If you read the last post, you know that there was a lot of turmoil and doubt going through my mind in the weeks leading up to moving to Everyone Village. This drama was partially self-created and partially the result of having lived in a rescue shelter for something like a decade. It wasn’t until right before making the move that I realized that my mind was to a large degree institutionalized, having lived at a place with a justifiably top-down structure with very definite rules and practices.
There is a kind of creeping incrementalism in all of this. If someone had asked me if my mind had been shaped by where I was living even a few months ago, the answer would have been no. I live here, follow the rules, and that’s it, I live here but am not of here.
However, towards the end, as change loomed on the horizon, certain limitations of thought and practice were made apparent to me as I made the decision to, shall we say, change venues.
The final roadblock before that decision was a blessing in disguise. I knew my time where I was living was coming to an end because now I had a plan B, and I couldn’t be sure if the new place was the best move simply because it was my only option. Was I jumping at any opportunity just to move on?
Right before the move I was contacted by another homeless community who said I was at the top of the waiting list and could come in for an interview? In my mind, I was sure the move would be to E. Village, and I went along to the interview in a purely perfunctory way (Yes, homeless people sometimes know words like perfunctory, and that word was used simply because ‘pro forma” would have been showing off.)
A strange thing happened though.
The more I looked around this community and asked questions, the more it seemed like I was making my decision too soon, and a real dilemma was in the making. Whereas E. Village was brand new, an untested concept and clearly somewhere that would involve a lot of trial and error and decisions made on the fly, this other place and been in operation since 2011 and they were like a well-oiled machine.
I asked a million questions and couldn’t stump them. It seemed like every problem you could think of had already been encountered and addressed, and I had to ask myself, do you really want to jump into a bunch of creative, controlled chaos governed by good people and good intentions, or would you, at 61, be better off in a place where you could just move in, follow the rules, rest, and get on with your own life?
Remember, I spent 2020, maybe the most miserable year for everyone ever, in various levels of shelter in place, lockdown, quarantine. That was chaos for real and through no fault of the management where I was staying. They were constantly being hit with ever-changing decrees from city county feds all the time. It was the year of unintentional gaslighting. Often you only knew what the rules were when you were told you broke one. All of us, staff and residents alike, were in a full year of uncertainty and change beyond our control.
Thankful to see 2021 come around, that year was still tough, and resting pretty much for a full year didn’t seem sufficient.
Was I ready to jump straight into a situation that I now know to be a problem solving, decision making, social services boot camp for the ages?
There was no way to tell really.
In the end, it was a leap of faith, faith in Gabe, Heather, and Gina, Gabe’s wife, faith in all the community partners who believed in what they were doing. I was still feeling tired, but the gut said go for it so that is what the body did.
Now here is something funny. It is only now, looking back at the time, that I am completely re-defining what was happening at that time. What seemed like a change of address was in fact a complete change of mindset, whether I liked it or not.
I was moving from a world of routine, of habit, of sameness, to a world of newness based on what I see in some people I have spent very little time getting to know.
I suppose it isn’t really WHERE you live that matters. A positive view of yourself and of the future can make even meager or primitive circumstances more than bearable, it can make them shine with hope.
As rough as this writing may seem to you, the fact is I torture myself over these posts through multiple drafts, and my big realization for this post came after multiple drafts and deletions and it is this:
I wasn’t really moving into a new place, not emotionally or spiritually or psychologically.
What I was doing was releasing a whole mess of hope balloons up into the sky, letting them slide through my fingers in the hope they landed somewhere fertile.
For what else is the decision to take a leap of faith in the direction of people you barely know but a hope balloon? You can ponder it all you want, but ultimately you just have to release it and hope for the best for your hope.
I have been living in the same place, doing the same things for a long time, have developed effective habits to suit the life I have been living, and it is all on autopilot. And all this is a factor of the creeping institutionalism of my mind that I didn’t even discover until after I had made the decision.
Here’s something funny.
At first it seemed like other people recognized that I was moving on in one way or another before I did.
They would see me make a choice and say, ‘why are you doing THAT now that you are going to be living like this?’ Weird. It is as if others sometimes can see that your mindset has moved on even before you can, and are spreading out the map for you to de-institutionalize yourself.
So that was it, and the preparations begin. This is the really interesting part to me, the part that thinking about made me discover a lot about myself and come to the conclusion that this process was all really about hope balloons.
