What it’s Really Like to Be Homeless: From an Educated Woman’s Point of View

We’ve all been exposed the seemingly growing population of homeless people, wherever we go. From small towns to big cities, they seem to be everywhere now. As we rush off to our jobs or appointments, we see them sleeping on bus benches, wandering around aimlessly on the streets, and panhandling in front of what seems to be every establishment we enter. We’re amazed (and sometimes amused) by how dirty and disheveled a human being can allow themselves to get. We might even be humored by watching someone carry on a lively conversation with themselves, although we are not completely oblivious to the fact that they suffer from a serious mental illness. It’s also not difficult to reason that some of them have an obvious substance abuse problem. They come in all different ages and colors; some are teenagers with purple hair and tattoos, some are old men with decades of beard-growth. But what they all have in common is their effect on us. It’s uncomfortable to look them in the eye, so we don’t. When they ask us for our help (with a little spare change), we avert our glance and walk by with indifference or annoyance. Sometimes we’ll even walk yards out of our way, to the other store entrance, just to avoid them. Especially uncomfortable for me are the ones who ask for help at a red light. They’re standing five feet from my comfortable and air-conditioned car, with a pitiful expression and a dirty cardboard sign that reads “Homeless Vet: Anything Helps,” and I have no escape. I’ll find something else to look at, usually my phone, so I don’t have to look at them looking at me. Sometimes I’ll see a woman out there, dressed in rags, sunburned and filthy, and I’ll feel a temporary wave of guilt wash over me. But she will have disappeared from my mind completely by the time I stop at the next red light. But why? Why do they make us so uncomfortable? Is it because we cannot help? I don’t think so. I think it’s something much deeper.

We all have a stereotypical visual image of the homeless burned into our minds, but what about the ones we don’t see? What about the men and women (and children) who aren’t actually sleeping on the pavement next to our apartment buildings and condos? What most of us didn’t know is that there exists an entire subculture of homeless people who live in their vehicles. Yes, we’ve seen them too, but it’s much less frequent and it has a more “relatable” effect on us. Whenever I’ve seen a woman or a small family camped out in some tattered old van, it immediately strikes a chord with me, more so than the typical “bench-dweller.” It’s because they somehow seem more human to me. They still have remnants from their old lives with them; a dog maybe. Piles of clothes, food containers, things that remind me that they had a life before this happened to them. One thing is for certain; they weren’t always homeless. But what happened? What happened to them that they could allow THIS? Obviously, we assume, they must either be crazy, drug-addicted, or just plain unmotivated in order to allow such misfortune into their lives. For some of us, it isn’t such a mystery at all.

If you’ve grown up relatively poor yourself, such as I have, then you’d probably have a bit more insight to this phenomenon. Some of us have been exposed to this community more than others, and it has become almost natural and expected to interact with them. In my case, I’ve been in very close contact with homeless people most of my life, especially in my teens and early twenties when I was out on my own, living in low-rent neighborhoods. I was an artist, and I had artist friends. Later on I was a heavy recreational drug user, as were all of my friends. We were all poor, so rubbing elbows with folks poorer than ourselves was just part of life. Our fearless curiosity and craving for excitement led us to some pretty reckless behaviors, and down some pretty dark alleys. When you grow up without fear, you have no issues with meeting (and drinking with) some pretty shady characters. Maybe that’s how some of us have managed to withhold our judgements of them and learn about them as people. Maybe we’ll even develop a sense of empathy for them, and help them whenever possible.

I was the kind of person who went into a fast-food place and ordered two hamburgers; one for myself, and one for the woman sitting on the sidewalk outside. I was the one who made sandwiches for the guy who went through the dumpster outside my apartment. I was the girl who, when I was about to go on some crazy new diet, would clean out my entire kitchen of food, and take it to the homeless guys next to 7-11 down the street. I’ve bought bus tickets for homeless teens, I’ve given blankets and pillows to homeless kids that sleep behind the church next door. I’ve collected and donated hundreds of bags of water bottles and beer cans to give to “Rasta,” our resident homeless guy on a bicycle that lives near my shop in Van Nuys. My neighbors give him steel pipe and scraps to sell, because he watches over our shops in exchange for the donations.

