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What's It Like to Be Homeless

Written by Ashley Ball

Dacia Adams gives us a first-person look at being homeless and food for thought.homeless perspective

Homeless From The Inside Out
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"If they could walk through you, they would."
 
That's how Dacia Adams describes the rest of the world from a homeless perspective: a parade of well-meaning, well-dressed people filing by with averted eyes, hoping not to get hit up by yet another panhandler.
 
Dacia's experience with homelessness started on a Christmas Eve. The Los Angeles writer had just gone through a breakup, and seeing no place to turn, she found herself instead in a Santa Monica shelter. At least, she consoled herself, she would be able to write about it later.
 
Waking on Christmas Day, it didn't seem so bad. Shiny-faced holiday givers "were everywhere, coming out of the woodwork." As  she was lucky enough to have a car, an experienced shelter-dweller took her in hand: "'Let's go hit the churches.'"
 
The churches were a treasure trove. Adams and her savvy friend stocked up on food,  turkey and cranberry and holiday largesse, and blankets, the veteran knowing he could sell them on the streets. Everything seemed plentiful.

Chance Martin, San Francisco editor of the homeless paper The Street Sheet, tells another story from a homeless man who holed up in a bus shelter trying to stay dry from a drenching rain storm during the holidays. People driving by would drop off "all sorts of things: bundles of magazines, a 20-lb roast, even a microwave." It was just stuff they were getting rid of, he said.

What on earth would a dirty man stranded in a flooded bus shelter do with a microwave and a hunk of raw meat? The idea is blackly comical. But think about what we give during the flood of holiday goodwill: canned pumpkin pie filling doesn't help those without pie shell or oven; and if that sweatshirt is too ratty for you to wear indoors, what good is it to someone who lives in a chilly cardboard?

Common sense disappears when we donate to the homeless. Maybe it's because of the way we look at the people themselves. Or more accurately, the way we look the other way.

But, getting back to Dacia Adams, she said the holidays were better than the average day on the streets. The cheerful volunteers were replaced with normal staff, people who had once been probation officers and prison guards. The meals reverted to "leftover bagels, thin gruel, something or other with meat... I gained about 10 pounds in a month, and I still felt undernourished."

 
No matter. Adams was a Brahmin in the hierarchy of shelterees. In addition to the car, she had a Blockbuster movie card. "You wouldn't believe the blood and violence in some of the movies people had at the shelter; it wasn't healthy. But when I rented The Search For Bobby Fisher, the biggest burliest guys there were glued to it like it was the Super Bowl. They all stood up and cheered when he finally made his big chess move."
 
Chess was a pastime in the sedentary life of the shelter, as were cards. And, predictably, everyone smoked.
 
Still, it wasn't all idleness. Many of the people at the shelter went to work each day, and lots of them still had cars. Some of the men were in the process of divorce, and their wives had the house. They would live in the car as long as they could without arousing suspicion; the shelter was always a last resort.
 
These in particular were the people who triggered fear in volunteers and passers-by. They were too close; they could have been your sixth grade teacher or the man who signed your bank loan. Adams calls the blank, I-will-not-see-you stare that greeted this sector (herself included, in her neat blazer, tennis shoes, and slacks) a "There but for the grace of God" look.
 
For most of us, it only comes off once a year.
 

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