Interview: Being Homeless
Next month there are two days to remind us of people who are often forgotten—the homeless. In 2011 there were 636,017 people homeless in America. World Homeless Day is October 10 and World Habitat Day is October 1. In honor of these two days, I am featuring an interview today with Angela Smith.
Angela is the author of two books End of Mae and No Money Marketing, and the writer of popular blog Dandilyon Fluff. However, Angela also experienced being homeless on and off for five years from 1986 to 1991. As someone who pulled her way out of homelessness, she is an example of how the system works and how it doesn’t.
1. How did you become homeless?
I became homeless as a runaway at 16. At first I stayed with random friends but when that hospitality ran out my only choice was to live directly on the street. The first night I was wandering around in the dark confused on what to do next. A carload of teenage guys started following me around and I realized how alone and vulnerable I was. I managed to throw them off running between some buildings and was looking for a good place to hide. Being small, I managed to slip between two generators behind a grocery store. There was just enough room for me to stand up between them and they put off warmth. The guys got bored and went elsewhere but I stayed where I was that night. I eventually fell asleep propped up. The next morning I staggered out into the pale morning sun with a feeling of victorious self sufficiency. I had an epiphany that morning and realized how little we actually need to live.
2. Why were you homeless off and on for so long?
I kept being rescued by my parents and other well meaning organizations to be taken off the streets but in my mind it was all just interference. My parents put me in a drug rehab and sent me away to college but neither situation became a solution. I was taken into a halfway house for runaways that I was kicked out of because I escaped out their window in the middle of the night. A few church and shelter programs tried to rehabilitate me to no avail. I also ran off on a Job Corps offer and blew off an apprenticeship as a chef for a nice restaurant. There was plenty of help offered but to me it was all people trying to control me so I was having none of it.
3. When you were homeless what did you want the most?
Honestly, to destroy myself. I was angry about things in my past that made me feel helpless and used but somehow I also blamed myself. I hated myself and the world around me. I smiled and said thank you to the charities that were giving me handouts but inside I was seething with rage that they could be so much better than me. In my past, gifts and good deeds were always given with a price so I saw every charitable act through that mindset. Soup kitchens, to me, were simply a power play by people better off. I thought people helped the needy to receive an ego boost. I know many of us felt that way. That's why many homeless can seem so ungrateful and even cause harm to those trying to help them. From the top down it looks nice but looking up from the bottom is a whole 'nother story.
4. What do you think is the best way people can help someone who is homeless?
Be their tough friend. Being homeless is often much more than the lack of shelter. It's about being 'less than' and feeling inferior. The worst thing in the world to make you feel better about yourself is a handout. After I'd clawed my way off the streets and made my life better, I'd go sit with the panhandlers and just talk to them about whatever came up. Once they realized I wasn't giving them anything they could enjoy the companionship and it meant more. We'd talk about what I did to get on my feet and how we'd gotten so low in the first place. I don't know what became of any of them but I hope they also managed to find firmer footing.
5. As a society, what do you think is the best way to deal with the problem of homelessness?
Allow consequences to happen. We spend so much time and energy coddling our needy that we force them to be helpless and dependant. In the short term that seems like a good thing, but over time that seemingly good deed festers and becomes a canker on the soul. I think doing nice things and helping on occasion is a fine thing. Doing it regularly is the problem. If Jesus had started serving fishes and loaves to the masses every day he would have never gotten his message across. Turned helpless, the masses would have started demanding more like the Israelites did with their manna. When a person survives difficulty and overcomes, he stands straighter and becomes better. Be an honest friend to the homeless and you are doing the best thing you can. They are still people, just broken ones.
6. Is there any organization that you think is doing a good job of helping the homeless? If so, what is it and why?
I once knew a pastor that would let a few of us sleep in the back of his covered pickup truck at night. It was winter in Colorado and he provided down sleeping bags for us. We weren't allowed to sleep in his apartment and he didn't feed us. If we wanted to go to his church he'd drive us there and take us back. There were donuts and coffee there for everyone. Those of us who went to his church like that were accepted for who we were: people struggling to find footing in the world. No one gave us money, food or shelter except for the pastor’s truck. The feeling of acceptance and belonging was the most valuable thing they could give and it made a difference to me.
7. What kinds of circumstances lead to being homeless?
Being cornered by life pushes us outside to cope alone. Whether it's abusive parents, a spouse, or us abusing ourselves there comes a time of reckoning where we make the choice to be crushed or continue on. That's almost always an ugly situation to watch from the outside but when we try to help we are often just unwittingly prolonging the pain. Like a butterfly escaping its cocoon or a chick hatching from the egg, any outside help often kills the emerging creature. The struggle is part of the healing process. I have no doubt that if I hadn't experienced so much suffering in the way of hunger and cold, I would have never been able to heal from an abusive childhood and go on to live a happy and fulfilled life.
8. What led to the end of your homelessness? How did you start making a living for yourself?
A moment of reckoning made me realize that the situation I was in was my own doing and, more importantly, that I had the power to change it. I was lying alone in a random bed after a night of heavy drinking and I was miserable. I was wishing that somehow I would just die and end it all. I'd already had a handful of unsuccessful attempts at suicide. My life was a shambles of shameful recollection and I was recounting to myself all those that had done me wrong. I blamed them for where I was. A voice cut through the cloud of pity I was generating and asked me the second most important question of my life, "Who's doing it to you now?" It shocked me. I suddenly realized I had no one to blame but myself. Yes, I had had unpleasant things happen to me in my past but that was gone. The moment I had then was mine alone and I was the one calling the shots. For the first time I had a sense of consequences, of my misery being my fault. I decided to change my life.
I got off that bed and put together the most decent job hunting outfit I could find. I went door to door to all the businesses in our area asking for work. By that afternoon I had landed a job as an assistant at one of the best hair salons in the city. Celine Dionne was a private client. I had changed my life.
9. How do you view homeless people now?
I see homeless people as works in progress. They are the ugly chick struggling to break free of its confining shell and become part of this world. If I reach out to help too much I run the risk of killing the chick with my kindness. I can only sit by and watch, offering words of encouragement. The other day my son and I were panhandled in the library parking lot after a book signing. It was dark, everyone was gone and we were waiting for a ride. I had a few dollars that I could have given but I refused. He asked about my box and I told him it was full of books and I was a writer. He was so interested I gave him a copy and signed it over to "Service Mike, my parking lot friend ;)" He started reading right off, sitting in a pool of light on the sidewalk and forgot about us. Did it change anything for him? Probably not much... but neither would the $2 I had in my pocket.
10. If there was one thing you’d like to share about your experience, what would it be?
Living on the streets taught me a lot but no lessons more valuable than that of how little we really need to be happy. In Montreal I once stood outside a cafe seething with jealousy for the people inside sipping hot coffee like it was no big deal. I was so frozen the flesh on my ankles had swollen into rings that cracked and bled. Fifty cents separated me from sitting inside and sharing the warmth. I thought to myself then that for the rest of my life if I just had fifty cents I'd feel rich. I don't always remember it, but I try to keep that sense of appreciation in my life and it keeps me smiling.