It is not a matter of tooting my own horn, and I am not looking for praise. This is just something we should all do, because it’s the right thing to do. Having empathy for our fellow man and being conscious of others’ suffering can only lead us to heightened awareness and compassion. I’ve always been like that, but I will not deny that it must be on my own terms. I don’t like to be approached multiple times a day, by multiple people, asking for my spare change. I’m an artist; there is no such thing as “spare” change, dammit. I’m like anyone else in that situation; I get annoyed too, and I get uncomfortable too. I’d prefer to give when I am not asked. It’s a character flaw.

For someone such as myself, with so much exposure to (and experience with) the homeless community, you can imagine that I have developed a rather keen sense of fear of it happening to me. In fact, the fear has always been so prevalent that I have made enormous strides to avoid it. I’ve become a career-obsessed workaholic, at great personal sacrifice, because I know I must move at a feverish pace in order to not let something like that happen to me. It’s because I’m one of those rare and blessed individuals who have literally no one to fall back on in the event of tragedy. I have no family (relatives, yes. More on that later), no husband, and no remaining (living) friends that know me well enough to help me if I were to ever fall on my face. Of course I realized none of this until recently. When it happened to me.

So when you ask yourself how anyone could ever possibly allow themselves to fall that low, let me be the one to answer you. Let me be the one to tell you how easy it is to watch helplessly as your entire life unravels right before your very eyes.

I won’t burden anyone with my life story, but I will begin with my lifelong obsession to be independent and to never rely on anyone for any reason. I was like that as a kid, and so was my sister. We were raised by a single mother after our father was killed on a motorcycle when I was just an infant. Our mother had enormous difficulty raising us, because she was very young and had never even had a job before. Our lives were very stressful and uncertain, moving constantly and always worried about having enough to eat. We were constantly made to feel guilty for eating, for needing anything, for just being. That’s the bulk of what I remember about childhood; being scared and feeling guilty as hell. Scared of our mother’s insufferable bipolar rages, scared of starvation, scared of losing our crappy apartments each month, scared of being a burden. However, instead of devolving into frightened little mice, we became the opposite. My sister and I both flew the coop very early, way too early in fact, and went out into the world and conquered it with fearless abandon. We became work-obsessed robots with no desire to marry or breed. She took the college route, I took the low road. She was the scholar, I was the artist who refused to “sell out,” and I paid dearly for that choice many times over.

Flashing forward a few decades to the present, our lives had long split apart and we became very different women. She became a college professor with a husband and kids, and I became a semi-successful business owner in Los Angeles. I did everything on my own terms, I had nobody to answer to, and I had way too much freedom. I knew no other way of living, nor could I even imagine any other way of living. Of course I had a lot of friends, probably too many for my own good, because I could never be a true friend to any of them. I was too worried about my own survival, and keeping that eye on the back of my head open wide at all times. I was detached because I knew that attachments lead to disappointment and pain. My sister was the same way, probably more than I was. But she had her little family unit, and I remained the “lone wolf.”

So all the years and decades spent being a photographer and makeup artist taught me how to be open and charming and accepting of all others’ flaws. It taught me how to overlook those things and find the real person deep within them. It was my job to do that, and I became good at it. I suppose that skill greatly contributed to my ability to see the good in people, including the homeless, and push aside the outer traits that would put other people off.

I arrived in Los Angeles in 1998, with the hopes of starting another business. I didn’t know what or how, but I knew it would have to be photography or makeup related. I fell in love, started college, and life was good for a while. Three years later my relationship ended, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I had to trade college for a hospital, and suddenly life was not so good. I started doing makeup and photography for crossdressers and transsexuals as a way to survive while I battled cancer. I was so lucky to have an angel help out financially during that time, or else I would’ve ended up dying in a hostel somewhere. It was my fear of being homeless coming back to haunt me. Many of my close friends died during that time, and I was absolutely beside myself for several years. I survived all of it, because by then my business was thriving. I buried myself in my work in order to stop thinking of the ghosts that followed me everywhere, in every thought, in every dream. Working was a way to forget who I was and who I used to know and love, and become someone else entirely. It worked for many years, until it all came crashing down six months ago.

