a drawing of an unhoused man on a grassy hillside looking up at a sky full of stars.
(Jazlyn Leon)

When people hear the word homeless, the picture that comes to mind is a person too lazy to work, someone who is mentally ill, and/or having drug problems, lying on the sidewalk with shopping carts full of junk and asking for your hard-earned dollar. And in some cases, this is an accurate depiction. But very little thought is given to what it took to get to the point of believing that living on the streets is a viable option—and in many cases, a vast improvement in one’s life.Statistics kept by the Department of Housing and Human Development (HUD) state that the main cause of homelessness is unaffordable housing. Most of the general public can understand that. Most people can understand running up on hard times and temporarily staying in a shelter, couch surfing, or living in their car for a relatively short period of time, say less than one year.

However, I consider these individuals to be displaced, not homeless. Normally this displaced group can get back in the social society within a year of experiencing what most consider homelessness.

Then there is a second group of people who live on the streets for long periods of time. Multiple underlying issues can cause a person to have no desire to reconnect with social society. This is a group of individuals who have very little chance of getting back to living a “normal” lifestyle.

These are people who have lived through extreme trauma, from physical and sexual abuse at a young age to catastrophic injuries and loss in later life.

One year, I watched my friend Mark die on New Year’s Eve: the fifth death in eighteen months that I experienced during that period of my life. Because of this, I developed an inability to feel, and very little affected me. I remember thinking, well it was his time. No emotions or feelings, just acceptance of the truth. 

With enough exposure to death your perception of living and dying changes dramatically. 

I came to understand that with enough repetitive exposure to horrific events such as these, your brain has a unique ability to go into shock, much like when you suffer a severe physical injury. With adrenaline flowing, you feel nothing for a short period of time. 

The same is true with extreme emotional trauma. After a period of time you feel nothing

and your mindset is one of a lonely, empty existence with no purpose, direction or meaning.Sometimes the ability to feel these emotions can return, however for me the ability to feel emotions of any depth never returned. My ability to feel is detached.

It was only after I accepted the fact that the person I was before was never coming back that I could begin to accept the possibility of another life. Even if that life consisted of owning no physical possessions, no family.

This is when living on the street started to make sense. Living on the streets and constantly moving, I was very seldom reminded of the person I was before. Everyone I met only knew the person I had become. No one asking where, when, who or why. Many of the people I knew before these God-awful experiences would continue to ask me, “when are you coming back to the real world?” The simple answer is that the life they were referring to no longer existed. I could not return. 

Once you have accepted this, you can no longer relate to your previous peer group or the life they are living. Nor can they relate to the person you have become. Now your peer group is people who have experienced catastrophic loss and it is not spoken of, just understood. 

I have found the majority of this group to be the salt of the earth, humble and sharing of the basic needs such as food, clothing, shelter and most importantly, acceptance.

Yet I hear people applying dime store philosophies with hatred as well as a total disgust for these Americans who have endured more misery than most can even imagine.

For me, coming to live on the streets without a past allowed me to re-gain a sense of peace after what had seemed to be a lifetime of torture. Living on the streets literally saved my life. Why? Because there are too many alternatives to end the pain. Some choose alcohol, others drugs, and then there are those of us that consider the ultimate solution, death.

The next time you feel the need to pass judgement, remember this: You may not be able to imagine what has taken place in that person’s life to bring them to where they are now.

This article was originally published in our August, 2020 issue.

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.