I “identify” as homeless—the label has stuck around long past the moment when the rent finally got paid. The trauma does not leave you. The sense of shame, however misplaced, does not leave you. The feeling, and too often reality, that when you tell other people about it they either assume you are lying, or exaggerating, or talking about it simply for attention, does not leave you either. The experience lives on in your nervous system, in your bones. A few months ago a male housemate wanted to cheat on his girlfriend with me. I didn’t raise my voice because I was filled with the existential fear of losing my home. During that tense time, I drove to the nearby homeless encampment and parked there. I sat and looked at a world I knew and understood so much better than the one I currently called my home.
I live in a gorgeous apartment. Really, it is quite beautiful. I have not lived alone in six years, but I live alone now. The last time I lived alone, I was too scared to buy furniture. I was too scared to buy a bed, or even a mattress. I slept on the floor for nine months straight. I simply could not convince myself that spending money on a mattress that I could spend on food, or water, or emergency expenses, made sense. I was not interested in the consequences to my body in the form of physical pain. I puddled my blankets into a corner in the room I picked for the bedroom and lay there, terrified of my own ghosts, shivering against the strip of carpet, waking up to bones cracked against the concrete floor beneath. I jacked up the heat to keep warm against the freezing cold of the coldest winter Salem, Oregon had seen in years, complete with snowstorms so loud they canceled classes and brought snowplows from as far away as Eugene.
“I have a foot in both worlds and am incomprehensible to both”
I spent that winter in hiding. I wouldn’t let anybody see me. Coughs split my chest in half and I developed bronchitis that lasted all winter long, a phenomenon that stuck with me.
I also developed my tendency to run and hide like no one would notice.
That was the winter that Trump took the White House. It was the winter I tried to work four jobs and it didn’t work. It was the winter I realized everyone else but me seemed to have the hang of work. It was the winter I was so lonely but every human interaction seemed like a threat, a flashback in waiting.
My life was a series of bold black lines against a pale blue tapestry. I was already in my late twenties but I felt my life had not yet begun. Everyone around me was a full person and I was just a shadow.
My real life was back on the streets and was the people I met there. The world where it is possible to be schizophrenic and the survivor of gang rape and addicted to crystal meth and a foster kid. Either you’re one of us, or you’re one of them. I have a foot in both worlds and am incomprehensible to both. I am afraid of being recognized for the circumstances of my life when I try to play games of respectability, afraid they will see that I am from the basement of this life, the street corners, the places where the people do the horrible things to survive. Mostly we do them to ourselves, or to each other. Sometimes respectable people come and pay us to do these things to them. I traded my self-respect for an endless series of comments or silly experiences or violating experiences or simply for the dubious designation of being “that homeless girl I helped.” I’ve learned to doubt the motivation behind help. Too many people will talk about giving love, about wanting to help out of love, will confuse their pity for love but it will be an excuse to get too near, to touch, to grope, to put hands on people who cannot fight back. I’ve learned to doubt people who confuse the term love with basic human needs. People with nothing don’t need to be taught what someone else mistakenly thinks love is, as a condition of being housed and fed.
Sometimes I tell myself I was never loved, have never been loved, but that’s not true. Actually that’s what I miss most. The people who were thrown away by the people who should have loved them, the people who were hurt and raped and bullied and violated over and over again, you should see how these people love. I miss how these people love. I miss how these people loved me.
I miss the way I loved when I had nothing left to lose. When I wasn’t afraid to love. When I wasn’t afraid of myself, or what I thought love might take from me.
Now I have this apartment. This life. I am grateful for it. Every day.
I am grateful. I am grateful, and I miss them. I am grateful, and I miss me.
Ari Wolf is a daughter of the Bay Area. She earned her MFA at Mills College in 2019 and has since published, performed, and spoken nationally about sexual violence, childhood trauma, and disability. As someone who experienced homelessness due to trauma and chronic illness, Wolf is grateful to Street Spirit for the opportunity to write about these topics in her own backyard.