Josh is a a 47-year-old man who lives in Berkeley. He is originally from Santa Clarita and moved to the Bay in the ‘90s. He has an English degree from Cal and spends most of his time on a sailboat. Josh does not present as a “homeless” man. He does not see himself as such. When ask about this he replies, “Well I’m not a mentally ill drug addict, if that’s what you mean.” It is hard to give an acceptable reply. “Nobody wants to be called ‘homeless,’” he tells me. “It sounds like [the N word or F word] to me. Don’t say that to anybody you want to interview,” he says. It just makes them feel broken.
“Are you broken?” I ask him politely. “It depends on who you ask.” He says honestly, “I drink a lot. It’s caused some problems. I guess I’ve just learned to work around it.”
According to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) assessment report, “the most common demographic of all homeless people are males, members of a minority, older than 31 and alone.” Alcoholism and drug abuse are listed as underlying issues. While Josh is not a minority, he otherwise fits these criteria perfectly. He cites a big reason for continuing to live unhoused as being divorced with a grown son who is 28.
“I love my son, and I still love my ex-wife too, but keeping a roof over our heads and all the other responsibilities that come with being a husband and a father took its toll on me. I did it. I worked. I put myself through school. I raised my son. But I was miserable for a lot of years. I started drinking in my 20s mostly because it was the only way I could relax. I never went clubbing; I never drank in bars. I’d just come home after working all day and I’d get so sad about the things I couldn’t do for my family and I was tired and stressed and after a few drinks I could just fall into the couch and let it all go for a while. It’s unrealistic,” he tells me. “All the things society expects us to do. Humans are not meant to live like this.” He means the modern world. He talks at length about the social pressure to succeed, paying rent in the Bay Area, the expense of putting himself and two other people through college. He goes on and on. Car payments, insurance, leases, utility bills, credit cards, clothes, bling.
“It’s ridiculous.” He says emphatically. “And it’s incredibly, unnecessarily stressful. You show me the person who works any wage-paying job who is ‘making it’ in America today. They don’t exist. It’s a hoax. Not unless they were born into wealth and have generations of family helping them out. I don’t come from money,” he tells me. “I work as a boat diver,” meaning he dives and cleans boat hulls for a living. He says he makes anywhere from $50 to $100 per hour, but only works about 10 or 15 hours a week.
“I work when I want to, I make what I need, and the rest of my time is mine.” He smiles. “I’m happy,” he tells me. “For the first time in my life, I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to do. The worst part of my lifestyle is the stigma. People will always judge you and at some point you have to shake it off.”
Today Josh owns a sailboat and a van and spends his time between the two. “I have family in SoCal,” he tells me. “If I want to take off and travel, I can. If I want to get drunk and go sailing I can. If I want to spend the weekend in Tahoe skiing, I can. That is worth way more to me than the prestige that comes from a respectable 40-hour-a-week job.” It is hard to argue with his logic.
“Were you ever truly homeless, I mean like destitute, sleeping on the streets?” I ask him.
“Yeah, I spent a couple of years like that. I didn’t have anything. I slept outside. I had my things stashed in several different places. If I wanted to take a shower I had to get on a bus and go to two or three different places. I didn’t always know where my next meal was coming from. I was cold all the time.”
“How did you get out of that?” I ask.
“I don’t know exactly,” he tells me, sipping his drink.
“Things just change. Human beings are very adaptable. I joined a sailing club, for starters, and found something I really enjoy doing.”
His face lights up as he speaks.
“Sailing changed my life. I found a community, a place to hang out. I started going sailing every day and learning everything I could about boats. I met some people who were into the same thing. As I developed my boat skills things got better. I did some volunteering and that turned into a few paid gigs. One guy gave me an old Sienna van as payment for some work I did on his boat instead of cash. That changed things a lot. It gave me a shelter and place to sleep and store my stuff all in one place. Today I have two shower keys at different marinas, one where I keep my boat and one where I work. So between the two and my van I always have access to a shower and a place to relax and cook and sleep.”
“Do you ever want a house again?” I ask.
“Of course I want a house,” he tells me. “If it’s really a house, not an apartment, if it’s really mine. Not some place where I’m in a contract and having to work full time and I don’t have any rights. Not if I have to work any harder than I am right now to get it.”
“Do you have any goals?” I ask one last question.
“Goals?” He ponders for a minute. “At my age asking about goals is kind of like calling me ‘homeless’.” He isn’t angry or offended, but only trying to clarify. “I am not trying too hard to change anything.” He emphasizes again. “I am not trying to jump back into the rat race to make lots of money, to buy a house and a new car just so I can look good in the eyes of the public. I am really disturbed on a visceral level about a lot of things going on in the world.”
“Like what? Can you be specific?” I ask.
“Like the way we keep street lights on all over the city all the time…is a total waste of resources…Like the way we can all afford cell phones but there aren’t public toilets on every corner, and then we wonder why there is human feces in the streets.”
“And what about your goals?” I circle back.
“I have the goal of getting out of bed in the morning and being a decent human,” he tells me. “I have the goal of finishing this book I’m reading by the end of the week. I have the goal of traveling some more. I’d like to see my son again. He has some problems of his own and I wish I could be there for him, but he is a man now and his destiny is in his own hands,” he says. “Most importantly,” he smiles and finishes his drink, “I have the goal of being happy.”
Street Spirits is a feature in which someone who lives on the street tells us their story.
Martha Cast is a writer who has a BA in English from the University of Arizona. She has been intermittently homeless for the last six years. She wants to see the American people take collective action to stabilize the housing market, create a universal healthcare system and see that everyone has access to higher education and/or attaining jobs skills without incurring outrageous debt.