One of my adventures involved being homeless for a while. Like so many other people, I got sick, lost my job, had no other resources, and we got evicted. For a period of some weeks, I stashed my daughter with a friend, while I . . . hit the bricks. This wasn’t some fancy-schmancy “Harvard and Homeless” thing where I could go home anytime I wanted to–it was the real thing. Most of it–seven months of it–we spent in a family congregate shelter which was as nice as such a place could be, but for about a month I was waiting for a bed. Always got one, thank God.
I was so naive I can’t believe it now–a product of my class, really–and when I was released from the hospital, I couldn’t believe they would just turn me out into the street. But lo and behold–there I was, shivering with cold and yuppie culture-shock. I had a blank book with me, and so I did what I do: I wrote about it. Not as much as I wish I had, but I chronicled a few hours, at least. Here it is:
It’s 3:50 p and Tyra Banks is on TV in the back of the Multiservice Center between Brookline and Green in Cambridge. I am waiting for the shuttle to St. Pat. These are 12 of us all told–which is good, I think, as there are reportably only 15 beds, But as some beds are supposedly long-term, I’m unsure.
As with other Cantabrigian poverty sites, this is split pretty evenly between races–5 white, 6 black, and me making up the difference.
Most of the women are “obvious”–in other words, if you saw them on the T, you’d know their plight. All of us have Stuff, ranging from the stereotypical black garbage bags to rucksacks and backpacks.
I have a backpack and the brown paper bag which announces my recent hospitalization.
Like me, most of the others appear to be mentally ill in some way or another.
The TV, now on Law and Order, shows the usual depressing commercials: “6 out of 10 Americans are now in debt!” And a new one, which brashly accuses, “If you don’t have a job, you shouldn’t be watching TV.” These ads are in fact at least slightly counterproductive: They are why I tend to avoid daytime television–and I can’t be the only one.
The woman next to me is asleep, her head hanging down to her chest, her mouth hanging open. One scarred and swollen hand tells the story: She’s probably nodding from a recent fix.
Another woman superficially appears very different: white, groomed, wearing generically preppy sweater, collared shirt, earrings, and hair pulled back under a narrow band. However, when I came in, she was busily sorting through thick piles of what looked like cash machine and other receipts, rocking slightly and muttering.
Quarter past. A slender, harried looking woman comes in and surveys the scene. She counts us and has the count affirmed. She zeroes in on the newbies and asks our names.
A man pokes his head in and asks if there is to be a lottery. I’m guessing he takes the losers to the big shelter in Boston on Albany Street. But our beds are safe today. We gather our stuff and move outside. The driver announces that those with wheeled bags will have to walk. She means a 60-ish woman who has a heavy wheeled suitcase among her traps. The old lady has been peering at all of us suspiciously from beneath her birds-nesty hat. Her purse is guarded by a large jingle bell: One wonders if modern pickpockets have been trained by 21st century Fagins to render such defenses useless.
As the white van slides through Cambridge, it ironically goes past my starting point at the hospital. A long hike for the old lady, I think, and indeed I don’t see her arrive later, though it’s not as if I were guarding the door.
There are eleven of us in the van, which is not unpleasantly scented with a Yankee Candle hangtag. “Baby Love” is on the oldies station and a couple of the women sing bits along. I hum a little under my breath. We pull up behind the Catholic Charities building I’ve passed so many times in the happily-unknowing past. We disembark and rescue our bags from the crowded space behind the back seat.
Another woman is looking as awkward as I am. We hang back, waiting to perhaps be invited or instructed, but after a moment, we follow the stream of old-timers into the house. We are greeted by a solid woman in tidily tucked-back dreadlocks, who exudes an air or warmth and command. She asks our names, and introduces herself as Michelle, case manager responsible for the Transitional program, which I learn later is a stable bed program for women with jobs.
The other newbie and I slide into the cozy living room–couch, chairs–TV–as much to get out of the way as anything else, and sit for a moment. We introduce ourselves. Happily for my atrociously porous memory, she has the same name as a favorite (if long-distant) relative. We are soon shooed out into the dining area. Cheerful kitchen curtains, lavender walls.
Six tables are in this room; five inlaid with green tile in white pine and the sixth butcherblock. The chairs are assorted. Another TV is perched on one beneath the windows; the ubiquitous spinet piano is on the opposite wall.
There are already other women here. Thursday is the only night one can come directly to the shelter, in order to attend a weekly residents’ meeting. Cousin and I sit at one of the green patterned tables awaiting the next step.
The other women swirl and bustle around us, clearly completely at home. The news is on the TV; the bad reception shows an unusually friendly moose ambling up to delighted motorists. We learn the youngster’s lack of fear probably means he has a fatal brain worm, and cries of dismay ring out from several. I’m silent, but feel just as sad. I later realize that at least for me the feeling stems in part from kinship: Both the moose and I are banking on a deus ex machina; by conventional wisdom, neither of us has a hope in hell.
Cousin and I are called into the big room in front which old-fashionedly combines office and kitchen. We’re given packets of paperwork to fill out: vital statistics, why we became homeless, where we spent last night. Where did we spend the majority of nights last week? Month? Year? Who referred us? Which of several single and multiracial options do we choose? (White/Black/Indian is never listed; even in these enlightened days, I’m an “other.”)
Have we ever been incarcerated? A yes from Cousin; apparently the name of her origin which I hadn’t recognized was a prison. Involved with the Department of Youth Services? And so on. I am unsurprised to see on the last page a request to disclose basic stats to funder CDBG.
At that point, they served dinner–I remember basic American food, and enough of it. You could get seconds. Then everybody lined up and was given linen–sheets and blankets and pillowcase. I also got a big T-shirt for a nightie which depicted Somerville’s annual Cleanup/City Pride Day from the year before. The people explaining what was to be done with what were brusque. I almost cried, but I was too numb.
I was put into the smaller room, with only four beds. I slept listening to “Mama” in the next bed. The classic bag lady, she would go through all of her stuff, the soft rustle of the bags almost soothing.
The next morning we were awakened at 6 and fed breakfast, and everybody left to go be homeless people on the street. I made the mistake of seeing somebody still in the bathroom and taking my time until 7:10. I was leapt upon by this horrible woman who screamed the information that the other girl had a job and was allowed to stay later, and that if I ever did that again, I would never come back. I sobbed and begged in terror. Another employee ran out and calmed me down–apparently this other woman just had a random streak of bitch.
It was a random streak, because she stuck up for me a couple of weeks later when a roommate kept awakening me for snoring. (At my peak weight I snored like an apneac hippo.) This was made worse by a horrible lingering messy cold. That same roommate got offended when I stopped letting her use my laptop to check her email–I think it’s a sort of code that one hands out random cruelties to one’s mates and expects automatic shares in any spoils–a sort of tribal culture, I guess.
Anyway, some other time I might share an entry or two I made at the kinder and gentler homeless shelter, where we had a room that was ours. But on this summer evening, with both my now-grown kids playing video games, and me being allowed to loll in bed with my badly sprained ankle instead of being dragged up for chores–this is an evening for home.