Ending up on the Streets
Hi, my name is Stephen and I am not an alcoholic or an addict. Although I still drink and I have used and abused drugs in the past. I still smoke pot. If you had told me 15 years ago that I would end up on the streets, I would have laughed in your face. Even though I had just lost my job, I wasn’t worried. I had money in the bank and I had never had a problem finding work in this town.
Six months later, I discovered just how naive I had been. Getting a job in your late 40s is not the same as when I was younger. Savings almost gone, unable to pay rent, I found myself downtown with a knapsack on my back and out on the streets. Totally clueless, with no idea of what was going to come next.
There are no guidebooks for life on the streets, no handy list of places to find even the most basic of services, food and shelter. You have to learn as you go, where is the soup kitchen and when do they serve. The location of the shelter and what you need to obtain the services they offer. Cautiously, you begin to meet people who you feel safe enough with to gather information from in this new altered reality. This church passes out bag lunches on these days, this group feeds at this park on this night. Groceries at this church on some Saturdays.
Endless Lines Everywhere
Standing in line, you quickly learn, will become a major part of your day. In the morning you line up for day-old pastries, then over to “Vinnies” ( St. Vincent's) for lunch. If you want a bed or would like to get into overflow, there’s a line for that. Evening meal, more of the same. Going out to overflow? Another slow moving, seemingly endless, line. There are more people in need than you would suppose, they only become noticeable when they gather together for feeds or other services. Afterwards, dispersing into small groups and individuals, they fade into the urban background, mostly invisible to the average citizen.
Life on the streets is tough on the feet. When you’re not standing in line, you’re walking somewhere. Walking is your only form of transportation. When I ended up on the streets, the available services were scattered all over town. Record st. has helped some making access to some services easier. Still, if you need to go to Social Security or unemployment, it’s an hours long walk or more. Some agencies will provide you with a bus pass, if they have them and feel that your needs are worthy.
Social Workers and Life as an Urban Outdoorsman
I have nothing but admiration for social workers, both those who are paid and the volunteers. These people have very difficult jobs often having to work under very trying circumstances. Dealing with people who are too hot or too cold, tired and hungry and very often frustrated must feel like a thankless task at times. Yet they show up for work day after day, they deserve our thanks and respect.
At first sleeping outside, being an Urban Outdoorsman, seems like an adventure. This quickly wears off, a few nights of uneasy, interrupted rest takes the fun out of it. Reno is a 24-hour town, this can make finding a reasonably quiet and safe spot very hard. There is no such thing as a 100% safe spot, anyplace you can find is probably known to others. Footsteps or voices in the night jerk you back into consciousness.
Depending on where you are, gunshots are not an uncommon event. A good night's rest is three or four hours. Up at dawn to preserve the secrecy of your spot, day after day, takes a toll on you.
The Hallucinatory Stage and Downward Spiral
I’ve been so tired, so sleep deprived that I’ve reached the hallucinatory stage. There is no catching up on sleep, you are always tired, lacking any energy. In this condition it’s almost impossible to keep a positive attitude.
Once you’re in this kind of shape, despair and depression are knocking at your door. Combine this with any other setbacks, even minor ones, can cause you to lose hope. You become trapped in a downward spiral and there is no way out, no possible means of escape.
It took about five years for me to reach this low point and then I quit. I gave up on life, I had finally been beaten down enough. Existing with next to nothing is easy once you’ve let go of hope. Giving up is a gradual process. Hope dies hard. The smallest spark, like a few days work, can reignite it. Just a small reminder of what life used to be. I spent about eight years in this kind of limbo. It’s an existence not a life.
Reduced to the Lowest Common Denominators
Outside of a very small circle of friends, I cared about almost nothing. My life had been stripped down to the barest of essentials, what I needed to survive. A good coat, some clothes, clean socks, a book and my radio, my link to the world. Anything of value, I kept with me in a small knapsack. Everything else was either replaceable or unnecessary. I had reduced myself, my existence to the lowest possible common denominator.
