A painting of tents set up in a grassy patch next to the sidewalk. People from the encampment can be seen walking on the sidewalk, and one is pushing a shopping cart in the background. The image is bright and colorful, with bright shades of orange, green, purple, and blue.
Fear of judgment and ridicule is high on the list of why unhoused people feel lonely during the holidays, Swearington writes. Self-judgment plays a role too: facing family can be a difficult reminder of the challenges one has had to endure. (Dusk Delacour)

Being unhoused during the holidays is one of the loneliest moments of the year. Because if you had family that you could rely on, or call, you wouldn’t be unhoused. So when the holidays come and it’s holiday cheer or happy Thanksgiving or merry Christmas, you feel the loneliest, because when other people go home, you are with a family that you had to create. But you’re not with the family you necessarily miss. You want to be with your grandmother, you want to be with your cousins, you want to see our uncle and auntie, but you’re in a park. And yes, they’re your street family, but it’s nothing like going home for the holidays.

You’re doing what you can to make it, whether that’s some drink, people donating food, smoking your weed—it’s almost like you’re passing the time. You’re just doing something to keep your mind off the fact that maybe you’re not seeing your family. You’re just here. Today is just a day. I can’t speak for all unhoused people, but some do have family that we can reach out to. I got family members all over Oakland. I could go. But I don’t want to, because the judgment is real. You come in and it almost seems like all eyes are on you. I have to answer, like, “why do you have chipped teeth, are you on drugs?” No, but then I have to explain that I have chipped teeth because I was raped. Or it’s like: 

“Oh why are your shoes so dirty?” 
It’s because I’m homeless. 
“Well how did you get homeless?” 
“What in the fuck happened to her?” 
“That baby on the pipe.” 

You don’t feel like answering. It’s because life happened. Life. And the phrase, “life happened,” should be enough. Some of the things that happened in my life I was in control of. That’s true. Anybody that says otherwise is a liar. But, there are some things in life that just happen. When I first became houseless, it was because I was running from a domestic violence relationship. So I chose to leave and sleep in my car. Then I couldn’t pay for my car because someone else was paying the car note, and when I decided to leave him, they stopped. So the car got repossessed. I don’t want to have to explain how I allowed someone to abuse me. Because it always turns into, “well I know you ain’t lettin’ nobody do that to you.” Well actually, I did. 

So I had to figure something out. Or somewhere to go, I should say. And don’t nobody let you live in their house for free. There’s only so long you can couch surf. Then with family, it’s like, none of y’all said, “aw baby come and live here!” No. Y’all wanted money and food stamps and for me to babysit your children. So especially during the holidays, I think for many unhoused people, it’s a lonely time. 

Part of what makes it so lonely is the self-judgment. There’s a type of shame about yourself. And that’s why I’m going to be alone today, because my family is used to my hair and eyelashes being done. They’re used to seeing me wearing makeup and being dressed fancy. I don’t want them to see me like this. And being unhoused is nothing to be ashamed of, everybody goes through high points and low points. For myself, I’m just going to be real, it’s embarrassment. Because my family had so many high hopes for me. So to tell them that I’m unhoused, living in a tiny house, no job, and relying on others to help provide for me, that’s not a conversation that I’m necessarily ready for. I’m not ashamed, but in bits and pieces and ways, I am. Everybody got a bit of pride. You avoid your own mama just to save face. There are some unhoused people who feel more at home with their street family than their actual family. Home is wherever you feel the most safe. Where you feel safe, you feel protected, and you feel loved and appreciated. If the only thing that brings you happiness is your dog, that’s home. On Christmas, if you can’t afford a tree and decorate a bush, that’s a Christmas tree. 

The holidays should be about whatever makes you feel joyful. You do what you have to do to be around people that bring you happiness. That’s where you should spend your holiday. Holidays have nothing to do with where you live, it’s about how you feel. 

The holidays should be a time when, regardless of your situation, we come together. I don’t care if you smell like rat piss. You should still be able to go and enjoy yourself with your family and not be judged. That is the issue with unhoused people, feeling judged and feeling unwelcome. And feeling alone. And the holidays are the worst time to feel alone. I feel alone right now. I’m in my tiny house, by myself. Because I feel alone, because I don’t want to be judged. That’s the only thing that’s stopping me. If anybody gets anything from this story, I hope it’s this: unhoused don’t mean we should feel unloved. 

As told to Alastair Boone on Thanksgiving Day.

Tiara Swearington is an unhoused writer and poet who lives in Oakland.