The Skills and Schedules Needed to Navigate an Unsheltered Life

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The Skills and Schedules Needed to Navigate an Unsheltered Life

Tents for the homeless line the median along Connecticut Avenue at Dupont Circle in Northwest, Wednesday, April 29, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is excerpted from The Man in the Dog Park, by Cathy Small, with Jason Kordosky and Ross Moore, which was published last month by Cornell University Press. In this “rare window into homeless life,” author Cathy Small and her two co-authors, both men who have lived experience of homelessness, relate personal stories about the ingenuity it takes to negotiate life without a home. This excerpt is from Chapter 5, which provides a number of anecdotes from unsheltered people about the surprisingly regimented mundanities of daily life.

Protecting Your Stuff (and Yourself) 101

Most people think that the homeless don’t have possessions, at least no possessions of value. Homeless people definitely don’t see it that way, and one of the challenges they have is to protect their belongings from human and natural elements.

One of the first things Jerald had to learn was to withhold information:

Say somebody asks me where I’m camped, I wouldn’t tell them where exactly I was at. “I’m just in this area here,” I tell them. But I wouldn’t give them exact locations. That way nobody would know where you are at, where you are located at. No one would be able to steal your stuff or anything like that. For my own safety [too] like I said I’m not going to tell you where I’m at. Or really what I’m doing.

To protect his campsite while he is at work, Jerald has learned to break down his camp every day so nothing appears to remain on the surface. He collapses his tent, then folds everything underneath, then covers it flat with a brown tarp.

Some other forest dwellers Jerald knows will pack everything up, bag it, and try to store it somewhere. But then they have to return all their belongings to the site each night, unpack everything, and set up their camp again. “I don’t see the sense in that,” he commented, “but some people do that too.”

“I try not to make it noticeable,” he explains. “So that way if people were to come by they’re like, “Oh, it’s just like somebody’s old stuff or whatever. They just left it there.” But what they don’t know is that everything is all laid out … inside.

“I’ve cut down several branches or whatever and use that as like a wall or whatever to keep people from seeing it … My tarp—it’s brown. It’s kind of beat up like a weathered rock. But everything, you know [important], it’s covered on the inside. It’s camouflage,” he says with some pride.

The most visible and vulnerable homeless wheel their possessions openly in a shopping cart, where they can monitor their stuff and keep it close. This is often what the public associates with homelessness, but most unsheltered people don’t want to be visibly marked by a packed shopping cart. What’s more, the supermarkets and malls are pushing back. Homeless people who want to navigate the landscape with a borrowed shopping cart are encountering new technology that embeds sensors into the carts so they won’t move if taken off the property. In the shopping center where Randy keeps his car, new posted signs show a shopping cart at the edge of a bright yellow line with a red “prohibited” symbol through one wheel: They read: “Attention Shoppers! Our shopping cars will lock if taken beyond the parking lot perimeter. While distinctive yellow lines mark normal exits, the entire lot perimeter is protected.” The same message then appears in Spanish.

When some cities went so far as to outlaw shopping carts outside of parking lots—another approach to the perceived problem—homeless started using baby carriages to transport their possessions.

And then there are storage units. It was Ross, and his gift to me of an original oil painting [Editor’s Note: this story is recounted in Chapter 3], that made me begin to notice the prevalence of paid storage areas among the homeless. This (reconstructed) exchange, several years into our friendship, took place at a time when Ross had first moved into a subsidized motel and proffered his gift:

Cathy: It’s beautiful … but where did that painting come from?

Ross: A homeless Native American guy, an artist, gave it to me a couple of years ago for helping him out.

Cathy: But where have you been keeping this?

Ross: My storage unit.

Cathy: You have a storage unit!?

I thought Ross was an outlier. (What homeless person living unsheltered in a park or a forest would be paying rent for a storage unit?) But then the subject of storage units and why he wanted one came up spontaneously in my conversations with Jerald as well:

I try to keep what I have at camp to a minimum so I don’t have too much there. Especially valuables and important stuff I know I shouldn’t keep there. I try to keep those, you know, at a different place … I’ve been wanting to get a storage [unit] so I can store all my camp gear because I don’t want to sell it, I may need it again. I don’t want to get rid of it or anything. So that’s another thing I’m looking into.

I began to realize that I never noticed or broached the topic because, in my own mental separation of homeless as a subculture, I missed the sameness, the “us-ness,” that homeless individuals continue to hold close. The storage unit was a repository of that same-ness, retaining possessions that evoked a better past or envisioned a brighter future; they stored items that were security and insurance, hope and dignity, an identity of being, really, just like everyone else.

It was not long before I came to see that there were many other homeless who had storage units that they paid for by the month.

Some kept possessions there to sell or pawn for extra money, while others simply could not abandon valued property that was hard-won. Still others held on to objects and mementos that linked them to a happier past. Some stored items for the day when they would once again have a place to put them. Some lost all their possessions because they couldn’t keep up storage payments and their unit contents were confiscated.