Friends disappear into hospitals or the VA system and months later, word would filter back that they had died. Old so-and-so had cancer, cirrhosis finally got what’s his name. His heart just stopped, she just didn’t wake up one morning. A few friends, a six pack and maybe a reefer, some funny stories. A modest wake for a friend and then life goes on.
Occasionally violence would descend upon our little circle. She was knifed by a “John” in a motel room in Sparks. Some teens beat a helpless old drunk so badly he died. A few para- graphs in the local newspaper. A year or so later a short article, Plea Bargain, Manslaughter, three to five years, they’re out by now. So much for a man’s life, yeah he was a drunk, for the most part, a harmless one. Yet he could be funny and converse on many subjects, Destroyed by his own demons? I don’t know, life goes on.
Helping us Deal with our Own Demons
I believe that everyone on the streets has their own Demons. Some are obvious like alcohol or drugs, others are deeper and harder to fix upon. Demons is my own term. There is nothing biblical or satanic in my use of it. Demons are all of the emotions and frustrations that build up in a person under constant stress. Stress leads to an inability to cope, this enhances emotional distress and the demons grow stronger.
Most of the street people I’ve known worked hard with coping, some better than others. We are all dealing with feelings of shame, uselessness, fear and denial. Add all of this to an already overwhelming tiredness and you finally achieve total apathy.
You just don’t care anymore. Any one of you can help with this disorder. It’s simple, requires no money and feels good. Say 'Hi' or 'Good Morning', just make eye contact or smile. Simply acknowledging a fellow human being's existence can be rewarding for both parties. A pretty girl's smile in the morning can make a person’s whole day, I know.
People on the streets have lost social skills, they’ve atrophied from lack of use. Human contact, no matter how small restores a sense of belonging, inclusion. These types of interactions can reinforce some small sense of community. Being a part of a larger whole, having value as a person. Outreach, establishing some form contact with society helps people. This changes the dynamics of Us against Them. Bridging this gap, allows street people a sense of belonging. Many will be leery, having been let down before. Keep it simple, work on little things first, build trust.
Simple Things Become Monumental Tasks
What to the average citizen would be a minor nuisance can feel overwhelming to a person on the streets. Simple things, like getting a new I.D. or Social Security card can be a challenge. Where do I get the money? How do I get there? Do I have all of the paperwork that I need? 15 dollars can seem like a small fortune to a person on the streets.
Everyone has needs, cash is hard to come by and harder to hold onto. Helping someone overcome one of these problems, opens a door. Making them more receptive to the next step, actively seeking out services or counseling. Dealing with their own Demons.
I’m not advocating for you to go out and adopt a street person, far from it. I do believe that building a rapport with someone allows you to advise and provide moral support. Simply giving out money can be counter productive. Person to person contact is a much more realistic way of achieving the reintroduction of street people into society.
More Ideas to Help
There must be some form of triage that allows us to find those individuals who only need a gentle nudge and a little direction to services and support. Those with substance abuse issues require a different approach. They must recognize their problem and truly desire change. Otherwise treatment is nothing more than a 12-step revolving door between rehab and the street. You have to want it, for it to happen.
Lastly, we come to those with true mental health issues. This is way beyond my ken. I know that they must be treated with compassion and respect yet beyond that I’m in over my head. Some form of intervention is called for, probably by the state.
I’m not happy with this solution, but as I said this is beyond me. You may have noticed that throughout this essay I have used the terms “Street Person” or “Street People” instead of the more common “Homeless."
I have recently learned that one’s Home is carried in one’s Heart and one’s Head and in the hearts and heads of your chosen family. There is a difference between being without shelter and being without a home. I hope you’ve been able to gain some insight from my experiences and thoughts on this difficult subject.
I originally wrote this about a year ago. Rewriting it has been a bit like tearing the scabs off old wounds. I took a walk the other day and revisited some of my old spots, many have been cleared of brush and fenced off, a few are still out there to use. There seem to be more folks out there than I remember. This needs to be fixed, I wish I knew how.