(Inti Gonzalez/Youth Spirit Artworks. You can find more of Inti’s art at IntiGonzalez.com)

With evictions notices becoming legal once again, tens of thousands of Americans who once believed that they would never become unsheltered are going to experience homelessness firsthand. The COVID-19 pandemic has put millions on unemployment as well as other services previously believed to be beneath the general public. Government and State assistance such as welfare, food banks, soup kitchens, and free medical clinics are just a few options Americans have to offset the lack of income.Americans that were formally hardworking people will have very few options for work.

HUD statistics state the main cause of homelessness is unaffordable housing. This will only grow to be more true for many who have had little to no income over the past seven months due to COVID-19.

Soon the high and mighty soapbox preachers pointing their fingers at the lowly of low will quietly become part of the same crowd. According to one study, the coronavirus could create a 45 percent jump in homelessness across the country in just one year. Now more than ever, the general public will be educated on one of their biggest fears: becoming homeless.

Here’s what that experience will look like, based on my personal experience of more than five years of living on the streets.

Step one

Fire sale, everything must go. Checking and savings accounts, 401K, furniture, jewelry, and anything of value that the more fortunate can afford to buy. All in an attempt to stay housed. Once these assets have been liquidated and the rent cannot be paid you will receive an eviction notice.

Step two

Staying with friends and family, couch surfing, staying in the garages of your loved ones or maybe in a tent in their backyard. This will be a short-lived experience as you will learn that staying at someone’s home has a shelf life. Regardless of how much people may like or love you, their patience will soon wear down and frustration will outweigh their feeling of obligation to allow you to stay at their home.

Step three

Living in your car. The pleasures of living indoors will be replaced with sleeping in the front seat of your auto, going to cafes and shops to use the bathroom and using a wet washcloth in place of a hot shower or bath. This will become the norm.

Amongst homeless people, this is considered preferable to sleeping in a tent. That is until your auto gets repossessed or towed, and with no money to pay the balance owed or the tow bill, your car is gone. If by some miracle you can keep your auto you will find that police frequently write tickets to encourage you to leave and not come back to that location or their city.

Step four

Living in homeless shelters. Many shelters have positive benefits, that is if there is room and you can adhere to their rules and regulations. The better shelters such as the Berkeley Community Resource Center will assist you with many of the basic requirements such as getting a proper ID, obtaining social services, disability, job placement referrals, and connecting you with other resource centers.

Other shelters are much like being in junior high school. You will be directed where, when and what you are allowed to do: you must leave the premises between 5:30 and 7:00 a.m. and not return until 4:30 or 5:30 p.m., depending on the shelter. You are allotted two nights a month to stay elsewhere. If you exceed these time frames you will be kicked out. For the most part you are treated like children.

During my time on the streets I have found most people can understand running up on hard times and temporarily staying in a shelter, on a friend’s couch, living with family members, or living in their car for a short period of time. However, I myself do not think of this as true homelessness. This is simply not having a permanent residence for a short period of time, less than a year. This type of homelessness can feel like a state of limbo.

I will state that based on my experience those who go through steps one through four have a good rate of recovery and can re-enter the “real world.” And in my opinion, being homeless in the short term can serve as a reality check and get rid of the American sense of entitlement around poverty and homelessness. 

But if you are not so lucky to find an opportunity to re-enter your previous lifestyle, this is your final opportunity to do so. The next steps describe a descent into what I view as true homelessness, a place from which it is very difficult to recover from and return to the life you once knew.

Step five

Literally living on the streets. I have lived solely on the streets, no shelters, car, or couch surfing for over five years. Sleeping in the fronts of business, in alleyways, under bridges, bushes, behind or in dumpsters. 

However the process of reaching this level requires pain and suffering way beyond what the majority of the American public has ever endured.

You will find just as I did that your brain has a unique ability to go into shock, much like when you suffer a severe physical injury. With the adrenaline flowing, you feel nothing for a short period of time. 

The same is true with extreme emotional trauma. After a series of horrid events have taken place you feel nothing and your mindset is one of a lonely, empty existence with no purpose, direction or meaning. You either adapt or die.

Sometimes the ability to feel these emotions can return. However, for many such as myself, the ability to feel emotions of any depth never returned.

This can be a blessing. My ability to feel and remember is detached, it is like watching a TV show, you see what is happening but you feel none of it.

It was only after I accepted the fact that the person I was before was never coming back, only then could I begin to accept the possibility of another existence. 

That was when I learned that the family you have are the friends you chose.

After I experienced steps one through five, living solely on the street started to be my reality. While living on the streets and constantly moving I was very seldom reminded of the person I was once before. Everyone I met only knew the person I had become. No questions asked, no explanation needed, just acceptance. This allowed me to find peace with my new reality and enjoy the little things life has to offer. 

There are many types of homelessness. No one person’s experience can speak for the masses. As the coronavirus pandemic inevitably puts more of us on the street, people will have all kinds of different experiences with homelessness. Some will simply experience step one. Some may bounce back after step three. Some will make it all the way to step five, and never return to the lives they knew before. However, as we prepare for the new generation of homeless people, consider this: you could be one of them. And if you have yet to experience any of these five steps, adjust your perspective. Treat those who are less fortunate than you are the same as you would like to be treated if you ever end up on the street.

Timothy Busby is a homeless writer who lives in Berkeley. He writes from his past five years of experiences while living on the streets from New Orleans to Berkeley, and many cities in between.