Homeless, or Houseless?

800px-OIC_jindalee_sand_dunes_2 Creative Commons

Once when I was part of an effort to end homelessness in our community, one of the participants who had himself been homeless objected to the term. “We’re houseless, not homeless,” he insisted. Unfortunately his preferred term never caught on. I understood what he meant though. It was more than the fact that many people without housing live in cars or campers, or take up residence in empty buildings, or crude shacks built in remote areas.

It was the realization that all of us share a home on Mother Earth that may or may not include four walls and a roof. I remembered how Jesus once lamented that birds have nests, and squirrels have burrows, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head. Yet we never think of Jesus as having been homeless. Nor do we think of our nomadic ancestors as having been homeless. There was always a sense that people were at “home” in their own bodies, in their natural environment, and in the communities of those they identified with.

This realization struck me on a deeper level years later when my own son suffered from long bouts of “houselessness,” living on the streets, or in cars, or in this case in the sand dunes, when he could not find nor afford a drug treatment program that could take him in– or he was too strung out to seek to recovery.  After living that way all summer and most of the fall, he contacted me. He wanted to get clean, and needed a place where it would be safer and warmer to wait for a bed to open up.

Sand_dunes_-_Oceano_CA wikipediaWe met in a parking lot and he had me drive him to the beach so he could hike back into the sand dunes to collect his gear.

I offered to go with him and help carry it back, but he said no. It was too far, and the most direct route would have us climbing up and sliding down huge dunes. So I took a walk along the beach while awaiting his return.

The weather had been stormy for the last few days and the morning sky was a molten sheen of silver as the sun tried to burst through. The tide was out and tiny rivulets of water had formed between the ripples of wet sand, reflecting the bright sky. Dozens of sand dollars in all sizes had been washed up on the beach, most of them perfectly whole, and I collected my share. Hundreds of tiny sea birds hunted among the puddles and shallow waves. Among them gulls flew in and out, and one long-legged white heron tip-toed among its cousins.

IMG_3297It was breathtakingly beautiful and peaceful. I imagined him up there, all alone among the sand dunes at night, peeking up at the bright expanse of stars, hearing the hum of the breaking waves, breathing in its salty breath.

Camping out it might have been called–once upon a time in a land far away.

But when he returned with his gear I found out it wasn’t that way at all. The dunes where he slept were full of fellow travelers. As we were driving away he had me pull over so he could hail down a man on a bicycle packed tight with tent poles and back packs and what looked to be a small camp stove.

“Tell Josh I left the tent and blankets he loaned me out there for him.”

Kelli pic 2Josh was a young man living in the dunes with his girlfriend. They had grown up “houseless” and now were living a ”houseless” life together.

Many people like them and the bike rider lived back there, and the place where he had slept would not remain empty long. The secure burrow deep beneath a sage bush had been dug by another, inhabited and abandoned time and time again.

But that’s not the half of it, he told me. Many have lived out there so long and had become so adept at doing so, they had tapped into the electric grid and had TV, computers, and electric lights.

This was true back in the canyons far from the beach as well. There a whole community of “homeless” residents lived, having dug caves and elaborate tunnels into the hillsides, and built tree houses for lookouts to guard against intruders. Hundreds lived back there, he said, in relative luxury, since they too had found ways to plug into the electric grid. The homeless 1%, I suppose.

This is not to make light of, nor to romanticize the plight of people who lack mainstream housing. There is no question that for some this is a lifestyle choice.

DCF 1.0But for the vast majority who live on the streets or in the dunes and canyons, they do so because they have no other options. They are there because poor health and medical bills left them bankrupt and houseless. They are there because a lost job, a string of bad luck, addiction, mental illness, and an array of other similar calamities left them no choice but to try to find a way to exist without a house to live in.

Sadly, we’ve make outcasts and outlaws of the poor and sick and struggling. We’ve banished them to live outside the norms of society and forced them to create counter communities at the fringes of society.

We call them homeless, when in truth we all share one home. We’ve simply failed to provide for our own. We’ve failed to create the kind of safeguards and services that would keep all of us safely housed.


Thank God My Son’s in Jail

800px-Recreation_of_Martin_Luther_King's_Cell_in_Birmingham_Jail_-_National_Civil_Rights_Museum_-_Downtown_Memphis_-_Tennessee_-_USA  wiki commons Adam Jones PHdI’d been waiting for a call from the Coroner’s office when I found out that, instead of lying in a morgue somewhere, my son was “safe” in jail. For now. Thank God.

I’d like to say I was overjoyed with relief, but that lasted only a few moments. Then the anger and frustration and weariness descended, and I felt heavier than stone. Because the hope that had once kept the grief and fear from crushing me is slipping away. And I’m not sure I’ll ever get it back.