I had a beautiful two-bedroom apartment overlooking the San Fernando Valley, filled with all the things I loved. My art was everywhere, the sun was bright every morning. I had everything I wanted; lots of friends, a nice income, my three “fur-babies,” a successful business occupied by the most colorful and interesting people you could ever meet. Later on I was able to fulfill my lifelong dream of getting my own workshop where I could make my art and be as messy and loud as I wanted. Life was not only good, it was incredible. I couldn’t have written a better life for myself. About a year ago, I was faced with a tough decision, and that was to choose between my apartment and my shop. Business had been slow and I was getting into debt. I chose the shop and gave up the apartment I had loved for 16 years. I packed up my cats and my books and my art and everything I loved, and left the dead weight behind. I moved into my shop and converted my office into a bedroom. I didn’t have a shower or a kitchen, but that was a small sacrifice to make to keep my dream alive. Once I moved into the shop, I became less and less interested in my business, so I sold it. I had tried very hard to launch a new business, but just couldn’t raise the money I needed, so I went back to my original business. It just wasn’t the same for me. I knew it was time to stop, but I couldn’t because it was my only source of income, although my heart wasn’t in it. I had been doing that work for 16 years, and I was ready to explore new challenges. Once the holiday season rolled around, business dropped off to a standstill. No income for nearly two months, along with no savings, created a crack in the Universe for me that I fought very hard not to fall through. I tried to do a crowd-funding campaign, I tried to find a business partner, I talked to venture capitalists and angel investors, but nothing came in time. I lost the shop I was living and working in, so I could no longer continue my business or earn an income. My brand new truck was repossessed the day of my eviction, and my 21 year old cat died the same week. Knowing that I had absolutely zero money in the bank, nowhere to go and no way to get there if I did, one of my friends appeared one day to give me her old used truck. Little did I know at the time that I would be living in that old truck for the next five months.

So here’s what happens when you’re a college-educated female business-owner who becomes suddenly homeless: you move through a fog, unable to grasp that this is really happening. It just isn’t real. You wander around aimless, having broken from the routines you’ve spent a lifetime building. Little things you’ve always taken for granted suddenly become a distant memory. In my case, I slept in the truck for a few nights with two cats, unable to comprehend the ugly reality of losing everything I loved in an instant. Then a “dear friend” offered me a place to stay. I was relieved, but not thrilled, as our friendship had been rocky for a while. What I didn’t expect was that he would go so far out of his way to make me feel so unwelcome and unwanted. Every day he reminded me of the date I was to move out. Every day he made sure I remembered the date, as well as taking this new opportunity to lecture me on all the ways I ruined my life, and telling me to “be realistic” every time I mentioned that I would get my business back. He made me feel like the most awful burden in his life, just like Mom. I guess he forgot the three times I let him stay with me, rent free, for over a month each time and never once complained about his presence. Needless to say, that arrangement didn’t last long and neither did the friendship.

The next few months were spent sleeping in (and being chased out of) various parking lots and parks, brushing my teeth in Taco Bell bathrooms, sponging off Starbuck’s WiFi in the morning to check if anyone was checking on me, peeing behind dumpsters late at night, and sleeping with one eye open. I can’t park anywhere in plain view of the public for fear of being “caught,” and I can’t park anywhere too remote because of the safety factor. I was acutely aware of every sound around me, constantly looking over my shoulder wherever I walked. Every male I saw suddenly seemed like a predator, and I felt exposed. All the while I’ve got two cats crying the whole time to be let out of their carriers. I have to take them out one at a time to use the litter box (which is inches from where I sleep), and put them back in the carrier. I went and stayed a few nights with a friend in Ventura (where my oldest cat escaped), a few nights with an old client (and hoarder) in Lancaster, a couple weeks with a family in Hemet. I spent whatever tiny pennies I got from doing an occasional makeup (or pawning things) on gas and cat food. If I’m lucky enough to have anything left over, I get to enjoy a delicious and nutritious Cup ‘O Noodles.

