Homelessness: What is it like?
Homeless in Tampa, FL
I examine the dirt spaces under the highway overpass and find a relatively clean spot on a concrete median adjacent to a giant column supporting the bridge. I lay down my five layers of cardboard boxes, which I found in a dumpster in a government building parking lot. I spread my jacket out as a cushion and use my t-shirts and pants as a pillow. I have a thin blanket, although I probably won’t need it because it’s summer and the night air is warm. I stare at the shadows cast by the strong fluorescent lights under the bridge. After a while I fall asleep, my bags secured with their straps under my pillow, my grocery bag with orange juice nearby.
I wake up to the sound of splashing water. Streams of droplets cascade all around me. A storm has moved in and the water is pouring under the bridge, soaking my cardboard boxes. I quickly pick up all of my belongings, pack and move to a space that is dry. I could never have predicted which places would be dry or wet under the bridge during a storm. I huddle in a dry spot with my rain poncho on. I’m wet and miserable. The only reason I’m under the bridge is because there is no shelter available. Well, there is shelter, but the Salvation Army in Tampa charges $10 per night, and I have only $5. Even though I am unmedicated and psychotic, I still realize that there is some kind of piracy going on, some kind of scam, and that there should be shelter at no cost.
Work ticket from Gulf Coast Temps
At 4:30 am, I walk a couple of blocks to the day labor pickup point at 1500 N. Florida Ave. The pickup point is the parking lot of a bar near the Salvation Army. I asked some other homeless people about work, and they were kind enough to tell me about the day labor jobs. At 5 am the vans begin to arrive from the various agencies—Labor Ready, Gulf Coast Temps, Able Body. All they require is a valid photo ID, no background checks, which is always a problem for those with criminal records. When the vans drive up, people run to get in line to get on board. People jostle and crowd each other for a position. I’m able to get on the Gulf Coast Temps van. We ride to the office, where we wait for assignments. I’m new, but I get a ticket to work at M&B Products, a milk and juice packaging plant. I’m one of the lucky ones. Even in psychosis, I can still work a little. At the plant, I punch boxes into shape and tape them in preparation for packaging the milk. I also take the used boxes out to the compactor, which binds the cardboard into bales. And, when the assembly line is started up, I place tubes of juice into boxes, which are then sealed by automated tape machines. At the end of the day, the manager signs our tickets. We’ve worked 10 hours and the van takes us back to the Gulf Coast Temps office where we pick up our paychecks. All of the workers head to the nearby gas station, where the Cuban cashier cashes our paychecks for a $1 fee. Occasionally, I buy a Cuban meat pie for $1.50, because the lady cashier is nice and she always asks if I’d like to buy something.
With my first paycheck I buy a Coleman watch, which permits me to work.
I now have $46 and some change, enough to take the bus back to downtown Tampa. But I hoard the rest of the money. I could spend $10 for the night at Salvation Army, but I choose to keep it. I desperately want to buy an mp3 player so that I can listen to music that I like. So I save my money. It’s another day and I’m working at the Doubletree Hotel. I was lucky to get a ticket to work at Gulf Coast Temps. There are so many trying to get jobs; there simply are not enough tickets to go around. But, I’m at the right place at the right time, so I’m washing dishes for a day at the hotel. My bags are always a problem, and the supervisor agrees to stash them in his office. I learn about the sanitizer and three of us get to work to replace the broken machine dishwasher for the day. I wear gloves, but the sanitizer leaks in. I’m psychotic, and I have paranoid fears about being harmed by the sanitizer. I keep working anyway because I want to get paid.
Washing dishes at the Doubletree Hotel in Tampa, Florida.
Because I’m psychotic, I also have a delusional desire to travel to other cities, to go back to Washington, DC, to travel again to Boston, MA to see if I can get work there, even though I know that it’s an unrealistic goal. But I feel compelled to travel. Eventually, some of my hard earned money will go toward cheap airfare, about $100 to travel to Boston on JetBlue.
I take the bus from Gulf Coast Temps to downtown Tampa and walk from the bus station to the Publix grocery store where I buy a 2 liter bottle of diet soda and some hot dog wieners with my food stamps. The soda is on sale for $0.50 and the hot dogs for $1.00. I pace myself using food stamps because at $152/month, I only have about $5/day. Sometimes I buy fruits too. Sometimes cabbage because it’s cheap and healthy. On Mondays I walk to the park next to Hillsborough County Library where they have a weekly feeding. Dozens of homeless men and women gather in lines for hot dogs, pasta, sodas, bread and entrees like lasagna that are being served in the park. For those who haven’t eaten, the church group calls them “first timers”. I think it’s a silly name and joke with the men in line that we’re actually “virgin eaters”. They snicker and laugh at the implications. We hold hands in a circle of prayer and bless our food. We eat and I visit with the young girls with the church group that is serving the food. It’s nice to have a conversation and hear how they want to become missionaries. One of the girls gets hygiene supplies for me, some shampoo, soap, a razor. They’re very nice. One girl even gets me a blanket for the night.