It began when I put in requests with the place I was living for things I would need. And here is something weird and possibly a little sad. I have been where I was staying so long that I have been there through three totally different management teams (I almost said administrations) each with their own set of priorities and rules. One might be very strict about drugs and the other not so much, one generous with providing clothes or furniture when people move out, and the other making you do backflips over the course of weeks just to get a serviceable pair of boots.
I learned to keep a low profile and never ask for much, and so now I had no idea what it was okay for me to ask for and what was going over the line. In a place like this, for example, because there are so many people in the place, there is a strict limit on possessions.
Essentially you can store just about what you can carry in a largish pack on your back and a smallish pack on your chest if you were to leave that day and just walk out.
And that was a hard and fast institutional limit in my own mind.
I thought in terms of carrying only clothes, maybe an extra pair of shoes, very few papers, no books, just really two weeks of clothes and not much more. So as I put together my request for things to take with me to E. Village, my mind operated in this constraint naturally.
I put together a meager, humble list, and brought it to the member of staff I knew best to ask her if it was okay to ask for these things. I pulled out my list and started to ask if this or that was okay and she stopped me.
“What are you doing? You can have whatever you want.”
It actually took me a few weeks to process this concept.
I was very lucky that I happened to be dealing with a management team who was very generous with people who were leaving.
Gotta admit though, it took a while to think in terms larger than a couple of backpacks. I was still thinking about being mobile and only having the bare necessities.
It also took a while to muster up the courage to release the hope balloon that thinks in terms of having my own space and being able to stay there for a while.
Where I was staying at the time, they had a massive warehouse with pretty much everything in it, clothes for all seasons, housewares, bedding, furniture, bikes, like everything.
So, tentatively, I began to release the hope balloon of having furniture and a bed of my own and a place to put it.
This one employee I spoke of especially acted as if she knew my head should be in a new place even before I did. I came back with my revised list and she stopped me again and said:
“What about taking whatever you want do you not understand?”
Even then, I still had to check with her, like, you mean I can have a mattress?
So I could have one of those mattresses like we have in the dorms? (We slept on vinyl-covered foam mattresses designed for easy cleaning so they don’t have to be thrown away if anyone has an accident from either end.)
Yes, she said, you could, but why would you want one? Huh?
WE HAVE GOOD MATTRESSES! TAKE A GOOD ONE! TAKE A REAL MATTRESS!
It was at that point I realized I should stop bothering her in her office and just go over to the warehouse and take a look. See how the balloon concept is in effect? A normal mattress wasn’t a mattress, it was a hope balloon taking the risk that life could change for the better.
So the whole process of walking around the warehouse, looking at things I might need, took a fairly vigorous act of will to get myself to simply put aside things I might need or, and this was near impossible, things I might JUST want.
Clothes came first. I had to break the unwritten rule of homeless clothing:
Practicality is all that matters.
You have to find a good pair of boots and a good jacket for the Winter or you were in big trouble. No place to dry out boots, fear of getting sick, you simply had to get a good pair of waterproof boots that would last the winter.
So I found a waterproof jacket and a waterproof pair of boots. Normally there is only room in storage for that season’s clothes.
So I had to release a hope balloon simply to select a pair of sandals for summer and a nice pair of tennis shoes. It felt like I was breaking the rule of humble requests to have three pairs of footwear like the universe would make me pay somehow for my impertinence and greed. Some long johns, some fleeces to layer, some pajamas, plenty of socks.
Honestly, it still wasn’t that much no matter how over the top it felt. And then I had what felt like a forbidden thought, one which will sound possibly unhinged to you, but was real to me.
What if I pick a jacket just because I like how it looks?
What if, instead of worrying that I will get a drenched body or feet, or too cold on a tough Winter’s day, I just pick something I like?
Of all the hope balloons I relate in this post, this one was the toughest for me simply because it takes real hope, real faith, to think that one day you will choose something for as frivolous a reason as you just like it, and you will have a place to put it and wear it just because you feel like it.
Mustering my resolve I went back to the jacket rack and spent about twenty minutes finding just the one. I am wearing it now, as I write this, and feel somewhat pleased at the audacity of having it. It is a brown suede derby leather jacket, not exactly a bomber jacket but close, one of those derby zippered jackets like L.A. gang members wore in the 80’s, only leather not blue cotton, and here’s the kicker.
