An illustration of two unhoused men, one Black and one white, sitting next to each other on the street and smiling and talking as people walk by.
(Gregory Arena)

When I was first became homeless in Berkeley, I noticed some people around me were using the word “mainstream” in a certain connotation I’d not heard elsewhere. According to this tint, we were once members of an evil ogre called the Mainstream. By becoming homeless, we had effectively escaped that monster.The Mainstream consisted of a set of values, standards, and policies with which I was unable to cooperate, according to my natural design. It seemed a specific form of evil, a gigantic colossus of evil that demanded my undying allegiance, on threat of homelessness. 

Others shared this view. We felt we were “kicked out” of the Mainstream, and we landed on the streets. The Mainstream had the power to remove us from its grip, and to consign us to homelessness, if we showed continually that we were unable to adapt to all its various mores and customs.

That’s what happened to me anyway. As I was becoming homeless, around about 2004 or so, I got to the point where I couldn’t function as expected in society. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t focus. I had basically imploded from the impact of all the multiple stressors of modern life. 

Naturally, when I began to seek a way to live inside again, it was very important that I find a way of indoor living that would not ensnare me back into the Mainstream. For if it did, what would be the point? It would only stress me out again, and land me back on the streets.

Oddly enough, by moving to an obscure out-of-the-way hamlet nestled near the Canadian border, I managed to do just that. Getting a retirement income from the government also helped. Apparently, the Feds figured I had done enough work in my day. My entire mental health disability vanished overnight on my 66th birthday. (They even gave me a “raise” in my sleep).

Prior to my “retirement,” I was not encouraged to work, because I was supposed to be crazy. With the SSDI removed, I was told I could work all I wanted—now that I’m retired. 

With cost of rent being so much cheaper up here than it is down in the Bay Area, I’ve managed to pay my rent on time for almost six years now, mostly living off of my social security. I’ve had a few jobs that I’ve eventually lost once they figure out how “crazy” I am. And I’ve done odd jobs, moving furniture and that kind of thing. But mostly I’ve been on the dole, with the exception that I’m considered to be “retired” rather than “disabled.” 

I would say I’ve managed to keep it together fairly well, all things considered. As a result, I haven’t been yanked back into the Mainstream, because I haven’t admitted any of its stressors into my life.

Until now.

While most jobs have not worked out, a few months ago I got a job in another town that does seem to be working out. It’s the first job I’ve gotten that’s in line with what I used to do before I burned out in 2004. For the first time in nearly twenty years, I find myself teaching piano to kids and music-directing plays at a regional theatre company. 

But I find myself threatened, even as I prepare this column. The tenuous hold that a person like me has on reality must be taken into consideration. These people have offered me so much work in the next year that there’s no way I can stay on unless I leave my apartment and move closer to the site.

I’m paying $490 for a large one bedroom apartment right now. (Yes, you heard that right.) I saw an apartment two blocks from work for $460. It looks good, they like me, and I could be signing a lease within the next twenty-four hours.

It would almost seem a no-brainer. Aside from the fact that as a lifelong theatre person, I enjoy doing shows, I also wrote a musical about homelessness that most people throughout the past decade have laughed at. These people actually want to produce that musical. You’d think I’d be jumping at the chance to please them. 

But I’m not. This is the only apartment I’ve had since the 90s that I’ve actually been able to hang onto. How do I know that I will be able to sustain the next living situation the way that I’ve sustained this one?

Perhaps a better question is this: How have I been able to sustain my current living situation, when I have not been able to sustain any of the previous ones?

The answer, for me, is simple.

I stayed out of the Mainstream, and I was able to keep my pad.

What was I doing in 2004, when the Mainstream kicked me out and landed me on the streets?

Oh, I was teaching kids how to play the piano, and doing shows—just like I’d done forever, just like I’m about to do now. That is, if I don’t grab ahold of myself. I may have been living in a big mansion with a landlord who owned two Steinway grand pianos, but I sure lost hold of that situation—and where did it lead me?

To the streets of Berkeley, California—by a roundabout but certain route.

No thank you, Mainstream. You can find someone else to do your dirty work. I’m staying right where I am. If you want my musical or anything else I’ve written in the past six years, I will send it to you freely. But I’m not getting back into that rat race.

After all, it took twelve years of homelessness for me to learn how to escape it.

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.