Tonight I won’t sleep under the bridge. It’s muddy and wet. So I walk 10 or so blocks to the old federal court building, which is now abandoned but is still lighted inside. It’s on the corner of N. Florida Ave and Twiggs St. In front of the main entrance there are columns and an overhang which protects from the rain. It’s illegal to sleep there, because there’s a city ordinance against sleeping on the street. I again think of the Salvation Army’s $10/night scam. Why doesn’t the City of Tampa simply post signs everywhere stating “Homeless Get Lost!”? Across Twiggs St. there is a church where the pastor has permitted homeless people to sleep on the sidewalk around the church. The police don’t bother anyone there, and frequently kind people drop off food for homeless people to eat in the evenings. The police don’t bother anyone sleeping in front of the old courthouse either, so I choose to sleep there for the night. It’s the same routine. I hunt down flattened cardboard boxes in the dumpsters and arrange them as a bed on the steps of the courthouse. I’ve been lucky. I found a foam mattress in a St. Petersburg thrift store for $2. Now I carry it with me where ever I go in my black duffle bag. It’s a little more comfortable now at night. I’ve also found a giant plastic bag to wrap everything in, including myself. I sleep well, in spite of the firmness of cardboard on the stone steps of the courthouse.
Today is Sunday, so there’s no work unless I want to sell the Sunday Tampa Tribune on the street corner. If I do that, I have to get up at 4 am and walk 10 blocks to the pickup point on N. Florida Ave. I would average about $3/hour and make up to $35. It’s better than nothing, and I actually enjoy the work, making people smile with my antics as they drive by. I wave my papers like red capes in front of charging bulls. I sell a lot of papers that way. But today, I’ll skip paper selling and wash my clothes. But first, I’ll see if I can bathe in the bathroom stalls in a nearby office building. I walk from the old courthouse to the St. Petersburg Time newspaper building.
Cardboard boxes for a bed along the Hillsborough River in Tampa, Florida.
Hillsborough River at night.
It’s a little after 7 am, and the back entrance is open, so I don’t have to walk past security. I take the elevator to the third floor. No one’s in the hallways, so I walk to the men’s restroom and grab some paper towels. I fill a bottle with water in the sink and then lock the handicapped stall door behind me. I strip and wash quickly. I scrub my hair with soap and rinse in the toilet. I’m feeling better as I clean myself. It’s difficult when you have no place to bathe. The river is filthy, so I don’t bathe in it. The restroom is clean, and peaceful. No one comes in this early. After I bathe, I walk a couple of blocks from the Times building to the park next to the library. The park extends to the Hillsborough river, where there’s a nice railing to hang my clothes to dry. I’ve bought made-in-China Tide detergent for $1.50 at a dollar store in Clearwater. I use the fountain in the park to fill up a bag with water the wash my clothes in the bag. I hang my shorts, t-shirts, underwear and socks up to dry in the sun. I lounge around the park, stare into the river and think about what to do for the rest of the day. I watch a very large fish swim quickly along the river edge. It disappears, and I wonder if it’s good to eat.
Maybe I’ll go to the Sheraton hotel on N. Ashley Drive where I know that I can use their computer and printer for free, as long as I don’t get caught. I’ve been kicked out of the hotel before, but they’ve never called the police. I guess they feel sorry for me when I say I am staying in room number 412 when in fact it is vacant. I have a little money now, so I buy bus passes to explore Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater. I really enjoy watching the pelicans dive and fish along the beach in Clearwater. I take the trolly tourist bus that travels along the coast. It’s beautiful as the pelicans’ splashes flare up in the sun setting on the Gulf of Mexico. There are express busses, the 100X, 200X and 300X, that go directly between St. Pete, Tampa and Clearwater. The busses are nice, and it’s like riding in luxury. It makes me feel good to travel. I have a little money now, and since I’m still in psychosis without meds, I visit the topless bar and waste $40 on the strippers. I feel pretty good, but it doesn’t last long. The strippers said they’d help me find a job where they worked at telemarketing, but after I paid them, they weren’t any help. I realize that I’ve wasted my money that could have been put to better use. But it’s too late.
