About two weeks ago I found a mostly blank book which had a few entries in it from when I was homeless, and I published the first as “Waiting for a Bed,” which talks about my first evening as an individual homeless person with no set shelter residence. (Otherwise known as a bag lady.) I was going to run the other two entries, written from the family shelter my daughter and I moved into shortly afterward, but much of it is riddled with people’s names, and I think that changing them defeats the purpose and negates the entries, as one entry is concerned with the difficulty of learning the names of 15 other moms and their kids. It took a while–I wasn’t good at it.
It wasn’t entirely my fault; it was a historically Latina shelter (Casa Nueva Vida), and my Spanish is rudimentary at best. Two of the women’s names differed by an “s” which wasn’t pronounced in the ambient dialect, so they were called “La Gorda” and “La Flaca,” or “the fat one” and “the skinny one.” What really thrilled me was that these terms were meant to be descriptive, not pejorative–bodies were bodies, and the less Americanized my sisters there were, the less they cared about how much they weighed.
I love Casa; they’re in a corner of the city that’s a minor pain in the ass to get to, or I’d visit more often. They are kind, warm, and caring people who made our seven month stay as comfortable as it might be, given that I shared a single bedroom with my 18-year-old daughter, who spent the last semester of her senior year in deep humiliation and terror that people would find out where she lived. Whereas I became at least a bit politicized there, and ended up serving on the board of Homes for Families, she just wants to push the whole horror out of her mind. (It didn’t help that I needed to go back to the hospital twice for short visits while they tweaked my medication.)
There are many things one can say, and many have said, about the particular horrors of having no room of one’s own–or any room at all. But the very worst part for a homeless introvert was the lack of privacy. Not just the annoyance of having my teenager as a roommate, but the larger sense of privacy rent away by the poverty system.
Everywhere you go, from housing worker to food stamps to Medicaid to this worker to that worker, you carry a folder. It becomes more and more battered with time and being carried about in shopping bags, bulging purses, and the undercarriage of strollers. Inside of it is your life: where you were born and to whom, who you married and when you divorced, the proof of custody of your children, disability attestation from your doctor, your Social Security card, criminal record (though everybody runs it themselves), probate records of name changes, titles of automobiles, bank records, income letters, tax forms, immigration history, the correspondence from all the poverty agencies–and the same set for each child. (If you are ever in this position, here’s a tip: Watch what they do with your original documents. Make sure you get them back after the inevitable photocopies. Not that they mean to steal them, but they don’t have time to care.)
No privacy. Anything not stripped away by opening your folder is shredded away by the inevitable questions: How did you lose your housing? Do you have anybody else to stay with? Where did you stay last night? What’s wrong with you anyway, you lazy loser bitch?
And they mangle your name. (At least if it’s mine.) Sometimes it’s all we have left, that name-meaning-us, as opposed to the word which appears all through that folder, being misspelled, mispronounced, and sometimes misassigned. The private made public, the personal impersonal.
So I can’t take away the names of my sisters from Casa; it took me too long to earn them.