I don’t want to come off as critical here, because it is very clear that every homeless community or shelter has its own rules based on its philosophy, religious orientation, or even its size. Different places are trying to accomplish different objectives and some will be stricter than others. The place I was staying before Everyone Village was much much larger and much stricter. The idea was that to get off the streets, it was important that residents weren’t using all the different substances that cause a problem for people in their lives, and as a result many things both legal and illegal were prohibited.
At Everyone Village we aren’t so concerned with what you ingest in one way or another as long as it is off the property and doesn’t negatively affect how you treat other people. This is what they mean by a low-barrier shelter in that people are accepted exactly where they are in life.
Size was also a major factor there too, with something like ten times the number of people as at Everyone Village, and rules have to be simple, clear, and enforced. And you can’t really rely on the honor system at that scale; even if a whole bunch of people follow a rule, the few that don’t can cause havoc.
The size of that place was beneficial for me personally because it meant if you kept your head down and didn’t cause any conflict, you could kind of pass below the radar. You were left alone. Just follow the rules and no one bothered you. In that setting, if a staff member did want to talk to you, it was usually an omen of something not quite positive in your life.
And so, this efficient, fair, well-oiled machine of a shelter with fifty years of trial and error behind its policies did what everyone else did in 2020.
A belly flop, right into an empty pool called Covid 19.
Suddenly there were new rules imposed from above, from the government, rules that were new and often shifting, and there were periods of total lockdown, followed by periods of partial lockdown, followed by a return to the beginning of the cycle all over again.
And for many folks, the new regimen of the drugless environment, even marijuana, and alcohol, was impossible to sustain during the extreme stress of being in close contact with one another 16 hours a day. Drugs of choice returned, followed by drug and alcohol tests, followed by being asked to leave.
Behavior could become more aggressive than usual under these conditions and freakouts, sometimes directed at staff could not be avoided, but also not tolerated by staff who needed a safe place to work.
All of this is to say, through no fault of anyone’s during 2020 and 2021 homeless folk at that shelter, seeing people we came to know intimately during the lockdown, suddenly gone with only rumors as to why, started to live under the fear of getting kicked out at any moment, in some cases for things that we couldn’t help.
The always shifting rules of the Covid regime could trip you up too, and you might break a cardinal rule without thinking and be asked to leave. Sometimes we went for a while with no one getting asked to leave, and others, it seemed like they were dropping like flies, and a whole mess of people would be gone with no goodbyes and no way to contact them except for chance encounters later after the lockdown.
Most of us were walking on eggshells for extended periods of time, hoping we wouldn’t have to resort to self-medication, and hoping a careless moment wouldn’t lead to words we would regret but sorry too late.
All humans, it seems to me, and not just the homeless ones, are designed to kinda-sorta follow rules with plenty of gray areas and have no real training dealing with situations like a pandemic, where, to protect us, the rules are strict in a completely new way.
Sometimes a simple, normal action can completely contradict a rule that you have been told over and over and you may find yourself on the streets without warning because your natural human instinct or impulse wasn’t in line with the posted new rules.
For many people, the substances they consume aren’t simply habits gone wrong or vices that are out of control. They are also self-medicating ways to deal with stress you can’t cope with. Most people know this and it isn’t a particularly controversial statement. Most of the residents of the shelter were doing okay before the lockdown without their chemical crutches.
The lockdown and all the uncertainty that came with it unsurprisingly upped the stress and it became much harder, especially for the pot smokers, not to turn to your old familiar friend and just chill out.
The whole unfortunate situation led most of us to mentally curl up into a little ball of fear, suddenly locating all control outside ourselves, like a little baby with a mean parent, thinking to ourselves, ‘ I hope I don’t use or blow up but I don’t know if I can really control that so ultimately now, the control for my life is outside me.’
Not verbalized perhaps, it was a truly helpless fetal feeling.