I head back to Tampa, where I’ll bed down for the night at the old courthouse. When I don’t have money, I have to walk to find food, to bathe, to find cardboard boxes, to find a place for the night. I walk as much as 15 miles per day. With the bus, it’s not so bad, but buying a bus pass is a luxury, and even then there’s a lot of walking. I get up early, woken by the dawn at 6 am, and I pack my things and dispose of my cardboard boxes at the park along the river where I slept. The library doesn’t open until 9 am, so I have a few hours to find something to eat. I check dumpsters and trash cans along the river and streets on my way to the library. I check the trash cans in the park. I find some leftover Subway sandwiches, chips and even a drink. I check the Dominos Pizza dumpster and find boxes of pizza that were thrown out the night before. They’re delicious after I shake all of the ants off. The food in the trash is usually good as long as it’s no more than two days old. It depends on the weather and heat, too.
I really need to use the bathroom badly, and there are no restrooms open. I make my way to the parking garage next to the library. I find a Styrofoam carton in the trash and use it to catch everything as I relieve myself and perform a number two in the stairwell of the parking garage. It’s isolated and no one is around. I throw the Styrofoam carton away back in the trash can. I wander around the park, listening to my mp3 player which I bought with the limited income from working day labor jobs. In the park there are electrical outlets, so I charge my electric razor. I sit on the park bench and keep my eye on my razor so it doesn’t walk off. I enjoy the low morning sun in the park and wait for the library to open. There’s a line forming at the door, and just about everyone in line is homeless like me.
The doors open and we enter. The sheriff deputies are giving the homeless patrons a hard time today. They are checking the size of all large bags in an airport-style luggage measuring box. I’m asked to store my bag before I can come in. After I hide my bag in the parking garage across the park, I return to the library entrance. I make my way to the computer reservation station to reserve computers. In the oppressive heat of the day, the library is a good retreat. I get to use the computers for up to two hours, so I back up my data onto CDs, send emails and perform delusional research. In the midst of psychosis, computer use doesn’t make much sense as delusions impede any real or productive work on the machines. But, this is life on the street with mental illness. My feet have developed plantar fasciitis, which makes it difficult to walk long distances without pain. But life on the streets requires a lot of walking to access the basics for survival.
Soles of my boots are worn through and no money to replace them.
I walk to the Tampa General Hospital (2 Columbia Dr). It’s a long walk and my feet hurt. Fortunately, Hillsborough County has a good indigent healthcare program, so my services are free. I receive ibuprofen tablets which will help the inflammation on the bottoms of my feet. After my visit to the hospital I walk toward downtown again and stop at the pools of the City of Tampa Art Museum, which is next to the library’s park. I have my mp3 player and headphones, and I charge my batteries using the outlets next to the pools. I rest for a couple of hours at the art museum and snack on some raw peanuts that I bought at the Chinese supermarket. My survival tactics are intact, I can get around and acquire the basics, but I can’t pull myself out of my homeless situation—not in Tampa, Florida.
Homeless in Boston, MA
I wake up before dawn. It is chilly where I camped out in the Boston Commons park. I am on a bed of tabloid magazines, which I
fetched from the stand-alone news boxes the night before. I sleep with a jacket on and a rain poncho covering me as a blanket.
Boston’s night air is chilly, in the 50s, and it is hard to sleep sometimes. I pack my gear in my two bags and head for St.
Francis House (39 Boylston St.), where I’ll eat breakfast. It’s much too early for breakfast, so I decide to walk toward Haley
House (23 Dartmouth St.), where I can get some coffee at 6 am. I pass the Boston Public Library and start to feel warmer. At
Haley House, the atmosphere is loud and coffee drinkers are filling their cups in preparation for breakfast. I talk to Pete,
who has scraggly gray hair falling all around his head. He definitely has paranoid schizophrenia, but he is aware of it
and can “snap out” at any time and hold a normal conversation. I learn a lot from Pete; he tells me about resources that are
Today is Friday and Haley House has their clothing room open at 9 am, so I decide to stay here instead of walking a mile to St. Francis House. I eat cereal and scrambled eggs and grits, as much as I want, and have several cups of coffee and hot tea. The clothing room opens, and the staff begin to call names from the list. I’m finally called and pick out some t-shirts, a sweater and a jacket. It gets warm during the spring days in Boston, but the jacket will keep me warm at night. Tonight I may even check into the shelter called Pine Street Inn because it may rain. Or I could put down some magazines in front of Trinity Church at Copley Square. It’s out of the weather there, but the crack drug users like to frequent the church at night, which makes it very unsafe.
