, or remember what they all are or what they mean.
For a moment you think to yourself, jail might be better than this. At least you could get dry. The thought scares you.
Another man on the streets offers you a place back at his camp, but you decline, not knowing if you can trust this person. He came on a little too strong.
Realizing that there are hundreds of people just like you wondering the streets, you do everything in your power to hold onto any last shred of hope you have. You have to keep your head straight. Hopefully, things will turn around tomorrow. They must.
It’s overwhelming just to think about.
Homelessness in many ways has become a new normal in urban America. It is anything but normal, my friends. It’s a crime that thousands of our friends and neighbors, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, sleep on the streets of Portland every night.
Street Roots challenges you to do something for your community. Give a donation, find out what items local nonprofits need to support individuals and families, look people on the streets in the eyes and acknowledge they exist. Get your peers and family members to support Street Roots vendors. Follow Street Roots and others on Twitter this winter and find out ways you can help. Now is not the time to give up.