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Homeless in Seattle

One Woman's Confrontation with Homelessness

Courtesy of The National Alliance to End Homelessness

In the 21st century, homelessness is rampant in most major cities of America. It exists on a large scale and can be easily seen no matter where you go. Take Seattle for example and I write from experience. Here it is a lifestyle that is overt, monotonous, and dismal and that is putting it mildly.

When I arrived in Seattle in June, I was thankful that I even had the homeless shelter option to fall back on. I had experienced homelessness for the first time five years ago while living in New Orleans. At that time, I had no idea that that experience was preparing me for a time such as this.

One of the reasons I am homeless is because I wanted to have an authentic experience about being homeless. I did not want to write the stories of other homeless people. I am also interested in the politics of homelessness, because it definitely exists. It seems there are those who may be profiting from homelessness. It was important that I write about it from my perspective. In living a homeless life, I am able to see and experience its hardships first-hand. And it is hard. Make no mistake about it. It is hard getting up every morning at the same time, then finding something to do with the remainder of our day. If one is lucky enough to have a job, well, that's great. Having a job will fill up your day and if you play your cards right, you won't be homeless for long.

There are two basic groups of homeless people. Those who literally sleep in the street or wherever they can make a bed — oftentimes on the concrete — and those who go from shelter to shelter, until a place is found that they can stay for an extended period of time, while they get things back on track. I belong to the latter group of homeless souls and it is not pretty. Not by any stretch of the imagination.

In doing this from a journalistic point of view, I do not consider myself one of the many people who are chronically homeless. Neither am I mentally homeless. I just happen to be physically homeless for the time being. Basically, I am house-less. I know my current state of being will eventually end.

Being homeless is the closest I hope I will ever come to being imprisonment because that is what it feels like. There are all kinds of rules and regulations. Some of which makes absolutely no sense. For instance, a woman can be in a long term facility and can be working, but she has to pay a portion of her earnings to that facility. It seems counter-productive to me. In other places, there are rules for meetings. They are mandatory and even if you have a job you must find a way to attend a meeting. If you fail to follow this rule you run the risk of being barred — not allowed to return to where you sleep — until you have paid that debt which is usually “a night out” as it is called. This is harsh at best because the job is needed the same as housing is. The point in working is to save up funds to be able to get out and on your own. How is that possible if a person must constantly worry about a meeting where nothing of real importance is discussed in the first place? Plus, you run the risk of sleeping on the street which is a very dangerous thing in Seattle. One shelter had a rule: everyone had to do a three-hour “fire watch” once a month, which is understandable. The duty consists of sitting at a front desk and staying awake. In one location where I resided for short period, everyone had to spend a night out because no one had signed up for a certain shift. I was so pissed about that, that after my “night out” I refused to return to that location. They love to make you feel like you don’t have a choice about things. I totally reject the notion that I do not have a choice; no matter how bad things are or how they look, I always will have a choice.

Homeless people have lots of baggage and I mean that literally. In addition to the physical, there are the emotional and mental aspects of baggage. A huge segment of the homeless population suffer from mental illnesses, as well as substance abuse and domestic violence. For women with children, homeless shelters serve as an ever present help in the time of need.

If you’re ever in a city visiting as a tourist, notice the people carrying lots of bags and pulling luggage on wheels. Two or more large bags hanging everywhere is a strong indication of a person being homeless. I have met and seen all kinds of people, from all walks of life living in shelters. They are from all around the world — Africa, Asia, China, India, Mexico, Central/South America — no ethnicity is immune.

Space is limited in shelters when you’re homeless. A storage locker is damn near impossible to find. For the homeless, such a service needs to be free. Luckily, there is a place in Seattle where a person can store excess baggage that is free of monetary payment. Instead, payment is made “in time.” All a person has to do is work two hours a month at the storage facility to pay for the space that their belongings occupy. And that’s two hours, per locker, that one occupies. Even homeless, some people need lots of space to store things. As a minimalist, I have reduced my belonging to one large locker and it’s been working for me quite well. Back at the shelter, we are given two large bins to keep things in. They fit under the beds. For food, we are given two shoe-box sized containers to place food in the fridge. The other container is for dry food that goes into a cabinet. Being homeless has helped me to cut back on possessions and my consumption of food.

In some shelters, women are given domestic chores to help with the maintenance of their living facility. Every Monday morning the list of chores is placed on the board and if your name appears on it, you are given one hour to get it done. And it lasts for one week from Monday through Sunday. The chores are easy, but if you have a job that you must be at say by 8 or earlier it could pose a problem. That then means you must get someone to do your chore for you. Which can be difficult if you haven’t made friends with someone. Not doing a chore could get you barred for three nights, something you do not want to face if you can help it. Depending on staff, a woman may be able to get by with just a warning. It happened to me recently and I was grateful not to have to endure a "three night bar."

Some people like me who are homeless prefer not to sit around homeless day centers to idle away their time. Nonetheless, there are many women who prefer the day centers where lots of women gather every day to sit around watching TV, chatting, or getting into arguments with other women. Since I have a goal, daily lounging has never been an option. Plus, I’d rather go sit on a park bench then to be cooped up indoors without fresh air on any given day. Even with the weather being temperamental like is can be here in Seattle, being outside is better than being indoors.

Libraries are a tremendous help. It’s where many of the homeless go everyday simply to pass the time. Shelters do not allow women to stay around during the day. Every morning we must “get up, and get out.” Sometimes as early as 5:30 AM while it is still dark out. I never thought I would say this but “Thank God for Starbucks!” On any given morning, they are usually the first ones open and do not mind public use of their wifi and restrooms, two things the homeless definitely need on a regular basis.

What I’ve learned so far is people become homeless for any number of reasons and no one is immune. It seems the homeless are shunned by society even though most working people are themselves one paycheck away from being homeless. It seems there are those in society who feel homelessness is contagious. It very well could be because it has reached epidemic proportions and is — as I stated in the beginning — running rampant throughout America.

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