The fountains and Trinity Church at Copley Square, Boston, Massachusetts.
But, that’s life on the streets in Boston. There really aren’t that many places to get clothing, so I’m lucky that I stayed until my name was called at Haley House. I have my laptop computer with me. I am deep in psychosis, thinking that I can create security audit reports for the Defense Intelligence Agency. The graphical reports, which I compose using photos that I’ve taken of a plane appearing to ram the Federal Reserve building in Boston, are all nonsense. But I pursue the creation of these delusional reports.
After breakfast at Haley House, I walk to the Boston Public Library where I download images and read the news on cnn.com. Everything I do and see is intertwined in my delusional pursuits. There is no one to help me, although my behavior sometimes must seem bizarre. At the library, I transfer the news and text from the library computers to my laptop using a flash drive. There is free printing at the Jewish Vocational Center, and I have a card to get in to use the center. So I walk a mile from the library to the vocational center and print page after page of graphical reports that I created. It’s all useless, but it seems important at the time, as if I have a critical role to play in defense of the United States. Back at the library I wait in line for the express computers.
I see a beautiful girl and talk to her while we’re both waiting. She’s from the Ukraine, and our conversation eventually leads to a date on the Charles River. We go together to Trader Joe’s grocery store and I buy a sushi tray with food stamps. She doesn’t notice how I paid. I have a couple of bags with me, but she doesn’t ask any questions. She’s very nice and her name is Julia. She’s from Kiev. She wants to become a PHP computer programmer. We eat our sushi and I give her a nice shoulder massage. Really it’s not a bad life at the moment In the setting sun on the Charles River. A little romance gives me some hope for the future. Tonight I’ll sleep at the shelter.
I dump my crippled laptop computer into the Charles River and turn it into an art project.
I walk a couple of miles to the Pine Street Inn (444 Harrison Ave). The intake is done by lottery in the morning and in the afternoon at 4 pm, and I’ve missed it. There’s no line in front of the door like there usually is. So now I have to wait for the shuttle bus to take me to Long Island. I have to catch the bus at 9 pm, or I will have to sleep in the weather tonight. There is a long line of people waiting for the bus, and they put their names on the waiting list one by one. I barely make the list, and list is filled by the third person behind me. I am lucky this time. We all wait inside the Pine Street Inn, have dinner when it is served, then wait in the cafeteria until the bus arrives. The shelter on Long Island is huge. It serves hundreds of homeless men and women. The island has a history, and in my paranoid state I wonder if the staff at the shelter will be conducting experiments on us with viruses. I throw away the chicken salad sandwich that they give me along with my beddings for the night. Tonight I’ll get lice from the beddings though. I won’t know it until a few days later when my skin turns red and spotted from the lice eggs. Even then I won’t know what it is until I visit the clinic at the Pine Street Inn later in the week.
In the morning on Long Island, I wake from my alarm and get a bus ticket on the first floor of the shelter. There’s no line this morning, which means it’s easy to catch the bus. There will be enough seats. I catch the bus back to downtown and am dropped off near St. Francis House. Today I’ll eat there. I stand in line for the soup kitchen to open. At 7 am the staff let us in. We wait in a crowded room, seated in chairs. Some people are asleep with their heads on the tables in front of them. I watch the news that’s on the TV in the room. At 8 am, a line begins to form, and people are called into the dining area a few at a time. Being homeless seems to be a lot about being in line for each and every thing. Lines for showers at St. Francis House, lines for breakfast, lines for lunch, lines for dinner, lines for clothing, lines for computers at the library. A lot of lines and a lot of waiting. Lines for getting a bed at night. Some of the lines are in inclement weather and very uncomfortable. I often thought of homelessness as being a kind of purgatory on earth, and it’s a purgatory created by our governments and citizens. Creation of purgatory may have been unintentional or out of lack of awareness or laziness. If they only knew what homelessness was like, perhaps it would be different. If only they could experience it for themselves in minute and excruciating detail, then things would be different. But for now, I was in a kind of purgatory, although I thought also that it could be worse were I in some nation that had no shelter systems at all, for example living in a landfill in India.
We stand in line in the dining hall and get a bagel, eggs, donuts, orange juice and coffee. It’s a good breakfast, and I go back for more orange juice. I also get in line again and get some food for lunch, a couple of bagels. I have my food stamps, but only a few places downtown take them. The Shaws grocery store is my favorite place to shop with food stamps. I often pay for one donut but have 4 in the bag. The self-service checkout permits it. I don’t think of it as shoplifting as much as survival or a frequent-customer discount.