What people don’t realize about being homeless is the mental and physical toll it takes on a person. The mental strain comes from the pain of our losses, and the slow acceptance of our new lifestyle. We’re still clinging onto our old life and memories. We wake up from a beautiful dream, thinking we’re back in our old bed, safe at home. But instead we wake to find ourselves being gawked at by construction workers getting their morning coffee, or by some kid on a bike who peeks in the window. We sleep in our clothes because we are on display. We have nowhere to go, because to go anywhere would mean the use of our precious gas. We feel the huge weight of shame and embarrassment of failure, so much so that we won’t even tell our friends what’s happening. The physical toll on the body is also enormous. We don’t sleep because of fear, noise, and physical discomfort. We don’t eat because we don’t have any money, and when we do eat, it’s usually something that doesn’t require cooking or refrigeration, like peanut-butter sandwiches. We freeze at night, and boil during the day. We don’t practice good hygiene because we don’t have access to running water or privacy. We try to keep clean with baby wipes and an occasional sponge-down in some gas station bathroom. We don’t fix our hair or do our makeup, because we no longer give a fuck how we look, but we can’t stand the way we look. We wear dirty clothes because we don’t have any money for a laundromat or soap. It’s not hard to understand why homeless people are dirty and crazy. They’re in pain, they’re hungry, and they’re tired as hell. And they’re angry that nobody cares about them. I’ve been homeless for nearly six months now, and I’m already looking dirty and rough. I don’t even sleep on the streets, and I get dirty. I do get lucky sometimes, and I can get a hotel for a few nights, do my laundry, have a warm meal, watch TV and get some sleep. It’s like heaven for me when that happens. Checkout time always comes too soon, and I’m back in the truck wishing for my life back. Or at least the sleazy roach-motel I just left.

Not having access to the modern conveniences in life, and luxuries like food and shelter, running water or electricity, pale in comparison to the pain that we feel when we are faced with the reality that our friends and family don’t care. The hardest part is realizing that your friends were probably not really your friends at all. Although I cannot lump them all together that way, and that they each have their own “level” of importance in my life, as I have in theirs, it’s still hard to comprehend that they would not help in a crisis. I always assumed that if anything truly terrible happened to me that my “tribe” would rally around me and pull together to help. Even though I got through cancer completely alone, I figured the new friends would not abandon me the way my old ones did. But instead, the opposite was true. I discovered that my “friends” actually hid from me, out of fear that I would ask for money, or worse, a place to stay. I’m still shocked that so few of them have actually reached out to ask if I am OK. The few people who I do stay in contact with, the ones who are fully aware of my situation, have not offered a hand beyond offering me a shower from time to time. The few people that I have told about what happened have completely disappeared, so I am careful to not tell anyone else. It’s just too painful to hear that indifference in their voice, or to remember their last words to you. One of my very few girlfriends said “oh, poop” when I told her I lost everything. Nobody wants to get your “homeless” on them, like a bad odor they can’t shake. You’ve become a social leper. Once that majestic racehorse breaks his leg, he is out of the race and forgotten. Nobody stops the race to help the injured horse. He is put down and never talked about again.

I got lucky a few weeks ago and was offered a job doing FX makeup on a horror movie in Colorado. I was so thrilled to think that I would be coming back to Los Angeles with enough money to get another shop and put an end to this terrible cycle. I drove out as fast as I could and worked my tail off with a smile on my face. I had a warm bed and two hot meals a day (craft services does not provide dinner, but that’s OK). I was genuinely happy and hopeful for the first time since disaster hit. But when my paycheck came and I realized that I was not being paid what I was promised, I knew right then that my dream of salvation was just that: a dream. I came home with less than a third of what I expected (and was promised), and spent most of it on gas home and a few nights in seedy motels in Barstow and Palm Springs. Hotels in L.A. are too expensive, so I always have to stay far from home. I came home with next to nothing, and had to return to the backseat once again.

So here I sit, in a truck with my cat, in some parking lot in Los Angeles, writing a blog nobody will ever see. My hopes to enlighten others about the plight of the homeless will likely go unrealized.  I know I have been forever changed by this experience, and will never take life for granted again. I will never look at homeless people the same way again. I hope you won’t either after you’ve read my story. I know in the deepest regions of my heart that I will get my life back. It won’t be the same again, and that’s a good thing. Sometimes we need these experiences to come along and shake us to our core, just like cancer did for me ten years ago. I’ll start a better business, get a better shop, and be a better artist as a result of this grand lesson. I just hope that in the future, you’ll consider helping someone who is without a family or a home. You don’t think it could ever happen to you, but it can. I never thought it would happen to me, but it did. I have never once allowed myself to fantasize about being “rescued,” or marrying a rich man. It just never occurred to me to pursue those things. But I suppose if you eat enough Cup ‘O Noodles, go months without making art, or watch your cat suffer, you’ll start ripping pages out of your book of rules the way I have.

