Homelessness is something you think happens to others, but few young people living in Vancouver could cover more than two months of income insecurity.
I never imagined being forced to abandon my apartment and possessions, but after my major depressive and anxiety disorders worsened, I suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized. I also largely stopped working. Shortly after this my toothache turned into a bone infection. Three surgeries and nine months later I was homeless. My first night on the street was January 2nd, 2015, and while I am no longer homeless, I learned a lot during that time and had to reassess my assumptions. This is what I learned:
1. Food is everywhere
My first food line experience was Christmas Day 2014. I wouldn’t be sleeping rough (code for sleeping on the street) for another two weeks, but I hadn’t eaten in two days, and starving on Christmas was too depressing (even by my standards). It was the first Christmas dinner I’d had at 11 am but easy enough to come by. Over the following three months of homelessness I only missed meals by choice. That said, no matter what you need, it involves a line. Most of the time you spend homeless is waiting; for doctors, social workers; to get into a shelter; for food.
2. Everyone thinks you’re an addict
While I am no stranger to drugs, I was not an addict. Despite this people were always skeptical about my claims of sobriety. It wasn’t until a month-and-a-half of clean urine tests that people started to believe me. It’s a more comfortable narrative.
3. Sexism (even in poverty) is rampant
You might think resources would be evenly split between the sexes, as poverty does not discriminate. You’re wrong. After sleeping rough in January landed me in the emergency room, I stayed at an emergency mat shelter run by the Salvation Army. They could sleep around 100 people, but could only shelter 5-10 women per night. Due to liability issues, women and men can’t sleep in the same room, so the other two rooms available for women in the shelter could only fit about five women. It’s unintentional, but women get the short end of the stick on the street, too.
4. It’s not the just the cold that could kill you
I’m fortunate that my homelessness was limited to Vancouver and California, and not anywhere cold enough at night to kill me. But anywhere else in Canada, in addition to exposure during subzero urban camping you’re also likely not eating well. A poor diet and little access to hygiene stresses out an already overwhelmed immune system. The cough a well-homed person would shrug off can turn into pneumonia on the street. A scratch you wouldn’t bat an eye at can become a brutal infection. Your meager resources are diverted to keeping you warm, leaving your immune system under funded. Throw antibiotic resistant infections into the mix and you see what I’m getting at.
5. Very little camaraderie
Long before homelessness I was a fan of hobo culture. Travelling town to town in boxcars, a bindle-sack for your harmonica and nights spent around a barrel fire trading stories between swigs off a communal bottle seemed free and romantic. The reality is different. The affable/hostility ratio is the same as it is among the bourgeois, but the ‘poorgeois’ can’t risk being wrong. The result is having to share a room for a month in a shelter with three guys as I once did before they talked to me. And I don’t blame them. Every time I’ve been cheated—both in my sheltered life and in my adventures through poverty—the person who did so was someone I knew and I never saw it coming.