Today I need to send an email to Richard Marcinko’s Red Cell International (a private security firm created by Marcinko, the founder of the U.S. Navy SEALS). I am driven by psychosis. Later I will look back and see the senselessness of spinning my wheels by trying to communicate with people I had no business communicating with. So, I send my email at the Boston Public Library.
Delusional reports submitted to Red Cell International.
I walk everywhere. I have no money, no train/bus tokens, so I must walk to pursue anything at all. Today I’ll walk to Cambridge. The Harvard University campus is very nice in spring and summer. I’ll enjoy the day there. It’s about a four mile walk. I can get to Cambridge in an hour from the library, and I cross the Charles River along the way. I visit the Solutions at Work (1151 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge) computer center, where I can use the computers and printers for free. It is a service specifically for homeless persons, and I meet a few people there who tell me about the soup kitchens and shelters in Cambridge. There are not really any shelters except the Salvation Army. So in Cambridge I sleep in front of the Harvard Coop book store, where the police don’t bother us. The book store staff are understanding, as long as everyone waits until the store closes and packs up at dawn.
Homeless persons sleeping in front of the Harvard Coop book store.
My bed in front of the Harvard Coop book store.
Dawn after a night on the street in Cambridge, Massachusetts
There’s a soup kitchen on the Harvard Campus at the Swedish Chapel, and I eat there. I watch the students race in their racing shells on the Charles River. The sunlight reflecting off the Charles silhouettes the boaters, and I take a few photos. Later I’ll create a collage of photos with some haiku poetry.
Photo collage art created while delusional and psychotic.
I am somewhat capable in psychosis and while being homeless. I am lucky to find resources and lucky to be able to walk to acquire them. Through Solutions at Work, I get a job as a mover moving a 70 year old man and his 92 year old mother from one apartment to another. It’s a lucky break because I have been unable to find any work in the Boston area. There is no day labor like in Tampa. And it seems that they way the locals think is that only locals should be hired for any jobs at all. But, I get a single job as a mover. The moving division of Solutions at Work has underestimated the time and effort required to move all of the old couple’s things. So, we are hours behind schedule and work late into the night. One of their cats escapes during the move. Hopefully it will find it’s way home in the new apartment building. I feed the cat that didn’t escape, and help the old woman with various tasks in her kitchen. I’m not supposed to be helping her in that way, but customer service is everything sometimes.
After haggling with Solutions at Work for my paycheck, I net $71 and some change. I cash the check at the bank on which the check is drawn. I have enough cash now to get the hell out of Massachusetts, and I travel on the Chinese bus lines to New York and then to Washington, DC, not that I’ll have any better luck with work in DC, but at least I’m not in Boston anymore. I did return to Boston for whatever reason, and it wasn’t work that permitted my second escape. I was sleeping in front of a bank in Cambridge with a poster board ad pleading for money and a student withdrew cash from an ATM and slipped a $20 under my cardboard box. Again, sufficient fuel to rocket out of Massachusetts to Washington, DC.
Homeless in Washington, DC
I walk north on 12th Street NW. I glance to my right and see a McDonalds bag sitting next to the building wall. I gently probe it with my foot to see if it’s empty. It is. No breakfast there. A man has been intently observing me with my blanket over my head as a hood. The air is frigid and I have nothing to eat and no money. He pulls $3 from his wallet and tells me: “Go get something to eat.” I thank him and walk on. I think to myself, “How generous. I guess there are still people like that”. Now I am rich. I have three ones, and I debate what I could buy with it. Certainly it won’t be food because I can get dinner at the shelter and breakfast at the Dinner Program for Homeless Women on 4th Street and E Street NW. I decide that I should save the $3 for something that I really need. I walk the streets all day until it’s time to catch the shuttle bus back to the shelter. I sleep well in spite of thoughts of depression that swirl around me.
Self portrait in Washington, DC.