The most extreme example, and the only one really of its kind, came pretty early in the pandemic when part of our protection during lockdown included not handing things out to anyone beyond the shelter’s fence, and while we know the rule and understood it, it was pretty hard not to toss a piece of pizza or something out to someone outside the gate who was hungry and had nowhere to go.
One time, without thinking, in an act of kindness, one of the guys handed a cigarette through the gate to someone outside and, in accordance with the rules he was asked to leave.
See what I mean?
We aren’t wired to suddenly internalize the strict rules of a pandemic regimen, and handing a cigarette to a brother in need is the most natural thing in the world, so it was easy to get kicked out for unconscious infractions like this. (Funnily enough, I have no problem contacting the cigarette guy because, after a long season in a tent, under a bridge, he is now at Everyone Village.)
As a result, leaving that place, I was carrying, without knowing it at first, the feeling that I could be asked to leave my home at any time for sometimes mysterious reasons, and if a staff member ever wanted to talk to me, it was a bad sign.
Understandably, as I explained in the last post, much of my early time at Everyone Village was a blur. It wasn’t the change in venue that constituted the bulk of each new person’s mental energy; rather, it is the continual internal change as each of us tries to define and integrate all the changes in our lives. We are too busy assessing how things are different and problem-solving our way to dealing with it, and if you have lived a certain way with certain limits for a long time, it is simply exhausting getting your head around a big change.
The true change is idiosyncratic and internal, so it is not surprising that I spent a lot of the first weeks sleeping.
In some ways the transition to my new spot was really smooth. I didn’t look back. I didn’t worry about anything but how to do the everyday things that were now available to me.
I didn’t realize it, but the prohibitions, even the one against drinking a beer now and then had done a real number on my head.
It didn’t help that just before the lockdown I almost got kicked out for drinking myself.
Except here’s the kicker: I hadn’t been drinking.
Somehow I got a false positive on a saliva alcohol test and failed a second one. The staff was apologetic but firm. Rules are rules. I was extremely persistent while trying not to get abusive because I simply hadn’t had a drink. I had no idea how or why an alcohol test can fail.
The only thing I had done differently that day was buying a big bulk bag of Boston Baked Bean candies eating every last one of them.
I started wondering if there was some alcohol or chemical in the coatings of the candy that would trigger a positive result. My mouth was still bright red from the candies. Did it affect the color of the testing strip? No idea.
Well, the staff was going to have to trust the test over my word and a weird story about Boston Baked Beans, right? It was early March and it looked like I was about to be kicked to the curb. The lockdown would start a few weeks later, so I would have been in big trouble for a couple of years if I had had to leave.
Ultimately, I don’t think it was anything I said that made the staff relent to a degree. It was what everyone else was saying.
“HE TESTED POSITIVE?”
No one could believe it because the other homeless people knew I wasn’t a drinker. People kept saying the test must be wrong because he doesn’t drink. Finally one of the staff members put out an alternative. If I went down to the emergency room and had blood drawn, and the hospital called and said I had no alcohol, I could stay.
Walking to the bus stop my prayer life kicked into high gear.
I didn’t do any bargaining or making promises with God, I just begged him really hard to let me pass the test at Sacred Heart Hospital. And to play it safe I bought water from every store along the way I could find and chugged the hell out of it.
Long story short, passed the test, dodged a bullet, although one particular staff member, one who clearly ‘trusted the science’ was very suspicious, and whereas in the past I had had about two alcohol tests per year, now I was being ‘randomly selected’ twice a week for about a month, which I didn’t really care about. Because I wasn’t drinking.
Last week I touched on how hard it was to go out for a beer. That story in a little more detail might be really instructive about my mindset at the time.
As I mentioned, it felt like a total transgression just to be out after 7 PM, because I was used to this curfew, and I felt naughty but good when I decided to go out for a coffee at my favorite cafe/place to write (Where I am writing this.) one of my first nights at Everyone Village. Some things feel more important on a deep level than they look on the surface, and somehow I knew that breaking my mental curfew was an important step to take.
