Chapter Three: Permafrost
“He that sleeps feels not the tooth-ache”–Shakespeare
“When you sleep outside, you don’t really sleep. It’s more like walkin’ around all night tryin’ to stay awake so no cops kick you and no one steals your stuff. You know that’s how they wake you up, right? They come up and kick you and roll you over with their foot if you’re on the ground. If you’re on a bench they poke you with their club. That’s not my idea of a good morning.” Judah explained his nights on the streets in the city.
When you do not sleep there is never a break for the body and mind. There is no rest. If you hurt waking, you always hurt. Sleep comes in two hour stretches if you’re lucky.
Hunger is like a dog at the door begging. It never gives up.
A new comer, he got advice about where the “feeds” happen, meals for the homeless and poor, and he found out about a place to get a sleeping bag. Other than that, Judah was on his own trying to figure out how to live in a city with no money and no one to help him.
“The noise, the traffic and the smells made sleepin’ impossible for me. I saw old timers who’d been homeless a long time drink themselves to sleep and sometimes I’d take them up on drinkin’ too but I didn’t feel safe passin’ out on a sidewalk. I didn’t have a home but I wasn’t a bum, you know?”
Living outside all day and all night, every day and every night has a relentlessness to it. The day is taken up finding places to wash your face and go to the bathroom, where to get something to eat and scoping out a safe place to sleep even an hour or two during the day. Then night falls and you’re out wandering in the dark and the cold trying to stay warm, avoiding crowds and fearing stumbling onto the wrong people.
“Every dark alley, every staircase without light threatened me. Going downhill on a prosthetic is hard, doin’ it in the blackness of 2 in the morning is impossible. I had no defenses. I couldn’t run, I had no weapons. I learned to keep my distance, stay quiet and look serious. Mysterious is better than weak so I kept it at that.”
Judah tried a Gospel Mission even though others had warned him not to go. “They line you up outside and make you wait while they count people coming in. You’re given a bed and a locker. But people come out of their with Scabies and bug bites, people are loud and it smells really bad. You can’t eat until you’ve prayed and heard about a hundred times that you’re there because you made bad decisions. What was my bad decision-gettin’ my leg cut off? Trustin’ my parents? It’s like they want to make you feel even shittier than you do. What’s the point in that? They told me I was lucky to have a bed like I deserved what happened to me. I figured I’d be better off walkin’ all night so I didn’t go back. Those missions are a dangerous place for sanity.”
He stayed awake at night and went to job centers looking for work and training programs by day. Everywhere he went he was told to go somewhere else, fill out forms, wait in lines and eventually he’d be given a place to live. The lines which wrap around the Department of Human Services can discourage the optimistic, sometimes dozens deep where people go to apply for emergency food and medical care. Housing vouchers are at a different office and charity services like Saint Vincent DePaul are also in another building, on another block. Homeless residents can spend the money they make recycling cans and bottles on bus passes just to get to the places where they fill out forms or check on them. Being homeless is a full time job.
“A kind of permanent distrust settled in me. I was never an out going person but I could smile at a stranger or give directions, I could make new friends, but during this time a kind of frozenness made me rigid. I was afraid all the time of what might happen to me next. I never loosed up. It wasn’t safe. You could say I was in a permafrost state.”
Case workers had him fill out disability paperwork over and over. “They didn’t know what to do with me. I wasn’t an addict or mentally ill, I wanted to work and I was willin’ to go through any programs and fill out whatever they wanted. But these programs assume if you’re out here homeless you’re sick and that’s what they do—refer you to things for sick people, for stuff you don’t need. I kept sayin’ I need a job and a safe place to sleep. It’s the two things they don’t have for homeless people.”
Judah became one of the nameless crowds of people experiencing homelessness in Portland standing in line. He met people with the same experiences as they waited, smoked and waited some more. When all you have is hunger and cigarette butts, “snipes” collected off the sidewalk, conversation passes the time and takes the focus off exhaustion and hunger.
“It’s not as if no one will help. There are churches who feed you and some case workers who take an interest but the problem is not havin’ a place to sleep and a kitchen to cook in or a bathroom. I don’t need a counselor as much as I need those things. If I stay out here long enough, that may change. I may need counseling to help me understand it. It makes you a certain type of crazy. Sleep deprivation, anxiety, hunger, physical pain and isolation—it starts to do somethin’ to your head. It’s why I read all the time and write. I don’t want to lose my shit but I can see how it happens.”
