My fall into a brief but unforgettable experience of homelessness happened as a result of really good intentions and really bad planning.
I did not leave the thing I loved doing, it left me. I had been a television news professional. You name it, I did it. I ran cameras, punched out scripts, edited video, reported live, investigated stories in huge cities and even did some work for networks including a few very exciting moments on the BBC and eventually I managed newsrooms. For two decades it supported me and my family. It was exciting and fun. I liked it and it mostly liked me back.
But when you get to be older than fifty, things change. My kids were adults and I found myself listless and bored. I didn’t feel satisfied with the car wrecks and fires which are the mainstay of television news. I wasn’t interested in the gossipy conversations and talking heads. The work became corrosive and not representative of its former self as a guardian of public interest. Covering the criminal justice system, city, county and state governance, environmental issues, issues affecting the way we see our nation and state were no longer the big stories.
My career as a television journalist didn’t make sense to me anymore. I knew I had to leave it. I figured I’d land on my feet doing something else. I never had trouble getting a job in the past.
What a miscalculation that was.
I was 52.
I gave away my stuff, paid off my obligations and became a resident at the Upaya Zen Center in the mountains of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Maybe I’d had one too many readings of “Eat, Pray Love” but I was sure this time of contemplation would allow me the time to recalibrate. I had so much privilege I thought I’d come back refreshed and ready for the second half of life. Being naive is the groundless reality of a white lady who had always earned a living.
I even toyed with the thought I might stay there and live my life as a monk. It was possible. Equal parts adventurous, hopeful and terrifying but most clearly life affirming. I was willing to try.
But thinking of becoming a monk and being one are different things. There comes a point where the silence, the sitting, the running and screaming like a crazed and wounded creature through the hills during“free time” is not all it’s cracked up to be. Sitting for hours a day with only yourself to face,only your thoughts to keep you company makes you see yourself in ways you cannot imagine. Self knowledge is painful. It demands you work out your thoughts and put them in perspective along with your memories. Being mindful is work. There are no shortcuts.
And then there’s work duty. I can scrub a toilet with the best of them but lock me up in a kitchen of serious chefs and tell me to cut 47 carrots into tiny triangles without reacting, speaking or eye rolling and I lose my shit. Then take those triangles and throw them in a food processor just to see what happens and I lose my sense of peace—-and Zen. In fact it was so challenging many of the novitiates called the experience being “Zencarcerated.”
It was a helpful break between old life and new. I learned, I grew but it did not add up to a life of its own. I came back to my home state of Oregon trying to figure out what was next. I had a small teaching gig lined up and figured I’d go from there.
I assumed everything would be okay, that I would find my way.
What I’m going to tell you now will be disturbing.
I was teaching journalism at a public university. Two classes per week and did not make enough to put a roof over my head. I stood under the prestigious old arch of a school formulated in the late 1800’s—a homeless adjunct professor. Parents who sent their kids there, students who worked two jobs to pay tuition could not have known it paid, under contract, less than minimum wage. I did an hours analysis and realized I made about five dollars per hour. Let that sink in. It took me a long time to accept that this was true.
Teaching at a university was a dream. I wanted to write and teach so I jumped at the chance. I was blinded by possibility and the reality of the situation was obscured to me. It became soon evident I would need to hustle up several other jobs to make it.
“How do I do this?” I asked myself the question over and over.
I parked at a motel in a space where a tree blocked the office. The seats of a car are hard, not like a couch or mattress but like a door with upholstery. The windows turn from bright and comforting to dangerous at night. Cars are so much louder when you aren’t driving and they are passing by on the street. Street lights which look dim from a house window are incredibly bright laying in the back seat of a car trying to sleep. Cars also don’t hold heat. Within ten minutes it was freezing and in ten more I had to pee. I shivered under a blanket and feared every car that passed.
It was two hours of freezing, shivering, holding my urine, getting incredibly sore curled up on a hard seat and actual, real fear for my safety.
By now it was midnight and I had 70 dollars. Period. That’s combining the change in my car, the dollars crumpled into my pocket and what was left on my debit card. I walked into the motel office and asked if they could take 60 for a room. At first the clerk said no. But I asked again, she saw me pulling out change and “found a small room.”
I checked in, fell across the bed with no idea how I would survive from the next day on. But in that moment I had nothing but gratitude for that moment, that bed, that door with a lock. A bathroom. I feared most what would happen at night if I could not be inside.
I was working as much as I could hustle but all jobs combined, paid a third as much as my former full time position as a broadcast News Director.
Reporting on homelessness and the economy was always a part of my work life as a journalist. I’m ashamed to tell you I didn’t see it coming when I should have.
I did not know conditions had changed so radically that now I was in my story. The clues were there: ultra wealthy growing richer, masses of ultra poor, productivity up and wages down, the cost of rents up, take home pay down. The evidence had an eerie emptiness like a closed elementary school, a structure that was once useful but now offers little more than a playground and open space for the well heeled neighbors to walk their Bichon Frise’s. Our economy is like that school—it looks right but is useless to the people who need it.
