Homeless with Gratitude: Saved by Sophia

homeless again

True gratitude is far more than polite social behavior. It’s a gut instinct.

It’s one thing to express gratitude. That can be faked.

It’s quite another thing to feel it. We all feel genuine gratitude from time to time.

But the real thing is when you live with gratitude. It’s when you can say thank you even in the face of adversity. Especially in the face of adversity. You don’t have to be happy about it, and you certainly don’t have to say it out loud. It’s that you perceive your problems as opportunities. It is having a profound appreciation for what you have.

It’s taken me a long time to learn that.

It took me about six years to piss away a $100K inheritance. Much of it went to my landlord, Frye’s Electronics and a shady used car dealer.

Delusionally thinking I would find another “real job,” I kept wasting my time sending highly researched and targeted resumes into the black hole of online job applications.

I was not quite supporting myself as a freelance writer/photographer and part-time staff monitor at Hospitality House, a nomadic homeless shelter in Grass Valley, California. Renting a cool little house in nearby Nevada City, I was living beyond my means, irresponsibly letting my inheritance make up the shortfall.

In 2015, several things became apparent. I was burning out as a homeless shelter worker. Nobody was going to hire me. And I was running out of money.

I’d spent the previous three years working “cowboy shifts” as the lone person in charge of several dozen homeless guests in a different church every night. The shelter, however, was transitioning into a permanent shelter called Utah’s Place.

Hospitality House was becoming institutionalized, and I wasn’t. I think the beginning of the end for me was when they introduced time-clocks. So, when they moved into Utah’s Place, I didn’t.

It was an amicable parting. I still support this wonderful organization in articles I write and in public testimony.

I’ve never let the fact that I didn’t have another job lined up prevent me from leaving a gig that I no longer wanted. People have told me I was crazy for doing that. Well, yeah … you want to see my 13-page diagnosis?

Running out of inheritance and living on a reduced income, I realized I had to play my elderly, poor and disabled cards. I applied for a federally subsidized Housing Choice Voucher, aka a Section 8.

Unfortunately, I got it.

I had this silly idea that I could keep my house using the voucher to help pay my rent. From my point of view, it was a great deal.

From my landlord’s POV, not so much. He not only refused to agree to the Section 8, he raised my rent.

The Section 8 voucher proved to be a liability. I was getting rejected because I had a Section 8. All the corporate housing projects that did take Section 8’s were full up.

Roommate situations were just as bleak. I wouldn’t live with the low-lifes I could afford, and I couldn’t afford the respectable people.

With absolutely no prospects for a new job or housing I could afford, I decided to go mobile. I gave my landlord a 30-day notice. I did not want to have an eviction on my record. as I had a reputation to protect.

Just because I might be a little crazy in the head and homeless, doesn’t mean I’m not an honest and responsible person.

Living in my car seemed like a good idea at the time. I’d lived in my car before. With spring coming on, I figured I could ride it out over the summer and save up enough money for a first, last and security deposit on a cheaper residence – assuming I could find one.

I rented a storage locker and began methodically moving stuff into it. From experience, I knew to leave enough walk-in room to be able to find things like clothes, medicine, work files and such.

It never occurred to me to consider Utah’s Place. If I didn’t want to work in the shelter, I certainly didn’t want to live there. Besides, it would have been kind of embarrassing.

I’d chosen a long time ago to lead an unconventional life.

Living in my car was just a natural and logical consequence of my bad choices. I had nobody to blame but myself.

I’d lived beyond my personal life expectancy. I thought I’d be dead by now, so it’s not like I had any real life plans.

While I was moving out of my house, I was still freelancing as an arts and entertainment writer for the local newspaper. One night, I ran into Sophia at a theater performance.

Sophia had been my favorite volunteer when I was working for Hospitality House. Sophia was proactive. She engaged the guests. She played games, did arts and crafts with them, and lent a sympathetic ear.

If I discovered we didn’t have enough coffee or toilet paper or whatever, Sophia was on it. She would go out, buy what was needed and refuse to be reimbursed.

I knew Sophia was involved with theater, so I wasn’t surprised to see her.

What surprised the hell out of me was her offer.

I think I joked something about going from working in a homeless shelter to being homeless. It wasn’t complaining. I was just matter-of-factly explaining the irony of my life.

Sophia got extremely upset. She demanded I rent a room in her house.

Rent was half of what I had been paying. It sounded like a good deal.

It was an incredible deal. Literally, this kind, wonderful woman moved out of her master bedroom so I could have a private apartment. She moved into her office upstairs on the main floor of the spacious home built into a steep hill in an upscale housing development.

I had a big bedroom with an attached bathroom. There was a washer and dryer right outside the door to my room. I had a microwave and a little refrigerator. There was wi-fi and cable TV.

My battered but ergonomic desk fit neatly into the corner. My bed was a chair spin away. Looking out my private deck, I saw nothing but trees to the horizon.

It was wonderful. And temporary. I was keenly aware I was a guest living on borrowed time in somebody else’s home. Nevertheless, if I had to be technically homeless again, this was pretty-damn cool.

And I was grateful every day for Sophia’s generosity. Even when the rest of my life was giving me rotten lemons and no sugar, I never failed to appreciate how fortunate I was to be where I was.

In part two of this series, I officially “come out” in the local newspaper as a mentally disordered, chronically homeless person. 

Tom Durkin

Tom Durkin


Tom Durkin is an award-winning freelance writer and photographer. He has two degrees with honors from UCLA. He has been episodically homeless since 1979. At age 40, he was diagnosed as bipolar with three personality disorders, childhood PTSD and ADHD. "Well, that explained a lot," he laughs. Presently, at 71, he lives illegally and happily below the radar in a trailer on some friends' wildland property in the Sierra Nevada Foothills.

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