Last year, as I got to know a homeless woman living on the streets of Chapel Hill and Carrboro, I learned a few things about being homeless in the Southern part of heaven.
Being homeless is physically demanding. Often, you are really, really in need of a good night’s sleep. Bedding down on cement or brick isn’t exactly soporific. Also, you have to walk a lot and stand a lot. You have to carry (or push) all your belongings with you, wherever you go: There’s no safe place to leave them. Distances quickly magnify when you’re on foot and short of cash. Mobility is difficult. Not all bus drivers – even when the buses are wonderfully free! – want to help you bring your pack, or stroller’s worth of goods, on board. A kind offer of a car ride means all your gear has to come, too. This may not be welcomed.
Communication is fraught with difficulty. Getting in touch with Social Security or Social Services, or anyone else, means you need a phone; but phones, chargers and phone cards cost money and can quickly get lost or stolen. Finding out where you are on the waiting list at the women’s and children’s HomeStart shelter is tough when you cannot easily call or be called. You rely on compassionate shopkeepers or strangers for occasional phone calls. And with no fixed abode, where will you get your mail?
Getting and staying clean is an endless struggle. Washing clothes means getting to, and paying for, a laundromat. Minor cuts and scrapes easily become infected wounds. Hands become raw and chapped in winter, prone to cracking and bleeding. Band-Aids, hand lotions and antiseptic ointments are expensive.
Homelessness isn’t always about hunger, but it often is about eating a rubbish diet. A few dollars will get you burgers and fries, but that’s about it. If you’re diabetic, good luck with finding the right things to eat, let alone getting regular medication. One good thing in Chapel Hill: The downtown Community Kitchen offers three meals a day to anyone who’s hungry. Vimala’s Curry Blossom Café, on West Franklin Street, also offers to feed those who cannot pay.
But, also in Chapel Hill, it’s just become hotter and more exhausting on the street. Inexplicably, a few trees and their too-inviting, low-stone retaining walls have been removed from the 100 block of East Franklin Street. Now, there are fewer places for a rest in the shade. Result: Several street people have moved on down to the next block. Will the trees and walls there soon be on the Town Council’s landscaping list?
What else have I learned? Women’s homelessness seems more strenuous than men’s, at least in Chapel Hill and Carrboro. The men’s Inter-Faith Council shelter is close to shops, possible employment, other services – for now, at least, until it moves to its new site. Men can walk to it. Women’s spaces are fewer, and farther away, so a ride to the Durham Rescue Mission can be very helpful, especially on cold nights.
Of course, this next great revelation should have been obvious: Mental illness can keep you bouncing from street to emergency psychiatric care and back again. And all the well-meaning clinicians and social workers in the world cannot make you stay in the shelter they have found for you. Nor is it helpful when the well-housed berate you for leaving that “nice” shelter you were placed in. Why can’t you take what’s offered to you and be grateful?
This leads to my final point: Homelessness isn’t always the last resort. It may be the second-to-last, better than living in a shelter with who-knows-what other people in the same room, or on the bunk above or below you, with the added possible pleasure – in some places, at least – of religious indoctrination. In contrast, living on the street provides a kind of painful, exhausting, challenging freedom, where you may decide your next move.
But please don’t make me try it.
Rosemary Haskell teaches English at Elon University.