Yet I did not see myself in a fractured economy until I was at the bottom of it. I could not picture myself homeless until I was.
Even though I was only technically homeless for a few months, I still struggle to sleep through the night, frequently fear the police and cannot acquire possessions without worrying about the loss of them. Every sidewalk or ledge under an awning, every back porch of an empty house remains on my list as a possible place to sleep. I keep a sleeping bag and pillow in my car, and I seek out public bathrooms. The experience is in my bones.
Without friends and family I might not have made it beyond homelessness. Connections, friendships—these are a powerful form of currency. I also had an education, I knew people and I’d once had a good job. And I was healthy. I had no trouble cleaning rooms for cash here and there, being a grip on reality shows or pulling weeds for money. Pride gets in the way when you need to hobble a life together from scraps.
But take any advantage out of that equation and I wouldn’t have made it. Once you go down to a certain level everything conspires to keep you there. A car repair means you’re on foot because you don’t have the money and it may also mean nowhere to sleep. It can happen so quickly.
I asked a friend and she granted a small loan for a deposit on a room. I figured out how to live off one meal a day, to walk to save gas and to score free coffee. I found the room with its brown shag and radiator in a stranger’s apartment. An odd little place with tiny windows in the home of an obsessive compulsive. One hair left in the sink, one time leaving the dishes and that would end too. He could not tolerate any evidence of me. I learned to make myself invisible. In some way it felt fitting.
I experienced food banks and food lines and “food stamps” and the general soulless vagaries of asking for government help which amounts to as much money in a month as I used to spend on a dinner out with my family in one night.
The social worker in his bland, squat offices behind a buzzing security door wearing a v neck sweater and dress shirt took notes with a vague boredom and irritated skepticism. Every meeting, of which there were many, was a humiliation that’s indescribable. It’s that feeling that you are lying when you are not. It’s blushing from your brain stem while bleeding in your soul. As Samuel Beckett said, “If you really get down to the disaster, the slightest eloquence becomes unbearable.” Even talking about it hurt. Talking about it beautifully was an impossible wound.
Failure is the great disaster of humans, not humanity. It is a solitary shame which one holds up on their own pretending it is not there while being crushed by it. Humanity does not care about the failings of singular individuals. But each of us cares deeply about our personal failings. We fail to see the suffering of others until we ourselves experience it. I had a friend who said breezily and often, “It’s not real until it happens to you.”
Homelessness is most certainly not real for most of us but to the half a million currently shuffling through it pretending they are not unsheltered and hoping no one notices, it is more than real—over time it becomes all that is real. They are defined by it. I am no different, homelessness now fits on my label.
No one knew.
I don’t know anyone who is homeless who saw it coming. I had worked all my life and never had trouble getting work until I did. It was clear something had changed.
In the spring of 2017, “The Seattle Times” had an article about the millions its city spends on dealing with homelessness and then Mayor Ed Murray doubted his efforts. He said he didn’t know how to help homeless people because no one asked them what they needed.
He doesn’t know? I thought about it every day. How can communities spend millions, ticket homeless people, create programs for mental health and addiction and not know? By now I had done enough freelancing for the newspaper, editing manuscripts and day jobs while teaching to have my own apartment, old and odd but mine, and I had a bit of money saved up.
Over wine, looking past the vineyards and into the settled mansions of the wealthy which surround my small town and obscure the poverty beneath, I told my friend I could not stand that no one had apparently asked this simple question, not even in one community. There were helpers, journalists, government officials all reporting and assisting but this question was not part of the prescribed process except perhaps to brighten a paragraph going into an “ask” for money or to draw readers into data.
So I did it. If no one else asked the question then I would have to. After months of hoping I’d forget, I became more invested. I couldn’t withstand the urge to report, to ask, to understand. If no one paid me, I’d still go. Journalism never stopped calling me. I loved it the way a surgeon loves his scalpel. It was my tool for discovering a new world.
I packed up my car and began a tour of homeless camps and shelters, sidewalks and vans, anywhere people might sleep, from Seattle through the desert of Southern California. I relied on GPS on my phone, I went places I was told not to and on more than one night I was literally afraid. It scared me not to know what I was doing or where I was doing it. I promised the people I interviewed I’d get their stories out in the world somehow, without knowing how.
For two years I made my way up and down the coast, to inland places too and stayed on couches and trailers, in my car and sometimes with the help of those who loved me, hotel rooms. To sit in places with people who have nowhere to go can reveal all that is true of humanity—messy, smelly, angry, tender, kind, generous. I never left a homeless camp hungry or without a gift. Often people made cards, jewelry or pressed a favorite stone into my palm. The love was palpable and immense.
The gift of a person with nothing is a treasure. I have a box where I keep those things. When I’m lost they bring me home.