If you haven’t had the opportunity or inclination to read any of my other many blogs about being homeless, I will give you a quick briefing: I’m a 49 year-old white female, college -educated former business owner and artist. I became homeless a year ago, and my blog chronicles the adventure from the beginning up until now (I’m still homeless). I didn’t become homeless as a result of mental illness, drug-addiction, alcoholism, or domestic violence. I became homeless as a result of a declining economy, just like millions of other American small-business owners. You’d be shocked to find out how fast your life can and will unravel after only two months of little-to-no income. If it could happen to me, it can happen to anyone.
In my previous blogs, I have many times referred to the homeless as “us” or “we.” In this installment, I must emphasize the singular and point out that I am speaking strictly to my own self when I use the term “social pariah.” I can only speak for my own experience and what happened to me personally. I’ve also got to be careful not to allow my bitterness to come through, because it’s a touchy emotion to control under these circumstances. I would challenge anyone to not be a little resentful while trying to understand their friends’ lack of support.
For me, it was a genuine head-scratcher until recently. This whole year of trying to figure out why nobody seemed to care; why nobody would help, even in the smallest way, was a real mystery. After all, I had spent my entire life helping everyone else. In fact, being helpful and supportive to my friends was so innate that I couldn’t even imagine any other way of being. I think helping other people was a natural instinct that came as a result of growing up without family nurturing myself. Even as a small child, I wanted to take care of everybody else. It started relatively early with neighborhood animals, and then it turned to friends at school who were bullied. I always sided with the underdogs, and defended them with fierce passion because I was tough and fearless. When I was about 13, I talked my mother into taking in my best friend who was being abused at home, and I did everything for her until she betrayed me. Little did I know that a lifelong pattern was being established, and that I would spend the next 30 years repeating the same mistakes over and over again.
Over the years and decades I took in strays; animals, friends, boyfriends and acquaintances. I offered my home, meals, money, rides, free photos, and endless other favors. It was never rooted in some kind of desire to “people-please” or to buy anyone’s affection, and it was never done out of pity. It was always about knowing what it was like to “go without” and what it was like to need. I quite enjoyed the feeling of satisfaction that came from making someone happy. However, that was never a factor in my work. I did photography because that’s what I loved and was good at, and over time it was I who was grateful for the opportunity to photograph someone in exchange for payment. I always felt so lucky that someone actually wanted to pay me to take their picture.
When cancer showed up, and I was truly frightened for the first time in my life, I knew I was gonna have to cash in all those karma cookies. Although I was never a religious person, I still found myself bargaining with the Universe to give me another shot. I promised to be of even more help to others, and so I dedicated all of my time to being of service. I volunteered on the horse ranch for sick and disabled kids, and I did everything possible to “get out of myself” by focusing on others. I took in friends that needed a place to stay, and I moved mountains to help them with whatever they needed at the time. It worked, and I made it through cancer. I went full-on with my business and never looked back.
As I developed my business and became popular in the community, I discovered that I was having a profound effect on my clients, and it became very addicting. I was working with cross-dressers and transgender women, and they all seemed so grateful for my acceptance of them that I knew I was doing the right thing. I truly felt that I was on the right path in life, because of the enormous satisfaction I got from being appreciated. It felt like I was doing something important with my skills, and after every single photo shoot I felt as though I had proudly earned another gold star. All my acceptance and endless pep-talks seemed to be coming back to me tenfold, because I was lucky enough to make an honest living as a photographer in Los Angeles among zillions of others who struggled to get work. I was blessed and I knew it.
I had always gone way out of my way for my clients and friends, but I was smart enough to recognize when my kindness was interfering in my own life, and that I wasn’t looking out for myself as much as I should. So I closed down the favor-factory and focused on just the basic services and my own well-being. And strangely, that’s when the people around me started to get snippy towards me. I was no longer their shoulder to cry on, or the chump-friend they could place endless demands upon. When the tables turned and I needed help, people were really bothered by it. What I didn’t expect was how difficult it would be to ask for/take help from someone else. The very few that I did reach out to seemed offended and annoyed that I would dare even ask.
Over the last few years, I had one friend who has always helped me. Whenever I wanted beer, there he was with a six-pack. When I ran out of brush-cleaner, there he was with a huge bottle of it. If my car broke down, or got a flat tire, he showed up to help. It was fine, I told myself, because everyone needs to have at least one person who is there for us when we need them. It still made me feel like a loser, and it made me feel like a failure every time he did anything to help me. It really bothered me, and I did everything I could to not ask for help from anyone else. This friend is the same friend I’ve spoken about in other blogs; he’s the one who lets me park in his driveway and lets me use his electricity for my laptop. He takes me out to eat, loans me cash, and many other things that really help. I owe him a lot.
When I went homeless, I tried not to tell anybody because I fucking hate to be pitied. I told my trusty side-kick, because I couldn’t avoid it. I tried to keep it a secret, but quickly found out that I would parish in that stupid truck if I didn’t reach out to someone. In the beginning, I was very careful about who I told, because I was carrying a massive ball of pride and I couldn’t stand that feeling of shame and failure. It was embarrassing, Goddammit! But after a while, if you get hungry enough, or cold enough, or scared enough, that ball of pride gets smaller and smaller with each night you sleep in a car. After enough of those nights you’ll say “fuck THIS,” and you’ll hesitantly tell someone that you trust and hope they will help.