I wake up at 5:45 am. My alarm has gone off, and I rub the sleep from my eyes as I sit up on the upper bunk in dorm D of the “801” (801 E Bldg shelter of the St. Elizabeth Hospital campus in southeast Washington). There are others stirring also, some already walking around. And there’s one guy selling all-day bus transfers for a dollar. There are about 70 people in the dorm, and being Washington, DC, the demographics are 95% African American. I’m in the minority 2% category. I’m Caucasian. Usually it doesn’t cause too much difficulty although services are occasionally denied based on my skin color. Now I know how it must have felt to have been living during segregation. Fortunately, no one is denied a bed, there’s plenty of space, and I’ve gotten some rest for the night. I get up at 5:45 am because I must catch the free shuttle bus that runs into downtown Washington. If I miss it, I’ll be stuck across the river. The 801 shelter closes at 7 am, and everyone is ejected except the sick and elderly. There is no day area near the shelter. It’s very isolated, and in fact most of the St. Elizabeth’s Hospital campus is eerily shut down. An exploration of empty buildings revealed electricity still on, computer terminals still flashing, windows broken, dead birds and layers of dust on desks, the floor, everywhere. It’s like a deadly virus swept through the campus. And here sits a bustling shelter at 6 am in the morning. The first of three busses arrives at the 801. Men jostle and shove trying to get a position in the “line”. The line is more of an amorphous mass of pushing and flailing arms. The bus driver feels dangerous this morning. As a joke, he stops the bus, and everyone surrounds the door. The driver lurches forward and the throng of desperate men keep pace with the bus, shuffling sideways and running. At any moment someone could fall, be trampled or be run over by the bus. The bus driver stops and plays his joke again. I stand back, watching in dismay. I’ll catch the next one I say to myself.
No one wants to get stuck at the shelter because there’s no where to go. It’s freezing cold outside. It’s December, and cold rainy weather is worse than snow. If you get wet, you could get pneumonia very easily. So, I have my usual plan: make it back into downtown and head for the library to stay warm. The bus leaves, makes its drops and comes back. I catch this one, but it was stressful and took a lot of jostling in line. I had to be forceful. I keep thinking to myself, this is ridiculous. I need to find another shelter. I get off the bus at 2nd Street and D Street NW where the CCNV shelter is. Later I would be lucky to do an intake there and get a bed in the CCNV’s drop-in shelter in the basement. No more busses, no more frantic pushing and shoving. No more waiting for 45 minutes in the cold and rain for the shelter doors to open at 7 pm. The CCNV is much more humane, and I will fit in there rather comfortably…until acquiring lice from someone who lays on my bed without changing the linens. Once I took the 801 shelter out of the equation and added the CCNV shelter, life became a little simpler. Everything I needed was within walking distance. The CCNV building also housed the Unity Healthcare clinic where I received medical and mental health services. I saw Dr. Rosen who prescribed Celexa (an antidepressant) when I explained I was suicidal and wanting to place myself in front of one of the Metro trains in the subway. There is also a clothing room in the CCNV, which inconveniently permits free clothing once a week on Thursday from 12 pm to 4 pm.
The CCNV shelter serves dinner to its homeless patrons. After the men check into their assigned beds with the staff at the door, they stand in line inside. I chat with the fellow in front of me. He tells me about the shelters in Maine, how good they are, how short the summer is there, all of the travels he’s had. He informs me that there’s a Safeway store just up the street on L Street NW. He tells me they take food stamps and he just went shopping. It’s much closer than the Safeway on M Street SW. Much closer. And when you’re walking, proximity can be everything. We’re called one by one to the serving table, where we receive some kind of stew on a Styrofoam plate. They’ve got bread too, plenty of it. And someone has donated pint size cartons of yogurt. I’ll have to think about that because who knows how long the yogurt has been unrefrigerated. In the end I have some yogurt, and no runs. The stew is spicy and tastes like it’s from an Indian buffet.
Bunk beds in CCNV shelter in Washington, DC.
After dinner I shower. In the shower room, there are three stalls and none have curtains. The stalls are filthy with smudges, dirt and black streaks. There’s mud on the floor and I tiptoe naked through it to the shower. But the hot water feels good. The soap that the shelter staff gave me smells nice. In spite of the filth, it’s refreshing. I can’t complain. Most people in the world live without hot showers. Tonight in the CCNV drop-in shelter there Daniel Craig as James Bond 007 in Quantum Solace. I lay on my bunk and can spy the TV screen though the frame of my neighbors bunk. I can hear the audio over the din in the dorm. It’s a pirate copy of the film, and sections switch over to German, which is humorous but also very annoying. No one complains. It’s free TV and something to do. Eventually I curl up on my linens with all of my clothes on, and using a jacket as a blanket, I fall asleep. My head is on my backpack and all of my bags secured to it. I’ve lost bags before while I’ve slept, so I’ve learned methods for keeping my property secure.
I wake in the middle of the night to the sound of a drunk stumbling and shouting to his bed. It’s not long before he’s snoring soundly, and I too reenter the dream world. I awake, and today it’s time to refill my medication prescriptions. I stay in the shelter until 9:15 am because it’s very cold today. Because the outside temperature is less than 32 degrees, it has been declared a “hypothermia” day.
