When I first heard the expression “sheltering in place,” an immediate thought came to mind. For a long time, during many years of homelessness, I lived in a place where there is no shelter. Now that sheltering in place is required, I am living a lifestyle that is the direct opposite of my previous manner of life. Once I recognized that polarity, it opened me up to a wealth of useful observations. For one thing, I noticed that the way I was living since moving indoors was in many ways not so much different than how I had lived when I was still homeless. Before the pandemic, I still found myself wandering from place to place throughout the day, looking for places to plug in my laptop. I still would spend two or three bucks at coffee shops and fast food joints, as though I had just managed to scrounge up that much money on the streets.
Moreover, even though I had lived indoors for almost four years, I was still feeling halfway uneasy in many of these establishments. In the same way as when I was homeless, I felt as though I wasn’t quite “supposed” to be there. But why?
As I began to shelter in place, I realized that I had still been using the library sometimes, and even the hospital—as though I had nowhere else to go—sitting down, plugging in my laptop, and hanging out for hours on end. After all, I live near a hospital where they have free Starbucks coffee and unlimited refills. Seriously! You can even get a nice home-cooked breakfast for just under three bucks. What can I say? Old habits die hard.
Since I did have a place to go—my own apartment—it did seem a little odd that I wasn’t spending more time there. But after the shelter-in-place order, when I was no longer replicating my homeless life by wandering from spot to spot throughout the day, I found that I appreciated my apartment all the more.
I asked myself: Why should I spend hours walking from one building in town to another? Why should I spend money in cyber cafes, when I have my own dwelling place now, with my own power outlets, and food in the cupboard? My rent money, like that of many, is over half of my monthly check. Why was I wasting the full benefits of my apartment by using it only as a crash pad?
It then dawned on me that this, too, had been carried over from my formerly homeless experience. When I was homeless, did I ever go back to my sleeping spot in the middle of the day and hang out there? Of course not! My sleeping space was tucked away where hopefully no one would find me during the night. It would have been pretty self-defeating to hang out there during the daytime, in broad daylight.
But now that I had my own indoor place, where was the sense in continuing to avoid my own home during the daytime? There may have been a certain twisted sense in continuing to avoid washing the dishes and taking out the garbage, but other than that, it was sheer laziness that kept me from properly accessing and maintaining my own dwelling place, as well as waste of rent money.
As I have begun to spend more time inside my apartment, I have also become better at certain household tasks. I am no longer intimidated by the kitchen. I no longer limit the extent of my cooking potential to Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. I don’t fear the condition of the bathroom, and I broke out a vacuum cleaner for the first time in a good fifteen years.
The things that make a home nice are also being illuminated. Paintings are hanging on the wall now, whereas before they were only leaning against it. All that is changing for the better— and I’m glad.
It eventually dawned on me, at some point during this process, that the lifestyle I am being called upon to lead is the direct opposite of the life I led in the past. Where before there was no shelter, and all my deeds were out in the open, now there was only shelter.
With that revelation, finally, there is gratitude. Gratitude for the food stocked up in the cupboard, and for its being the food of my own choice—not food served or granted by those helping me, but food determined by my own agency and wherewithal. Gratitude that the condiments of hygiene may be found in my medicine cabinet; indeed, that I even have a medicine cabinet in which such things may be kept. The grounds for gratitude, for all the simple things in life I longed for in all those years of homelessness, are greatly increased and illuminated through sheltering in place.
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.