But to my amazement, each time I told someone I was homeless…they disappeared. I was expecting (and dreading) pity, but instead I got judgement. All I had to do was mention the “H-word,” and they were gone. Sure, they’ll politely get through the conversation, be it a phone call, a text, an email. They’ll express their sorrow for your situation, but they will cut off contact. Once they know you are homeless, they will never take your calls again, even if all you want to talk about is the latest episode of your mutually favorite TV show. They’re too afraid you’re going to ask them for something. I tried to convince myself that somehow it was my fault. I wasn’t a good enough friend, I was bad about returning calls. I was sure that had to be it. Although that’s not an excuse I would use, I am aware that it is a convenient excuse for others. After all, I cannot apply my own reasoning to someone else. Just because someone is really busy and struggling for their own survival to the point of having to sacrifice phone time with their friends, I would not hold that against them if they lost everything they loved and became homeless. But that’s just me, because nobody deserves that kind of catastrophe, even if they are a flaky friend. If any of my friends ever became homeless, I would find a way to help them. Even if it was something small. Because when you are homeless, there is no such thing as “small.”
After a while, telling people I was homeless became kind of like a game. I would actually measure how long it would take them to get squirmy and suddenly need to get off the phone. I actually measured the speed in which they would blow me off. The one thing I couldn’t find any amusement in were the ones who promised help and then blew me off. To me that unexpected factor put a damper on the game in a big way, because that teeters on despicable cruelty, and I never counted on any of my friends being capable of that. It has happened more times than I want to count, and it continues to happen to this day. I’ve even began (for fun) collecting texts and emails that plainly state that they will help, right before they vanish. So the anger I feel does not come from the fact that they won’t help me, and it’s not always because they claim that they will and then they don’t.
The anger comes from the painful realization that I cannot hold my “friends” to the same standard of decency that I practice myself in daily life. If you promise to help a friend who is really down because nobody else will help them, and then you disappear, then you are a fucking scumbag. And you can quote me on that.
The very fact that it never even occurs to them to send their homeless friend $20, or that their friend is in terrible pain but a simple gesture of goodwill is out of the question for them. THAT, my friends, is why I am so fucking angry. Well, now I know why some homeless people are so pissed off. If asking for help only leads you to disappointment, embarrassment and shame, then you simply stop asking. The embarrassment doesn’t stop, the shame doesn’t stop, the pain and anger don’t stop, and the pride takes a beating. In fact those things get worse over time because you know your list is shrinking and true desperation sets in, and hope fades away. You simply stop asking.
I had a long conversation with one of my readers the other night about this very subject. This is someone who donated cash to my Paypal account, and I reached out to him to thank him. He offered me a job of sorts, writing corporate resumes from “home” (which I am absolutely thrilled about doing) and I used his donated funds for a few nights in a motel so I could catch a breath, take a shower, and get some much-needed rest. We spoke on the phone for hours, talking about the homeless experience. He pointed out a strange phenomenon; that total strangers are more likely to help us than our closest friends. I told him that I thought it was because I had proven to be a “bad friend” because I was slow to respond to the needs of my friends. Or maybe it was because my friends were so used to seeing me being strong, that they couldn’t handle seeing me in a weakened state (like when I had cancer). He disagreed by saying it was because they were afraid it was “contagious.” I had to think about that idea for a while, but the more I thought about it, the more plausible it became. To some people becoming homeless is much like dying, in that it’s the (second) worst thing that can happen to someone. So horrible, in fact, that they don’t even want to look at it. I react that way whenever I see an animal in the road; it’s just too horrible to register, and I will go to great lengths to avoid seeing it. Hmmmmm…..can that be the reason that my “friends” won’t talk to me now? Because I represent something so terrible that they can’t stop to take a look? Because they know they’ll feel guilty for not helping? It reminds me of a meme I saw on Facebook that read “I Don’t Want to Help, But I Don’t Want to Feel Bad for Not Helping.” Bingo.
I know one thing for certain now; and that’s the ugly fact that if you ever become homeless, your friends will either a) judge/blame/shame you for it, or b) be angry at you for letting it happen. What they will not do is swoop in and save you. I never expected anyone to ride in on a white horse and rent me an apartment, give me a job, or a loan me a wad of cash. The kinds of things I did hope for are simple gestures like helping me find a business partner to re-open my business. Or help me find a live-in situation (like an apartment manager job), or call that friend that they know that has a warehouse that isn’t being used. Or that friend of theirs that needs a house-sitter for a couple weeks. Even something super-easy like passing my blog along to that editor-friend they know. Those are the kinds of things that would help me, but they do require a little footwork from someone, or maybe even a few phone calls, and God knows we can’t have that. Some of us homeless people are not so far gone that a loan would not save our lives. Literally. Most “normal” people don’t even realize that a lot of us are homeless because we can’t raise a just couple of thousand dollars. It’s impossible to get and keep a job without a place to live, but we can’t get a place to live without working. It’s a Catch-22 that is easily solved by a small loan from a trusting friend.
So if someone you know ever becomes homeless, whether it be due to “no fault of their own” or even if they’re a flaky friend that “deserves it,” just think of Dan Aykroyd’s character in “Trading Places.” Think of how you would feel if everyone you knew suddenly turned their backs on you in your hour (or in my case, year) of need. Those things do come back to haunt us in life, and how you treat people when they are down is an absolute guarantee of how they will treat you when and if something equally horrible happens to you. To me it’s the same concept as wishing you were nicer to that person that just committed suicide; if only you had answered the phone when they called you for help. You can never take that back, and you will regret it for the rest of your life.
UPDATE: Immediately after this writing I was offered a warehouse in Long Beach for $1500/mo. I’m scrambling to raise the funds by offering discounted photo shoots to my past clients. I would gratefully accept donations via Paypal on the bottom of the main page. Keep your fingers crossed for me!