If you haven’t already begun building your nest-egg, you better start now. Even if you’re a “rock star” at what you do in your community, you’ll be shocked to discover how fast you’re forgotten when you fall down. Don’t take your position for granted, don’t assume your “fans” will be there to pick you up, and never assume that anyone will help you just because you’re a woman. There are plenty of women out there on the streets, and rape is a common occurrence among them. That’s what I see in their faces when I am trying to avoid looking them in the eye. The lifestyle that can turn the sanest woman into an animal, is that of living outside with nobody to look out for you. You can’t be friends with your friends anymore, because they can’t comprehend what you’re experiencing, therefore they will just avoid that ugly truth by avoiding you altogether. Even when I get back on my feet, I will never see life, or my friends, in the same way. I watch them post their happy adventures on Facebook, without a care in the world about their friend Gina. For the first time in my life, I have become the injured horse.

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11 Comments Add yours

  1. Wow what a story, you have some very valid points indeed. Many of them I have often lamented myself. Thank you. Dan

  2. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for writing. 🙂

  3. I found you because you found my cycling blog. On my trip in the northwest I saw homeless people everywhere and I think I was perceived as one myself. It’s heartbreaking. The stories I heard were so sad, people like you who just hit a rough patch and it took them down, and now they can’t get up again. I felt what it’s like when people shun you, look scared when you approach, and don’t want to talk to you which has to add a whole lot of pain to an already painful experience.

    I see you wrote this just last month. Are you still on the streets, or in your friend’s garage? Are you getting back on your feet? I wish I was in your area and could help. If all of us gave just a bit to someone in need, maybe we could get most of the people off the streets.

    Best wishes to you.

  4. Reblogged this on The Panama Adventure and commented:
    I’m whining about water, and then I read this. How far are any of us from being homeless if we lose our income? I saw so many homeless people on my cycling trip in the northwest USA, and those I talked to were a lot like this. Circumstances had knocked them down, and when they were this far down they couldn’t figure out how to get up again. I felt what it was like to be shunned and feared by people you approach. Even worse, this woman talks about also being abandoned by people she thought were friends. The US may be the place to follow your dreams but if your dreams don’t work out, you are on your own.

  5. wynnekwilson says:

    So sad to read this story. I pray you will soon have better times. Recently visited Las Vegas where there were many homeless people and I was guilty of all the feelings you described. I will do better. As Kris said America is a hard country for many people. I wish you the very best of luck and thank you for an enlightening article which people will be reading.

  6. Read your story through our friend Kris’s blog.
    What a story Gina…very well written. You sound like a survivor….I bet your injured horse gets back up…stronger and wiser!

  7. Just read this on Kris Cunningham’s “The Panama Adventure” blog (thanks for re-blogging it Kris).

    A powerful, sad and terrifying story, very well written. To live in a developed country like the USA and always know that there’s very thin line separating the majority of us from a life of relative comfort from one of homelessness and having to live on the streets is a sad indictment on the state of our society and our frayed social safety net, as well as the almost total lack of community.

    Is there anything any of us can do? I live on the other side of the country, so offering you a place to stay would be of no use to you.

  8. Dee says:

    Really, touching stuff. Glad you told me about this. Your’e very talented and tell your story in an endearing and honest way

  9. Dehan Taylor says:

    Reblogged this on MOTIVATION with DEHAN and commented:
    It can happen to anyone of us….please read and share Gina’s story on how she became homeless. So touching…

  10. calmkate says:

    Becoming completely invisible, avoided in every way. Oh how I dread that lack of eye contact … eye contact, a warm smile and greeting is often the only thing I can give but people seem to appreciate it. Thanks for sharing I will pass it on.

  11. Deb Glover says:

    Reblogged this on bookyglover and commented:
    I was homeless too. It took its toll on my mental health. I still get depressed and try to shake it off. You really need to read Gina’s account. May be someday I’ll be courageous enough to share my own story.

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