When I was first trying to get inside, I made sure my prospective landlord wouldn’t know I had ever been homeless. Why? Simply put, I didn’t want to jeopardize my chances. It was enough to tell him I was on a fixed income, which at the time was Social Security Disability. That alone is often a red flag, without having to delve any further into information that might have worked against me.
So, without revealing anything having to do with past homelessness, I was able to get a one-year lease on a studio room in a converted residence hotel right off the bat. I’m not sure how much my reticence had to do with the landlord’s decision. But I suspect that, had I told him I had been homeless, he would not have been so accommodating.
For better or worse, this inaugurated a lengthy period of trying to hide my homeless experience from just about everyone I met. When I applied for a part-time job, I certainly didn’t tell them I was coming out of homelessness. Why should they need to know?
I got the room. I got the job. I made friends in a rural community of artists and writers where no signs of visible homelessness appeared, outside of a handful of well-known locals. It wasn’t until several months later that some people began to suspect something was amiss.
For one thing, I had severe PTSD from years of living in a violent world where I and others were subjected to multiple assaults of various kinds. Moreover, I had used a street drug during the last three years I lived outdoors, and the long-term effects of that particular drug take a long time to get out of one’s system. As a result, my ability to handle stress wasn’t what it was before I ever became homeless. After ten months on a job that would once have been easy for me, I resigned under stress, and re- turned to relying on a limited government income.
It was then that I started to tell people about my past. After all, I hadn’t lost my place, only my job. Because I was living in the poorest part of town—the part I could afford—I found that others in my midst had also been homeless. Many of them came from congested urban areas, as had I. So I bonded with the impoverished who had managed to get inside, the same way I had bonded with the homeless when I lived outdoors.
Unfortunately, some of my neighbors were into hard drugs, and the environment began to make me uneasy. Long story short, I eventually secured an apartment in a more secluded area, far from reminders of the more sordid realities of my former street life. I am very happy where I live now, and it is worth paying the extra rent in exchange for needed privacy.
On getting the new apartment, I again ceased to tell others I’d been homeless. But after a while, I began to realize that, whatever had happened in the past, I was leading an entirely new and much more fulfilling life. Moreover, I’d paid my rent on time every month for almost two years now. “You know, I’m not about to land on the streets again!” I told myself. “It’s time I came out of the closet!”
Why should any of us be defined by some past identification… especially when the past involves the most difficult times in one’s life?
So once again, I revealed my home- less past more openly. For a time, I
felt a great relief, no longer having to walk about town as though there were a scarlet letter on my forehead. People in the performing arts community warmed up to me in particular, and there was even talk about getting a troupe together to stage a musical I had written—about homelessness.
But as time went by, there was yet another reversal in my outlook. The original elation of having released a great burden of shame was fading. As if the completion of a cycle, I again recalled the wisdom of not laying all my cards on the table at once. My circle of influence was expanding, and it seemed more effective to “get them on my side first”—whoever “they” were—before making candid admissions that could conceivably be a turn-off.
I began doing volunteer work at the local hospital, as well as at the recovery center. I also joined a singing group, in addition to a couple theology groups. This naturally put me in the proximity of people who had never been homeless, nor had homeless themes on their minds. But when something triggered a memory from my past, I would often launch into an account about something that happened when I was homeless. I sometimes became very uptight as I did so.
This, I later learned, was a due to my PTSD. After a while, I noticed that certain people were cringing when I brought such information to the
table. Not only was it “off-topic,” but it made them uncomfortable. It took me a while to realize that if everybody responded according to some kind of trigger from their own past experience—whatever it was—these groups would lose their purpose entirely, and cease to function.
So once again, I quieted down—and this time with new motive and purpose. In respect for the people around me, I resolved to embrace the present day, and cease to bring past experiences into play.
After all, why should any of us be defined by some past identification, at the expense of experiencing the gifts
of the present? Especially when the past involves the most difficult times in one’s life? There is no hope, after all, in the past. We can learn from past mistakes, but there is only hope in the present—and in the future.
So, as a 2020 New Year’s Resolution, I decided to identify myself first as an advocate for the rights of the homeless and the downtrodden. Only later might I reveal my advocacy to have been the result of hard life experience. If they find out in the meantime, fine. But there’s something off-putting about a “too much too soon” approach.
Granted, my experience may vary widely from that of another. For one thing, I decided to move to another part of the world, where it would be unlikely that anyone knew about my past. But in the general case, I think it’s safe to respect the prevalence of the existing stigma—as evil and nauseous as that stigma may be. If you let them first realize you’re a decent human being, it will go a long way toward getting them to stay in your corner, once you finally show your hand.
Homeless No More is a column that features the stories of people making the transition from homelessness to housing.
Andy Pope is a freelance writer who lives in the Pacific Northwest. He is the author of Eden in Babylon, a musical about youth homelessness in urban America, currently under development at the RTOP Theatre in Pullman, Washington.