It has the most colorful flamboyant paisley lining you can imagine. I feel like Merv Griffin.
It simply isn’t me, or at least it isn’t the me I have become recently. Leather? Can’t wash it. Suede? No rain protection. Is it warm enough in relation to its weight? No idea.
I had a close call when I feared the zipper didn’t work (Unfortunately, you have to examine donated clothing very closely because there is often a catch. Goretex lining shredded, zippers don’t work, boot soles have hidden cracks. A lot of the donated clothing looks good at first glance but no longer does what it is supposed to do. For some reason, people think homeless people need less protection from the elements than they do, and they donate stuff that is no longer any good, but good enough for us, I suppose.)
Tough as it was, something inside me was aware that an important change of mind was happening as I walked the aisles of the warehouse. A couple changes of bedding, blankets, mean you have a place to put them. What about kitchenware, a plate, a bowl, should I snag a chef’s knife? A salad spinner? Will I be cooking again after all these years?
Each hope balloon represented a different kind of hope, a different fragile bit of faith that things might get better. Tentatively I showed the warehouse manager the little pile of stuff I was going to take, waiting to be told I was being selfish or taking advantage, and yet . . . nothing.
He just told me to be sure to mark it so no one took it. Such a simple thing, walking through a warehouse, planning ahead (What’s that?), and yet so full, in my mind and heart, of risk and the taking of a big chance, the chance that things might change for the better. It was all a lesson and a step forward, and I had to stop finally and quit bouncing faith in the future off my tired expectations. It was getting to be too much.
I rounded it out with an office chair, a desk lamp, and a really nice little quartz heater.
How hopeful is that, that I will have a desk, and a quiet private place to work, warm, with adequate lighting? It seemed inconceivable back then though now I am used to it but do not take it for granted. I also got a sleeping bag, wide not mummy because I like the wider ones better, and this one was ranked warm down to freezing, just in case.
Enough, it was too much, or maybe just enough for me for now.
I would soon have a place, a private place with a door I could lock, a place I could go to take a nap whenever I need to. In the past I spent the whole winter sleep-deprived, catching up on sleep in summer in parks, like a zombie most of the year.
I could now afford to get tennis shoes that weren’t waterproof because if they got wet I could just go home, dry them out in front of the heater, take my nap, and change into other clothes. I could have had a bike they told me I could come back any time if I needed anything.
What a bunch of champs. The hard work was just about over, so maybe moving in would be anticlimactic?
I can sum up the experience in word: Spaced.
And not just me. I checked in with other people who had just moved in too. All of us were total space cadets for at least the first couple of weeks.
We were all like stunned zombies for a while there and it was for two simple reasons:
- We had a private space.
- That private space had a door we could lock.
For us veterans of the streets, these two concepts were completely foreign and didn’t sink in for a while. For my friends who had been living in tents, it meant they didn’t have to have one person at the tent at all times to guard things. For me, it meant I no longer had to carry every conceivable need in my heavy day pack all the time.
I could carry only what I needed for that day or, gasp, not take a pack at all when I went out. Let me tell you, walking without a pack of some kind felt so disorienting like I put it down somewhere and forgot to take it with me.
I am rereading this and seeing that writing about my first days at Everyone Village is another post all its own. Hope Balloons is enough for now.
Next post will be about moving in for real. And it will be titled: Spaced.
(Note to readers: At first I thought this blog writing would be no problem, one post a week, easy. In reality, I am finding that a lot of long-submerged emotions, mostly unpleasant ones, are coming to the surface, and I am finding this writing to be more than I bargained for. I am still going to shoot for one post a week, but will not beat myself up if it doesn’t work out that way, and I think I am going to skip next week and get back on it the week after.)
(Oh, also, I am going to change my pen name. I think I chose the Scrapper too soon, and even though it fit for the first post, I just don’t feel comfortable using it long-term. I am a little too old to be a scrapper. After a few months, I have come to see that my role at the Village will be as a kind of interpreter.
On the one hand, I share the middle/upper-class upbringing of the organizers and employees here, and on the other, I have spent most of my adult life homeless, so often I feel that I can translate back and forth between the two demographics. I think starting next week will I will use:
“Mr In-Between (formerly known as The Scrapper)”