The following are excerpts from Martha Cast’s book, Poor in Public: a collection of essays about the people she met, and experiences she had, while homeless in Berkeley and along the West Coast between the years of 2014 and 2015. Below you will read her introduction.
This book is dedicated to my neighbor and friend, the van dweller Socia who refuses to tell me her last name. May she one day make peace with this world.
This story is not just about me. Although my own experience is where I know to begin. I know how I ended up here, all the complicated details that make up a life, the decision after decision and choice after choice that eventually becomes who we are. I don’t imagine I’ll stay here forever but coming back is an uphill battle to say the least.
I assume if you’ve picked up my book that there is a piece of you that is a bleeding heart. I assume you care about people, that you dream of a better world, that you want to be a part of change, that like so many of us, you feel something is insidiously wrong with a system that allows so many to become ultra-rich and at the same time leaves so many people behind to suffer and struggle and become broken. Or maybe you just like the idea of peeking into someone else’s life. That’s all ok. Those are the ideas that keep us connected, that make us human.
Maybe you see Homeless people in your city, at the bus stop, wrapped in a blanket when it’s cold and you think we should do something, the government should do something. Social workers and cops and hospitals and welfare offices should do something. Then, if you’re like I used to be, you walk on home and are grateful that it’s not you and you promise yourself that you’ll never let life get that bad, because you’re young and strong and know how to work and you have an education and a family and all the resources that middle and upper class America has to offer.
Maybe you’ve had this type of experience with the Homeless – by the way that’s offensive, it sounds like a disease, the Homeless, but it is what it is and I’m not in a position to care too much about propriety. Maybe you believe they’re scary and dirty and stinky and crazy and you just can’t be bothered. I understand. Trust me, I used to think like that.
I remember those days. I remember owning a house in an uptown neighborhood in San Diego. It wasn’t that long ago that I was picking up suits from the cleaners and putting on makeup and heels to go to work every morning. I loved my house, it was my shrine, my refuge, the most important thing in the world to me. I had matching furniture, brand name cutlery, the latest and most coveted electronics.
I was on the surface born into a fairly normal, white, middle class family. In a small town in Oklahoma in 1975 my parents owned a bar, the family business. We had a ten-acre property just off Highway 102; the business was in the front, we lived in the house in back. My parents were married; I was born when they were 28. My father was a Veteran, my mother was a teacher, and later a bartender. My grandparents, all four of them, were comfortably retired and lived nearby. We weren’t rich, but we weren’t poor either. I have an education. I am a U.S. citizen. I am not marginalized in that regard. I never thought when I was young and owned my house and I was gainfully employed that there might be a day when those things weren’t there, when opportunity and success were not available to me.
Homelessness for me has come about through a series of obstacles, through years of loneliness and exhaustion and poor health and mindlessly spinning on the hamster wheel, going nowhere. It began as a choice, the best of a handful of bad options, but a choice none-the-less. I viewed it as an adventure, a desperate attempt at change. I thought it would be temporary, a road trip, a camping trip, a soul-searching adventure. At the end I envisioned a great story to tell the grandkids. And honestly, I thought I could return anytime I wanted.
That idea now feels like fiction, like the delusional ramblings I hear from some other homeless people. Getting out is proving to be much more difficult than getting in. And I’m absolutely sick of being told what to do, what I need, and to just go get a job. If that was going to fix me, don’t you think I’d have done it already?
I am not destitute. I am not a thief. I am not running from the law. I still take a shower and eat every day. I am reasonably safe. I still have a driver’s license and a car to sleep in and an income, in the form of a disability check that comes every month. I have just enough to keep going, to pay for car insurance and gas and dog food and a gym membership so I can work out and stay clean. I have a P.O. box so I can get mail and then after I pay for asthma medicine and food and all those unexpected expenses that always come up like vet bills and parking tickets and tires and new glasses, well there’s not much left.
I have been living in my car for almost a year now. I have been on disability for nearly ten years as the result of bad asthma and then COPD. Poverty does things to people. Desperation and fear and scrambling to get just enough together to barely get by and at the end of the day being exhausted without all those things like love and community and a good hot meal and some time to do what you want to replenish your spirit, in time it beats a person down. I believe a lot of us are out here because we’re tired, because maybe we’ve just had too many bad days.
I’m feeling pretty beat up these days. I’m not sure anyone can really help me. I am grateful for the social programs that exist in America, food stamps and Medicare and all the rest of it. It is better than nothing, but it is not a way out. I have clean water and I have food. I do not have adequate healthcare, and that is a huge part of my problem.
I have limited resources and sub-standard, although not terrible credit. I am in jeopardy of losing my driver’s license if I don’t pay some fines soon and as of a week ago, there is a warrant for my arrest in San Diego County for a failure to appear. I was cited for sleeping in my car in a gas station parking lot; apparently California has passed a law making it illegal to sleep in a car. That means I, and nearly everyone in this story, was breaking the law every day. My lifestyle is now illegal, something that should be protected under the 8th amendment.
There are other Homeless people whom I have met; they are my friends. If I had a house, I wouldn’t invite most of them over, for various reasons. You will meet them soon. I have formed my own opinions about them and you will too. For some of us this situation is temporary. I have faith that we will find ourselves and get happy and get well and get our lives back on track. Then there are a few of us who, as I like to say, “ain’t never coming back.”
You may think you are immune but you’re kidding yourself. Anyone can become Homeless. I believe there are a whole lot of people out there living on the edge, one paycheck, one car accident, one illness, one divorce, one catastrophe away from joining us on the marina, in the parking lot, under the bridge, in the churchyard, or wherever that place is in your community, that you think it would be ok to be for a minute, if being indoors was no longer an option. Those people are part of the problem too; they are boarded up in their houses, sick and lonely and stressed-out and scared, getting more desperate every day, clinging to their little piece of the rock screaming mine, mine, mine, because they are afraid of ending up in the parking lot next to me.
One last fragmented thought, before you meet my friends, I want to say on behalf of all of us, especially for those who aren’t capable of saying it for themselves, thank you. If you have ever given a Homeless person a dollar or bought a stranger a cup of coffee, if you’ve ever had that moment of grace that kept you from calling the cops and instead let them hang out in front of your business or dumpster dive in your alley, Thank You. Sincerely, humbly, for your compassion and ability to see beyond the immediate into the essence of a human life. That could be the next Steve Jobs, or Mother Theresa, or Jesus out there digging in your trash, just trying to get through their day.
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.