I remember the first time he’d gone to jail for a DUI charge 20 years ago (before he became a heroin addict) and how freaked out I was. I talked to a substance abuse counselor on the phone, and he told me to calm down. Jail isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a young man. He’ll be okay, he said.

And I learned through the years he was right. Jail isn’t the worst thing that can happen to my son. Prison isn’t the worst thing, either. Sometimes they can be the best thing that can happen to him. Sometimes they can be a life saver, like now.

The last time I heard from he told me he didn’t think he had long to live. He’d had two overdoses the week before. One where he woke up in the hospital. The other where he woke up in a motel room. His companions had left him for dead after stealing the little he had (a bike and a backpack stuffed with dirty clothes) and even the shoes off his feet. He was barefoot when he called, using someone else’s phone. He’d lost his own weeks ago (again).

I begged him to get help, to go an NA meeting, go to a church, go to a detox facility, go to a shelter. But he was too embarrassed. He was covered in staff infections, he said, and he looked like a zombie.

I’d seen him that way before. I knew what he meant.

I begged him to go to an ER and get medication for the staff infection. Then I gave him the address and phone number of detox, and told him to get there. He said he would. But it didn’t sound like he meant it.

“Say it,” I told him. “Say it like you mean it.”

“Promise me,” I demanded. “If you don’t want to die, promise me.”

“I feel like I’m dead already,” he said. “Like I’m in Limbo, you know? Or purgatory. Everything seems so surreal, like I’m walking around in a nightmare.”

I thought about driving the 200 miles to get him and pack him in my car and bring him home. But I’d already just done that, only a few months earlier. And it hadn’t helped. He wasn’t safe, even at home anymore.  I’d picked him up off the streets so we could get him into a drug treatment program and brought him home, so he could make the daily calls you need to make while waiting for a bed. He sounded ready, optimistic.

“A few more days,” they told us. “A few more days and we’ll have a bed ready for you.”

The next morning I found him on the floor of the bathroom with a needle in his arm. He looked gray and lifeless. I called an ambulance and the medics revived him and took him to a hospital.

Two days later a bed finally opened up, and he got into the program. Then he got a job, and he got back in touch with his girlfriend and his baby girl. He sounded so happy. They applied for low-cost housing as a couple (she was also in recovery). They were going to make a life for their baby together. He came back home to pick up the rest of his clothes and books and surfboard. He looked healthy and happy.

“Okay, now’s the time. Now he’s going to make it,” I told myself.

Then a few weeks later I found out he’d relapsed. He was kicked out of the program. He lost his job. His girlfriend turned her back on him. He became homeless, strung out on the street (again).

And I was urging him to get into detox before the next overdose killed him.

“Call me,” I told him.  “As soon as you get into the hospital, or get to detox, call me so I know you’re safe.  You have to do one or the other,” I urged. “Today. Do it!  If you don’t want to die, do it.”

“I will,” he said, but he wouldn’t promise me. And it was just as well. He’d made and broken those kinds of promises before.

I hung up the phone and the tears came and wouldn’t stop falling. I’d given up hope, you see. I didn’t think he’d do any of the things I told him to do. And I didn’t think I would ever hear from him again.

How many OD’s can you have before you have your last? Has his luck run out?

Apparently not. I didn’t hear from him until a week later, from jail. He said he was stopped by the police the day after our conversation and arrested for outstanding warrants. Thank God.

But the relief, as welcome as it was, was short-lived. Because jail is a kind of limbo too. For him and me.

As soon as he gets out, the insanity will start up again. All the nearly overwhelming logistics of starting over again from scratch will begin (again). We’ve been through this a dozen times already: The mad scramble to find some place to live, to get a job, to buy a phone and a bike and clothes and all the other things he needs to live a normal life, after having just lost all those things, again and again and again.

Then will begin the anxious, nail-biting wait to see if this time, this time at last, he’ll stay clean long enough to turn his life around. Or if the struggle to regain all he had lost will take its toll (again).

Everything is twice as hard as it should be. And it’s so heartbreaking–trying to pump up the hope and optimism again and again, so we both don’t sink down under the weight of the knowing that his chance of making it this time is slim to none.

But he’s safe now, I remind myself. That’s good! I don’t have to jump when the phone or doorbell rings, fearful for the worst. I can relax. When he’s in jail have been the most peaceful times of my life during these last fifteen years. And the most hopeful: “Maybe now he’s hit rock-bottom,” I tell myself. “Maybe now he’ll turn his life around.”

But those days of optimism are past. I know better now.

So. Jail is as good as it gets these days. Not knowing where he is and waiting for the Coroner’s call, that’s bad. And worse than that, as I’ve imagined a hundred times, is getting the call. At least I’ve been spared that. For now.

Count yourself lucky, I tell myself. And I am.