I was to find out, too, about the homeless people who lived in their units. For some, the storage unit became their day shelter, a place to go when they were forced out of the Community Shelter at 7 am on a sleeting winter day. I met shelter residents who had pooled their resources, earned partly through plasma donation, to jointly rent a unit, where they stored their gear and socialized during the day. They returned to the shelter at night for warmth and food. For some, like Penelope, the storage unit truly was their residence.

When I first met Penelope, she was staying in a shelter, but she had spent the past summer living in the storage unit where she kept her possessions. “They didn’t know,” she added. She is not the only one with such a story.

This is less difficult to fathom when you realize that a fifteen- by-fifteen-foot (225 square foot) storage space runs about $135 to $155 per month in a town where, in the summer, a Motel 6 room of the same size, even at weekly rates, costs more than $1,500 for the month. The worst-rated motel in town, with black mold and stained towels, will run $325 a week. There are cheaper alternatives, but many are problematic, ironically, for those with little money. A single room for rent will probably run around $500 a month, but it typically requires a security deposit, or first and last months’ rent—precisely what a poor and homeless person will not have. So the alternatives, besides the shelter, are unrealistic. Penelope told me, “What I do is, when I was going there, is wait until the storage people leave. They leave like at five thirty p.m. So I’ll go and wait until eight, some nights. So during that summer, I had all my covers in there, and my Internet.”

She explained to me how, with a little fiddling, she could open the door of her storage unit when she was inside it, how you could leave an unnoticed space underneath the door for more ventilation but leave the lock on, so it appeared closed. How the storage people didn’t look closely, despite some cameras in the facility.

“The storage people come in,” she told me, “at eight a.m. So I’ll get up early in the morning. Set my Android to alarm, so I’m gone. And maybe I take a shower at the storage.” (There was a bathroom.) “I’m gone before they come to work.”

The Art of Keeping Clean

When you are living unsheltered, part of staying safe — from both the law and public scrutiny — is looking “normal,” and part of looking normal is keeping clean. This is most challenging for those without a sheltered routine and resources. It takes time and planning, more than in conventional living, to arrange for self-care.

“I haven’t had a haircut in, like, the last … like about a month ago,” Jerald tells me. I need to do that. Sometimes you do need to … at least, you know … I’m homeless but I don’t have to look like shit.” He goes on, without prompting:

You know, ’cause I’ve seen, I’ve seen men and women who’ve, who’ve just, who are just totally in the gutter and they just don’t have anything really and they’re, you know, either on something or just all liquored up that they don’t even care sometimes what they look like. And I’ve seen it out of certain people, even people my age, and I start to wonder, “Damn, don’t you guys ever feel bad for looking like that or being this way?” Because to me, I know that would really bother me.

Jerald thinks his haircut will help him to “pass,” as he often does.. As he puts it, “I’ve kind of gotten away with being at certain places or just hanging out here and there. Like most of the time it was just to recharge my phone or on my way to work or … killing time to go to work.”

People find showers where they can. If the timing and transportation are right, one can shower at the shelter. Some people use the community recreation center, which can cost only $6.50 a day for a use pass (but it offers communal men’s and women’s showers with cubicles, and the rate applies only if you can show town residence). You can clean up and shave at a bathroom in the mall, if your appearance does not raise the antennas of mall police.

Penelope talked about her strategy for staying clean, a strategy that many homeless would find familiar. “I’ve gotten really good at being homeless. I figure out all kinds of ways to cope and get through life. Like I can take a bath anywhere. And, really, I’ve taken a bath everywhere,” she says with a mischievous smile.

“Like where?” I ask her, with some good-humored anticipation.

“Like here,” Penelope answers. (We are sitting at a Burger King.) “Like … across the street at the Laundromat. The doctor’s office all the time at [the clinic]. At the library. At McDonald’s way on the other side of town. At Walmart, too.”

“So … How do you do that?” I ask. “How do you take a bath at these places?”

“It’s like a ‘birdbath,’” she responds. (“Birdbath” is the jargon used by other homeless as well.) “I get undressed and then I splash water, raising up a little toward the sink, and I’ve gotten really good at it. The only problem is when someone comes in. You have to time it right, and sometimes you can lock the door.”

Randy regularly uses the gas station within walking distance from his car. You have to buy something, he tells me, but purchasing a pack of gum entitles you to a key to a private bathroom. The privacy is why many considered gas stations a prime bathing place.

Randy shaves and bathes daily at the gas station before returning to his car. He does laundry at the mall Laundromat and keeps extra new shirts folded in the back of his car. He attributes his longevity at the mall to his tidy look, along with his clean, newer-model car.

As Penelope instructs, you have to be “fast and neat, so that if you come again they won’t remember you and try to stop you.”