At 9:30 am I’m standing in front of the Lutheran church and the Dinner Program for Homeless Women. The crowd in front files in for breakfast. The food is usually pretty good, and there are always interesting people there, men and women. Today it’s scrambled eggs, some kind of pasta with tomato sauce, salad, bagels, coffee, bananas and apples. I secure some extra fruit and a bagel so I’ll have something for lunch. I’ll save my food stamps for dinner.
Dinner Program for Homeless Women's breakfast room is filled.
After eating at DPHW, I head to the District of Columbia pharmacy at 35 K Street NE. It’s a bit of a walk in the cold, but it’s warmed up a bit with some sun this morning. The name of the game is walking. A lot of walking. The pharmacy gives me the run-around, stating that my prescription is too old and that I must get my psychiatrist to write a new one. They’re inflexible even after some questions and pleading. After the weekend, I’ll go back with a new prescription and have some success at getting my meds, Zyprexa and Celexa. What if everyone were treated this way? It’s so inefficient. Couldn’t the pharmacy just call the doctor? It’s mind boggling that I end up going back to the pharmacy four times before I get my meds. A lot of walking.
I head to the Martin King Jr. library on 9th Street and G Street NW. I walk of course. I have no money for transit. The library opened at 9:30 am, so there’s no line in front like there is at 9 am. It’s warm in side and I sit for a while in the newspaper section. Then I head to the express computers to check my email and do some research on housing in Washington, DC.
Express computer line in the MLK, Jr. library, Washington, DC.
The results are dismal for housing, but I’ve received an email from my sister indicating that I might be able to live with her in Highlands Ranch, CO. My depression lifts significantly because of this and because of the antidepressant, Celexa. I cycle through the express computer line a few times, each time gaining 15 minutes on the computer.
Fortunately, everything is within walking distance of each other: the library, the breakfast soup kitchen, the CCNV shelter, the pharmacy, the Safeway grocery store, the District of Columbia food stamps office…everything is within a couple of miles of each other...still...a lot of walking.
For dinner I stop at Safeway to use my food stamps. For some reason I have a craving for Snyder’s buffalo wing pretzel pieces and chocolate milk. I also buy a banana and apple. I sit at the café in the Safeway and munch. I still have a bagel left from breakfast, and I eat that too. Sometimes I buy a package of hot dog wieners, equivalent to a pound of meat, and eat it all. On Saturday I’ll walk to Franklin Park where they hand out clothing. In the past I’ve gotten socks, thermal underwear, and I hear that they hand out jackets, jeans, shirts and sweaters. My sister has sent me a pair of boots for the cold wet DC weather. She’s also sent a backpack, jackets, turtleneck shirt and some socks. She’s very kind. The breakfast soup kitchen, DPHW, is also kind. They have a mail receipt service, and they’ve handled the box from my sister. I’m very lucky. No one else is receiving packages there. I’m the only one. I put on my new socks and boots. I can get rid of the tennis shoes that kept getting wet as I walked on rainy sidewalks.
It’s Sunday now and the library doesn’t open until 1 pm. It’s pouring and I have a black plastic bag cut into a poncho to keep me dry. I walk to Union Station (the train and bus station) and sit inside where it’s warm. I get a couple of the tabloid papers to read. There are other’s just like me in addition to travelers occupying the benches. It’s prohibited to lay down on the benches, and if you do, security will prod you or ask you to leave the station. Union Station has tables in the basement level in the food court, and sometimes I sit down there where it’s quiet and read the papers.
Sitting at a table in Union Station, Washington, DC.
In the CCNV shelter, there’s an old man who uses a cane to get around. He’s in constant pain, and the staff are kind to him and let him stay in the dorm all hours of the day. “It hurts like a toothache,” he whines, referring to his hip joint that needs replacement. He told me that he had one side replaced already, and he regrets not having both done. He grunts and curses at his hip as he hobbles to the restroom. It’s now 7 am on Sunday at I can head over to the Epiphany Church on 13th Street NW. It’s a 30 minute walk in inclement weather from Union Station. But the warmth of the church, the sermon and the breakfast are worth the walk. Today I get to sit next to the rector, Randolph Charles. He’s vibrant and has healthy wavy gray hair. We talk about my possibility of employment and my resume. He wishes me luck as I get up to return my plates to the bin before leaving.
After I eat at Epiphany, I walk up to the church on New York Avenue NW. Every Sunday beginning at 8:30, they serve coffee, bagels, cream cheese, cookies and sandwiches to take with you for lunch. The sandwiches are leftovers from Spy City Café from the previous day. They’re still delicious. Sometimes they hand out interesting cartons like hummus or tabouli. The weather is still cold and wet, and the library isn’t open yet, so I walk down G Street NW past the library to the Smithsonian American Art Museum catty corner from MLK Jr. library. They’re open from 11:30 am to 7 pm, and it’s like an oasis of warmth in a cold and hostile world. I sit in the atrium and gaze upward at the curving glass roof.