I hadn’t been out at night to a coffee shop in over a decade, so it was a low risk/high reward situation. I was going to have a coffee and bust through a limit on my behavior all in one go. (I might talk later about how my sleeping habits had been set in stone at that place and relaxed later, but, that will be later.)
So anyway, I got to my favorite place a little before 7 only to find it was about to close, and this was more disappointing than it should have been. Like someone had stepped into the middle of a trust exercise and pushed the person who was supposed to catch you out of the way.
Oh well, almost an hour on the bus here, and now I guess I just have to go back home because nothing else is open. I just stood there for a moment glumly procrastinating the journey home.
And then the light bulb went off, or perhaps the neon sign.
Bars are open. All over the place.
I felt like I was bargaining with death.
Being in a place that forbids all alcohol for a while, and you are left with the belief that you are a raging alky even to consider one. It might be progress of a sort, maybe too fast though, to stay out after 7 AND go to a bar all in one night.
I must say that it is demoralizing if you think of yourself at all as being the master of your own mind to feel years of programming overwhelming your common sense.
I began to bargain with God just like people do when they fall out of a raft and are being held under by the current. Lord if you get me out of this, I will do that.
Okay, just go to the bar and order a coffee then, that isn’t too threatening.
I have to cut myself some slack here. That false positive was pretty traumatic. Not only that, even though the no-alcohol rule was reasonable in the setting. I didn’t miss drinking a beer now and then at all, but would have been in big trouble if there was a ban on smoking.
It was the culture of prohibition with sharp penalties that elevated the badness of alcohol far behind its normal place to a mortal sin, and living with this in the background had its effect even if you didn’t think it did.
Also, unfortunately, there were certain members of the population at that place who felt they could curry favor with the staff by telling on people for going in bars and the like. I know one guy who got ratted on for buying some cigarettes at a liquor store. He was SEEN going to a liquor store and duly reported.
So it isn’t surprising that my first thought was: I will be okay if no one sees me.
See how it was?
Such a simple act, something I have done hundreds of times in my life, and yet, based on the culture and the experiences of the past ten years, it is like I have gaslit myself along with a little outside help. I am actually worrying whether or not I have a drinking problem simply because I lived in a place where drinking was banned. I was doubting myself. I was like a newborn who didn’t know himself at all. I was going totally fetal.
On my way to get that coffee at a bar, Rennie’s Landing if you know it, I began to berate myself. Just buy a beer. Get yourself a nice big fat pint of Hefeweizen with a lemon in it, go upstairs to the outdoor seating, sit at the picnic table, sip, smoke, and watch sports highlights. Stop being a baby.
So that is what I did.
And it felt so good. So free. Like the end of an era. I made that thing last a full hour, smoking my brains out, watching Youtube reaction videos of young people listening to “Free Bird” for the first time.
Hilarious. They simply aren’t ready for that guitar solo, and look overwhelmed about halfway through.
I really relaxed and really savored it, remembering the moment as what I used to do before my depression was diagnose, like that would be my therapy: have have a beer and a cigarette and detach from my troubles for a little while.
I also liked to watch people of any age reacting to David Phelps singing “Oh Holy Night,” because no one is ever ready for THAT voice coming out of THAT guy. And it was just around Christmas when I moved in, so there were plenty of Christmas song reactions to choose from.
Anyone who is worried that my new freedom has plunged me into a life of slavery to imported beers can relax. Can’t afford them, and I basically have a beer a week if I remember to.
One time I made myself go out to recreate the moment but it didn’t work. The first moment was its own moment and it was about freedom and figuring out my own habits for myself and not having them imposed from above.
I didn’t even finish that beer and went home.
(Shout out to Grammarly and Otter.ai. They are making writing a lot easier. Especially Grammarly. It is extremely enjoyable to reject its suggestions.)
Next post I will either continue the theme of all the unlearning I am doing or do a bullet point list of all the things I learned in those early days at E1V.