The Talent of Timing Your Day

Bathing is just one of the activities that make up a daily routine. Charging phones, checking mail, finding food, doing laundry, getting money all must be figured into the schedule. For people in legal trouble, it also includes checking in with probation officers, getting drug tests, doing community service, or taking required classes.

Despite the not infrequent characterization of the freedom of “houseless” life, there is much more routine that you might imagine. Ross said it plainly, comparing his homeless life of many years to his life in 2018, after he finally received HUD housing: “I was more run by the watch when I was homeless than now. No doubt about it. I had to be so much more time-conscious in the homeless life.“

Then he explained why. “Like when I was living in downtown San Diego, and not working, I’d get up at six [when it got light and he became more visible], and then I’d need to plan my day around when and where resources were available.”

The first thing is food, and when you can get it. You’re restricted about when you can eat. Because different agencies have different times that they serve, and if you’re not there, you miss out. We all knew places and times—where you could get a free breakfast, and the couple of spots you can get showers.

Then lunch, and you have the afternoon for getting money or job interviews or whatever. It could be a medical appointment, getting clothes, getting sleeping bags, getting that lined up.

As Ross put it, “You just become time-conscious … You have to plan your days so you can hit each one of these places you think you need at the right time.” And this need to plan extends beyond daylight. As he advised, “You want to be back by dark so you can set up and relax.”

“Why?” I asked, still thinking of the lack of obligation in unsheltered living.

“Well,” Ross explained, “People start looking for camps and places to camp right around dusk. Like, if you have a little spot and you don’t have it staked out—which means you’re not there to protect it—by the time you get there, you might not have it any longer. [In the city] there’s a smaller [number of] select areas to camp where you are discreet and not out in the public eye. In the forest … you can go anywhere.”

Jerald’s life in the forest, and his description of his day, is perfect testimony, too, to the often tight scheduling of homeless life. Remember that Jerald works. And he has the added legal mandates of classes, drug tests, and probation check-ins (many of which are done by phone).

“Basically, it’s all routine, I guess. It’s all a daily routine,” he tells me. Before heading to work, he bicycles to the mall “to clean up really quick,” and then he continues the eleven-mile bike trip to work. Jerald then works a six-hour or eight-hour shift, depending on how long his boss needs him.

There is no public transportation available when Jerald is finished with his shift. “My bike has been my mode of transportation, that and the bus, but the buses don’t run that early, you know, till about six thirty in the morning. So when I get off at four, or six, I bike all the way back to clear … clear on the other side of town.”

When he wants to take a shower after work, Jerald stops first at the Community Shelter for the morning shower time. He charges his phone and heads back to camp for a little sleep before he has to get ready to go to work again at 6:30 pm. The mandatory classes Jerald must take add to the mix. Some nights, like on Mondays, he must fit in going to class and working. He comes home from work and goes directly back to camp for some sleep. Then he must turn around, get to the shelter to shower again, and get ready to go to class. “I’m still tired,” he shared, “and I found that I fell asleep through class, this past class. I fell asleep in there, so I had to get up and walk around.”

Randy’s day is run according to his panhandling schedule. He gets up at 5 a.m. every day so he can meet the early breakfast crowd at the McDonald’s by 5:30, where he sets up in the parking lot. He moves to the shopping center in late morning to catch those shopping or eating out during their lunch hour. He favors the entrances of the shopping center again right after the workday ends.

During the slow time in the afternoon he may do laundry or buy food. He gets $192 a month in “food stamp” funds, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which appear on his debit card. Randy finds this stretches well, especially with the fast food gift cards or occasional boxed lunch from Chipotle, which some people give instead of cash. The SNAP food assistance program has been the subject of congressional debate about massive cuts, which could see his monthly allotment drop to $134.

When the car is running and movable, he tries to park it so its back window faces west, where the sun will travel in the afternoon. If he has cooked food from a handout or store, he will put it in the window. He calls it his “makeshift microwave,” with a smile: It gets pretty hot in there [some times of the year] and if I food there a couple or three hours, at least I have a warm dinner. Maybe not hot, but warm, and it feels like cooked food.”

“It’s a choice every day when I wake up,” Randy tells me. “To be happy or to be miserable. I try to stay happy because I’d rather be that, rather stay positive. Why not be happy?”

Excerpted from The Man in the Dog Park, Cornell University Press, 2020.

Cathy A. Small is Professor Emerita of Anthropology at Northern Arizona University and a resident of Flagstaff, Arizona, where she enjoys life with her spouse, Phyllis, of thirty years. She is the author of Voyages and My Freshman Year.

Jason Kordosky is a researcher for the Culinary Union. He works and lives in Las Vegas, Nevada, with his spouse, Magally, and his best cat friend, Tobie. He enjoys hiking, photography, and writing poetry in his free time.

Ross Moore is a disabled Vietnam veteran and resident of northern Arizona. After surviving three decades of recurrent homelessness, he now lives with his wife, “Wendi,” in a HUD subsidized apartment. He is an avid collector of vinyl records.

Tags: homelessness

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