He takes a drag off his cigarette and is deciding if he wants to tell the rest. He nods his head as if giving himself permission to continue.
“There’s something so humiliating about having to go to the bathroom and not being able to find an unlocked toilet. It begins to hurt and you have a desperation. When you’re eatin’ one institutional meal a day you can’t say anything about food that doesn’t agree with you so you eat it and sometimes you get sick. When that happens it’s like a fever comin’ on and no place to use a bathroom. It’s worse than bein’ a street dog or cat because people are not allowed to go to the bathroom outside but there are no open bathrooms. It’s panic every time. There are no work arounds that I’ve seen. I carried dog bags and tried to use those behind a bush at night. Squattin’ behind a bush, takin’ a crap in a bag. It’s not how a human should have to live. I can’t figure that it’s good for anyone to have us out here like that and if a homeless person breaks a bathroom lock or gets caught goin’ outside that can get you a night in jail. You have to go even if there’s no place. We’re human, you know. We still piss and shit. Sometimes I wished I wasn’t, you know, human. Dogs get more care than we do.”
Judah stopped eating after 2 in the afternoon unless he knew there’d be access to a bathroom. It got to him sometimes but he’d beat it back with smoking. Still, every now and then the hunger would get to him, make him angry or depressed.
“I started goin’ around to the back of restaurants and askin’ if I could work for the night sweepin’ up for something to eat and to do, to feel like I earned it. Sometimes they’d bring me a plate of food which is good but I wanted to work and to be inside for awhile. That mostly didn’t happen. I’d shovel the food into a container I’d scrounged and save it for morning. I felt like a stray animal.”
On a particularly rainy night soaked to the underwear with a hole tearing open his shoe Judah fell hard on a staircase he was trying to ascend to an awning where he could wait out the downpour. His leg twisted, he tumbled down trying to brace himself on his left arm and sprained it. His pant leg ripped and his pack fell spilling his soap and toothbrush to the pavement. His one change of clean clothes he’d picked out at a charity meal became soaked on the dirty street. He crawled to his backpack now also wet and gathered up what he could.
“Somethin’ about it, bein’ in the rain soaking wet with my shit on the street tryin’ to get back to my feet broke me. I felt rage and resentment. I did every damn thing I was told, I tried day after day smilin’ and thankin’ people and not one person gave a damn enough for me not to be there-on the street in the middle of the night tired out of my mind. I hadn’t slept more than two or three hours a day for months and everything hurt. I just wanted to not to be wet and sad and sore, even if for an hour or two. I wanted even a speck of privacy where I could sleep safely.”
So Judah picked up his stuff, crawled his way to a wall and climbed up it to his feet. His prosthetic was loose and the foot was slipping. He limped down the street and started jiggling door handles. He found a Toyota Corolla with tinted windows and wide leather seats unlocked and crawled in the back. It was still warm inside. He draped his sleeping bag over his back and shoulders and slipped off his shoe and wet sock. The rain fell against the roof, he curled up and covered his head with his arm. For the first time in months he had the tingling sensation of drifting off and letting himself sleep.
For hours the sleep knitted part of him back together. He could turn over and move his leg off of him, he wasn’t freezing or getting more wet. It was quiet. He didn’t worry about someone walking up on him. He locked the doors. The click of that sound brought him peace.
Six hours later he woke to light pouring in through the window. He had not slept for six straight hours since becoming homeless. The rain stopped and the day held promise. He let out a long breath and started grabbing his stuff quickly. He’d overslept. It felt good but also urgent that he get moving.
Before he could get out of the car, police knocked on the window and ordered him to put his hands up where they could see them. ‘What are the odds?’, he thought.
Standing next to them was a woman in her thirties dressed up for work in an eclectic print dress and leggings with a felt coat and an asymmetrical haircut. He was in the Alberta Arts District. If he had met her in any other way he would have thought she was cute but now she became a face of shame. The police officer had a gun and opened the door with her key. The woman was asking them to be careful, saying that she didn’t want anyone hurt but that she needed her car to get to work. She was late.