Chasing Home

Always for me there is the specter of homelessness. Once you’ve been homeless it is a possibility that lurks in the shadows of life.

Years ago I was homeless for on or about two years and the possibility of finding myself homeless again has  once more raised its head.

Some background. The majority of my homeless days were spent in New York City. I was in my teens. It all happened quickly. My father died on August 16, 1969. I was 15. Sixteen weeks later my mother put me in reform school on a PINS (person in need of supervision) petition. I was released 14 months later to a half way house called the Medgar Evers Boys Residence on East 18th Street. I got into a fight. My mother was called and told there were three options for me: I return home, return to the reform school, or I could, as they said in those days, hit the streets. She told the caller she didn’t want me and hung up. Rather than giving up my freedom I hit the streets. For anyone inclined to throw rocks at this decision, trying life without freedom, then talk to me.

If you’ve ever been homeless you can’t help but believe your ability to keep your home is always at risk. You  feel, to varying degrees, sometimes accurately, sometimes not, that your home, that place of sanctuary that all people deserve, is vulnerable.  And sometimes it is. When you’ve been poor, and I mean poor, you are well aware that any economic comfort you are experiencing could be temporary. Until 2008 when I lost my job because I would not remain silent when people with disabilities – brain injuries in this case – were being denied their rights, including their right to be treated with respect, I could go food shopping at the market and fill my cart without having to think about the cost. There was not a single time I went shopping when I did not consciously remind myself not to take the gift of my food purchasing power for granted because I knew it could come to an end. I never did and it did.

Not surprisingly more than one person said If you’d just kept quiet you wouldn’t have lost your job. True. But, as I explained to them, you can’t on the one hand say you are an advocate for equal rights and then, when the going gets tough, clam up. There are real reasons Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is one of my heroes and it was King who said: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” There is no amount of money in the world, nor is there any threat to my home or my life that will make me fall silent when people are being denied their civil rights, the right to be who they are safely in the world which includes equality by the way. I don’t care if the bigotry comes in the form of racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, sexism or if it aimed at people with disabilities, and so on. My remaining silent is not on the table.

Being homeless is something you never forget. I remember dumpster diving, although it wasn’t called dumpster diving back then. It was called looking for food to eat. You learned when restaurant’s threw out their food at the end of the day. And if you were a fast runner, and I was, very, you’d wait until the bread trucks dropped brown bags filled with fresh rolls just outside the door of a bakery or deli in the wee hours of the morning, swoop in, grab the bag, and haul ass, usually to deep within some abandoned building where you could chow down with your mates, if you had any. If you had enough loose change you could get a cup of coffee, pick up a couple of cigarette butts from the street, and, in no time at all, you were fully embraced by the comforting albeit inaccurate belief that still-warm rolls and coffee and a good smoke were heaven on earth.

And so now in soon to be 2012 I once again find myself in a precarious position on the keep-a-home-of-my-own front. I must move from where I am as early as April 1 and not later than May 1 of 2012. I am on disability and have a Section 8 Voucher that helps with the rent, though the system, depending on which New York county you’re living in, offers various forms of ruthlessness. Where I am the maximum allowable rent for a one-bedroom for one person is $556 if all utilities are included, which, as we know, is highly unlikely. If utilities are not included then they apply a utility calculation which means you must get a place with a lower rent you’ll need money for the utilities. This makes sense until you learn that your contribution to the rent, which is one-third of your income (I’m fine with that) remains the same. In other words, the rent subsidy gets lowered, and the person on the fixed income’s overhead increases. If you are brazen enough to rent a two-bedroom, the skew the utility figures so the maximum monthly rent you can choose is something like $365!

I’ve already begun looking, the hope being a small house, cottage, mobile home, cabin, with, if I am lucky a washer-drier hook-up and, if I am very lucky, a woodstove. Why these two things? Simple. I can’t afford paying for laundry and the woodstove keeps me going outside and exercising and, frankly, it means less money for oil companies.

However, as you might imagine, the cost of moving and the cost of security in a new place is another ball of wax entirely. If I stay in the county I’m in, there is a chance, though no guarantee, the Department of Social Services will help with security. There is no help with the cost of moving. If I move to another county or to another state, I’ve looked at New Hampshire and Western Massachusetts, it is not likely the welcoming state or county will help with security and moving costs because to take you in in the eyes of those who make the rules (how do you spell 1%?) is something believed to be burdensome. So, if I want to move I’ll need money for security and moving expenses and with many landlords understandably asking for things like first and last month’s rent in addition to security or two months security, that’s quite a vig, and not one I can make on my own. Moreover, neither Section 8 or New York State’s Traumatic Brain Injury Waiver, which I’m on, will help with security or moving costs. We’re talking several thousand dollars I’m sure.

A couple of friends have begun talking about fund raising to help me; the whole of these circumstances makes me want to crawl under the blankets and go to sleep in the hopes that someone will wake me when it’s over. Thank God for my books and my dogs and my friends and thank God for my sobriety.

 

Chasing Home

Published in 1961, the second edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary defines home as “One’s own dwelling place…the house in which one lives with his family” and “a place of refuge and rest.” It seems like I have been chasing home all my life.

Losing home at any age is soul-splitting. It wounds the heart. It slaughters hope. It can utterly exterminate one’s sense of worth. When a child loses home it can be emotionally lethal. Loss leaves gaping holes. When a child loses home and family any sense of safety in the world is pulverized and any sense of belonging in life may perish.

For a child, the loss of home and family leads you to feel and believe you are nothing, and if, by chance, you are left with any residue of self at all, it’s not much. This is exactly what happened to me. I now believe what I have been chasing no longer exists for me because family no longer exists – at least none that I grew up with – and home, I am learning, is best found in the rooms of one’s mind. I certainly think the notion that home is where you hang your hat is absolute rubbish. Quaint phrase, I grant you, but absolute rubbish nonetheless.

My relationship with home and family ended in 1969, 16 weeks after my father died unexpectedly at age 55. I was 15. Sixteen weeks later my mother placed me in reform school on a PINS (Person In Need of Supervision) petition. When I was released 13 months later, I was not allowed back in the family and so, at age 17, I was homeless. My life with a family had come to an end.

I don’t know if I can stop chasing home, chasing that place of refuge and rest that is or feels like it is immune from assault from without and within. Even though I intellectually understand it does not exist, my heart remembers days when I was a boy and everyone was still alive. Days with my father and Poppop, my grandfather on my mother’s side, when I knew I was the safest most loved little boy in all the world. That were a bomb to drop from the sky their presence would assure my safety. And while some might say all this makes me a hopeless romantic, it is who I am. And I spend my life with who I am.

To be continued…