By: Gerri Graves

Word on the Street Issue 44, June 2024

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The longest day of the year. The height of nature’s fertility. The light’s full return.

I finally reached the top of the housing list. Almost three years in, and it looks like I’ll be housed soon. Longest years of my life, honestly. I’m excited…..but I’m a Taurus. We don’t like change. Even when it’s a good thing.

I often wondered why, when folks I’ve met finally receive housing……still come back often to be amongst the community. I never understood that, but I think it just might be because of that familial community, that you just don’t find outside of it.

I’d be lying if I said there weren’t volatile personalities amongst the community. It’s why I kept my distance…..and formed relationships carefully. Even in this scenario, some still found me. It’s disheartening…..but I work hard, mentally, to understand.

Truth is, we’re the low hanging fruit. We have no power to speak of. Our lives are almost completely in someone else’s hands.

I’ve heard folks tell me that the unhoused just don’t want to work. Or that, they want to be unhoused, as it allows them more freedom from societal pressures and control. Nothing could be further from the truth.

There is a dichotomy between those that have power and the powerless. When you become homeless…..everything you do, is structured around what is given. What you eat. When you wake. When you sleep. Where you can go during the day. Having to ask permission to come in later…..say, to attend an event or see a movie. Having an occasional drink. (I’ve had one beer in three years, that’s it) What we keep on our person within the shelter. Having to ask for an extra blanket when cold……or asking for help in finding a winter jacket.

Shoes…..ah, SHOES! I actually wore holes in the bottom of my shoes, just from all the walking we do. First time in my life, that has happened. Finding shoes, in my size, has been frustrating.

I have rather large feet for a woman. Most likely, from running amuck in my childhood…..barefooted. In those days, the door was open in the morning and we were told to be back before the streetlights came on. Climbing trees. Swimming in rivers. Running down paths. Building fairy houses in the buckling roots that broke free from the soil. Rope swings and treehouses. Bicycles and braided head wreaths from wildflowers. Horseback riding on narrow paths along the river, when Eagle was little more than cattle pastures, sparse dwellings and trees. All barefooted.

I imagine that’s where my wide feet came from. Unrestricted from foot coverings.

Finding shoes in my size, in the donation bin….was impossible. Took over a year, before something came in, in my size. My shoes were literally falling apart.

I understand why there are rules within the shelter. There needs to be structure. There must be rules, to keep everyone safe. But it is hard for this terribly private and independent person to relinquish that control.

Heck, even finding help outside the shelter is so hard. I filed for disability almost six years ago. Filled out the first and second wave of paperwork as well……and then Frank (IFS case worker) stepped in, and helped me navigate the mountains of paperwork that I was dealt. He never gave up on me. He was an actual gem of a person …..and I was so sad to see him move away. He was caring and had true empathy for the people he helped.

All this time, and I’m still without an income. Even though my doctor has declared, in writing, that I’m disabled. My left hip is now going. The weight gain from multiple surgeries and meals high in carbs, has left me diabetic. Permanent nerve damage in my right leg, from spine surgery. My upper spine also has fractures and bulging discs. My right leg collapses randomly…..and I’ve taken some nasty falls. One that tore three of the four tendons in my rotator cuff in my left  shoulder. (I now have a brace that I wear when my leg gives out….and require a walker for distance) Severe neuropathy in both of my feet. Osteoarthritis in my joints…..and the reason for the right hip replacement (also the reason my left hip is going).

And I’m not even the worst of our medically fragile that are also waiting for disability. Some, on their deathbed. We wait, while they bury us in paperwork.

Not only disability, but housing, food, medical insurance…..on and on. All requiring mountains of paperwork. I sometimes feel that the powers that be, hope we get discouraged and not file at all.

This is the first time I’m actually revealing my medical issues in a public way. I do it in the hope that you’ll have a better understanding. That you’ll see…..I never desired to be homeless. I’m not escaping from my societal input. I’m not trying to avoid work. I’m not looking for that elusive freedom of responsibility. My body is genuinely giving out, from years of hard work and medical issues beyond my control.

I’m powerless to stop my body’s deterioration. I’m also powerless in my circumstance. The dichotomy is a solid black line……and I’m on the wrong side. As are many of us.

The problem is not the homeless community, the problem is within the laws that govern us. I feel at times, our importance lies in our ability to be good little worker bees. Keeping industry churning, and the rich, flush in cash. The minute we can no longer run that hamster wheel, our importance diminishes. We are a blight. An issue to be reckoned with. A body to unleash scorn upon. A problem. Invisible, without a voice……in a land of opportunity, that no longer applies to us.

I have felt so belittled by this experience. My past pride, which never allowed me to ask for help (“I’ll do it my damn self!”), is tarnished and all but gone. I’ve ‘had’ and now…..’have none’. I’ve been made to feel less than human, by ignorance, harsh comments and actions.

You cannot fully appreciate what you have…..and who you have, until you have nothing. Those that love you, never leave. Everyone else falls by the wayside. As if, your circumstance will rub off on them.

I’m on the other side of hell, now….and I am full of gratitude for those that never left me. I value them far more than I did 3 years ago.

The longest years of my life.

I still don’t have an income, but I’ll have a small space to call my own. I think I’ll crack a beer and go for a walk at midnight. Sleep in on Sundays. Make some tacos. Sew until 1 in the morning. Plant some herbs for cooking. Bake a celebratory cake.

I regain a little freedom……and take away an experience that’s not lost on me. Life is nothing but experiences. If we fail to grow from them……or use them to benefit others, then truly, what is the purpose of our brief stay on this planet?

I’m trying to see this as a rare opportunity that was gifted to me. To understand those amongst us, who have nothing left to give but camaraderie, conversation and love. Even when, the only thing you have left to give back, is yourself.