When Sleeping Is a Crime
The piercing cold bit into my skin’s nakedness. I pulled the sleeping bag closer to my chin. Huddled in my weathered tent, I clutched the sleeping bag, the only dry thing left. It was day three of hiding out in the tent to wait out the rain. All of my clothes were strewn out on tree branches, awaiting the sun.
I was homeless and fortunate to have a tent. We had hidden inside the hiking area of a local park, careful to keep a low profile. It was a one hour hike into town where the local soup kitchen served a free hot lunch every day, a meal for which I was grateful. Aside from the cold can of spaghetti-O’s I had for dinner, it was my only meal.
Saturdays were the exception when a local church would hand out free brown bag lunches in front of the food stamp office. The lunches were always the same; a bag of chips, a sandwich, baby carrots, a Capri Sun, and some cookies. The carrots were a nice touch. Most of the free food you got when you were homeless showed little regard for your health. The usual fodder was snack cakes, leftover bakery cakes, pastries, and day-old bread.
Eating is a struggle when you’re homeless. It’s hard because you have no place to cook food. Ready-to-eat food is more expensive, and it eats up your money fast. You can’t buy anything in bulk like bread, pasta, or veggies– things that would typically save money become out of reach. Hot food becomes a luxury. Morning coffee takes a long walk to a drop-in center for homeless people, which requires hanging out with all types of people you’d rather not associate with.
Sleeping is a crime when you’re homeless. Everywhere you could lay your head is trespassing when you don’t pay rent. Sleep deprivation is a form of torture forbidden by the United Nations, and yet homeless people are charged with a crime if they’re found sleeping. You learn to get good at finding hiding places. You go to bed as soon as it gets dark so you can be rested enough to rise before the sun comes up. There’s always the fear of waking up to a flashlight and a badge in your face. Once your sleeping place is blown, you have to find a new one, and there’s competition on the streets for the good spots.
When I was first homeless, I had a car. I would park on the back roads and sleep in the back seat. I had a turkey roasting pan I would fill with a few inches of water, then place a candle in a coffee can in the center to put off heat while I slept. When cops would discover me, I would lie and say I had been driving and pulled over because I was too tired to drive. They were usually content to let me go without a ticket on that reply.
Sleeping in your car and trying to hold a job is pretty challenging. I would shower at a local homeless drop-in center and make sure to keep my work clothes laundered. It’s doable, but you have to really work at it. Eventually, I lost my job, and depression took over. Living on the streets and being out of work didn’t leave me feeling like I could take on the world.
It wasn’t long before I didn’t have money to put gas in the car, and I would end up broken down on the side of the road. One day, with the prompting of my then-boyfriend, I rode a bicycle to the broken-down car. I loaded up a backpack with all of the belongings that seemed valuable, clothes mostly, and permanently left the vehicle. It was a perfectly good car, and I just walked away from it. It felt freeing. I was tired of breaking down on the side of the road. I was tired of going nowhere fast. Being without a car opened up a wild place in my heart that wanted to travel, and I taught myself how to hitchhike.
Hitch-hiking when you’re homeless makes you feel like less of a hobo and more of an adventurer. I traveled the coast of Northern California, hitting music festivals as a volunteer, feeling normal for a weekend at a time. I traveled with my boyfriend to Missouri, and we got jobs on a farm. We worked from sun up to sun down for five dollars an hour and a place to stay. I had gotten pregnant, so five dollars an hour and a roof over our heads seemed like a pretty sweet deal.
Motherhood was what motivated me to climb out of a life on the streets, but my heart can’t forget the lessons I learned there. I still have to share what I have. When the rain comes, I”m still a little afraid to get my socks wet. The first night I had a place to live, and it rained, I cried, thinking of all my homeless brothers and sisters on the street out in the rain.
From time to time, I bring homeless people into my house for a meal and a shower, but it never feels like enough. My heart breaks when I have to send them back out into the streets. I want to hand them houses and jobs, but I don’t have those to give. Hopefully, my kindness will serve as a reminder that there are people that care, that they are valued, and they will feel encouraged.
Sometimes a homeless person is flying a sign, asking for money, and I’m too worn out to invite them in. I’ll offer a dollar or two if I have it. They may have plans of beer or drugs with the money, but I would rather provide a dollar that goes to beer than ever withhold a dollar for food from a hungry person. I’ve gone three days without eating. I know how hunger pains feel.
Thankfully my cupboards have food in them. Thankfully I have cupboards. I am grateful to have dishes to wash. I remember washing other people’s dishes when I would visit them because I missed the feeling. I carried one sterling silver fork in my backpack in hopes of having dishes again someday.
Now that I have dishes, laundry, bills, and children to raise, I couldn’t imagine my life any other way. I can’t imagine going back to the streets, but the truth is that, like 59% of Americans, I’m only one paycheck away from homelessness. I’m a senior in college and waiting to have the hiring power of my bachelor’s degree. For now, I only make enough to pay all of my bills each month, and if my income suddenly stopped, I’d be facing homelessness.
For today, I only have to brave the cold to make it to my car for a trip to the grocery store, but I’ll do so remembering homelessness. I won’t forget that there are those with nowhere to sleep. I won’t forget the goals I’m working toward, so I can have savings to keep me from being homeless again. I’ll keep volunteering, offering kindness, and crocheting scarves to give away in the winter, and I’ll hold on to that one silver fork, so I’ll never forget.