Appreciating the architecture of the American Art Museum.
The trees in the atrium look very comfortable. There are groups of people and families dining at the tables nearby. In a while, I’ll have a bagel that I got from the New York Avenue church. I’m one of the lucky ones. My sister has arranged a one-way flight for me from Dulles International Airport to Denver International.
It’s another day, and I’ve gotten up at 5 am to the sound of my watch alarm. I walk to the Judiciary Square Metro station and catch the red line subway to Frendship Heights station in Chevy Chase, MD. I’m going to the Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church where I’ve heard that I can get a voucher to get a District of Columbia photo ID. The church has a Transition Assistance Program, which assists people in getting IDs and birth certificates. All of my IDs have been lost, and I’ll need ID to pass through airport security when I fly to Denver. I’ve heard that lines form at the church early in the morning, so I want to be there early to get a spot. They only take the first 15 people in line. I get off the subway at Friendship Heights and walk to the church on One Chevy Chase Circle, NW in Washington, DC. It’s not far from the station, and I have a map. I’m first in line. My breath makes a white fog in the cold morning air. I’ve got boots on and I’m thankful. It’s cold to stand at the door. I have thermal underwear on, so I sit on the cold brick wall near the door. It’s only 7 am, and the doors open at 8:30 am. It’s a long time to wait in the cold, and I hope it’s worth it. Others gather at the door in line as opening time approaches. We chat about what we need an ID for, how they’ve been obtained in the past, small talk. We’re inside now in a waiting room in the church basement. We put our names on a chalk board and we’re called one by one. I hand the assistant my referral paper from Dinner Program for Homeless Women. When the assistant hears that I have no original documentation such as a birth certificate, he shakes his head. “But, I have a copy,” I say and I show him. He’s skeptical that the DMV will accept a copy, but he writes the voucher check for $20 anyway. “Take it to the DMV on M Street” he says; that’s where they’ll accept the voucher check. I thank him and I feel grateful that I have the check, even though it took a lot of effort to get to the church.
Now it’s 9:30 am and I have all day to get to the DVM office and get my district-issued ID. I head to the library to first print my documents. Fortunately, I’ve still got electronic copies of my passport, Social Security card, birth certificate on a flash drive, and I print those at the MLK Jr. library on 9th St and G St NW. I spend $0.75 for 5 pages. I hope it’s worth it. I have no original documents, but I’ll try to get my photo ID with what I have. From the library, I decide to catch the bus to save money and use the tokens I have. It is a mistake. I catch the bus that only goes part way to the DMV. So I end up walking the rest of the way, about 3 miles, instead of trying to figure out how to catch the bus that goes all the way. I’m hot and sweating when I arrive at the DMV. I work my way through the line, and when I show my documents to the man at the DMV counter, he shakes his head. “Where did you get these?” he asks. I explain that I’ve printed the electronic copies that I still have. He thumbs through the papers, and the print of my Social Security card that takes up a whole page seems ridiculously large. He keeps shaking his head and thumbs through them again. “OK, go on back and see what they say. I know what they’ll say though...” I go to the back, take a number, and am finally called. I explain that all I have for ID is copies of my original documents. “Shhhh,” the lady behind the counter whispers. “Let me see those papers...” she says. I now understand that she understands my predicament and wants to help me. She scans the copies of my passport and birth certificate and then hands them back. All good. We talk about various resources for homeless individuals, and the woman is very nice. She really wants to help me. She keys in the information I give her about my shelter address. I’m feeling very lucky today. Everything has gone like clockwork except the bus ride. In a few minutes I have my District of Columbia issued photo ID and I’m set for my flight. I thank everyone including the man at the DMV’s front desk.
Watching President-elect Obama in Dulles International Airport
Not everyone in DC is bad, I think to myself. I eagerly await the 5A Metro bus that will take me to the airport. The weather is fair. It’s December so it’s still cold, but not horrible with all of the layers I have to wear. I’m enjoying the thermal underwear that my sister sent. I’m on the plane now and winter storms have diverted my flight from Chicago to Detroit. I’m not complaining. I’m out of a very, very uncomfortable situation and on the path of recovery now. In just a few hours I’ll be sleeping in my own bed that my mother gave to my sister just for me. At the moment I have no complaints. I’ll get rid of the lice soon enough when I get to Highlands Ranch, CO.