December 1, 2003
Having gone homeless for eight years, I suppose I am more conscious of
the existence of those who are invisible to much of American society.
When someone who is obviously a 'street person' confronts you, how do
you react? In my experience, most people avert their eyes and do their
best to avoid any contact. Some will quickly hand over a few coins and
keep moving, having done their 'good deed' for the day. Some will offer
a prayer and a religious tract, then look forward to their reward in
heaven for their missionary work on earth. Most people do what they can
to avoid crossing paths with the 'less fortunate;' many deride the
'degenerates' who cannot 'get it together' and compete for their right
My adventure into the land of the landless began quite intentionally; I was entirely disgusted with the hypocrisy of American life and wanted to get out. Though it was not as easy as I thought it would be, American 'civilization' would have you believe that there is no other viable or valid existence.
Indeed, all the social programs administrated by the government are designed to get you back into civilization, even if you want no part of it. Most of those programs are disappearing now, there is little money for them, and so most homeless people are criminalized for not participating in the system but are not offered any other option for bearable existence. They are expected to simply disappear, go away, get out of sight and stay out of sight. Or go to jail.
That was my experience and I shared it with everyone else on the streets, so, after spending a weekend in jail, under investigation for being indigent, I decided to go camping. It seemed like the path of least resistance.
Finding a discrete place in which to set up a permanent camp was not easy. I had to leave the camp to go on my scavenging runs and foraging forays and could not lock the door, there was no door. So, I had to look for a place that would be undetected by the police, the neighbors, and the street predators. Fortunately, the medium size city in which I was sojourning had numerous nooks in the woods into which a person could disappear. The trick is to create an entrance that will go unnoticed by passersby, a way to get in and out very quickly without anyone observing, ever. Once you are found out, you might just as well move, so staying invisible became the name of the game.
My place was on land deemed unworthy of development; it was in a wetland area protected by state law so no one could build on it. I had about two acres of level land to work with, about twenty feet above the water table; it was half-covered by blackberry bramble, which I cut back with a machete someone gave me.
For the first year or two, it wasn't much; but with time I accumulated the tools necessary to plant a nice vegetable garden and dig a well for garden water. My entrance was behind a Social Security office and there was a water faucet near the trailhead so I was able to get all the water I needed for cooking, bathing and for washing clothes and dishes. I carried the water into camp after dark.
There were seven public restrooms within four blocks of my entrance so I did not have sewage in the camp. Once again, staying invisible was the key to survival so I was very careful about how often I visited any of the local toilets.
Of course, a few chosen people knew of my camp and visited occasionally. They were all aware of my penchant for discretion so none ever gave me away. One time a friend stopped by and, during the course of our conversation, asked me if I had talked with anyone since he'd last seen me. I had to stop and think for a moment; then answered no, I'd not talked with anyone since his last appearance. He then informed me that seven weeks had gone by in which I had not spoken with another human being. I was a bit surprised but not disturbed; in fact, I felt quite satisfied with my independence.
There were times, in the winter rains, when I sought warmth and food at local soup kitchens. One operated by the St. Vincent DePaul Society was quite helpful; the food was hot, healthy and tasted okay. The facility was large enough so a person could actually take the time to savor the meal without being rushed or crowded. After spending twenty-three hours a day alone in a tent or in the rain, it was a bit of a culture shock to eat at Vinney's. I met numerous people there who were also homeless and camped-out, though most of the noon diners were locals living indoors and working minimum-wage jobs. I must say that I never envied anyone I met there; I felt that I had the most desirable arrangement and lifestyle and had no inclination to change it in any appreciable way.
The other soup kitchen was at a Rescue Mission where one had to sit through a one-hour sermon before partaking in the food. It was as if we were hostage to our hunger and desperation; few people wanted to hear the fundamentalist 'ear-banging' that was required, so many slept while others simply stared at the floor, waiting for some food and a bed. The place was always crowded and people were always coughing, sick with colds or whatever, so I was very careful to not touch my mouth with my hands until after washing. I was usually one of the last people in the food line.
One night I took a Gideon Bible back to camp and began to read it. It took me four years to finish that book, but then, some people never do. I feel I have a good understanding of it, even though mine is unlike any other interpretation I have heard.
I met plenty of war veterans throughout those years gone homeless and most of them were just as disillusioned with American society as was I. In fact, most of the people I met were not interested in civilization, as they knew it. Many busied themselves chasing medications of various types: booze, crank, tar, weed, you name it. I guess it's the despair and loneliness that kills most of them; the drugs and diseases are only superficial symptoms of a much deeper ailment.
This time of year, I think about the homeless people almost everyday, even though I rarely leave our farm and seldom see them. Guess I never really left them behind; I'm still part of their family.
And it's a huge family; in fact, we may soon outnumber all those who still cling to 'civilization.'
One can only hope.
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Related Internal Links
Look Deep Beyond Civilization - Book Review by Michael Stowell (Feb. 2003)
America the 'beautiful' on Swans
Michael W. Stowell is a local activist in Northern California.
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