Think back for a moment to a time when you were sick. Not a “little sniffle” sick, but really sick – the kind when you just lay in bed with no energy. Maybe you had to get up repeatedly to vomit or use the bathroom. You may have been unable to eat anything for days and felt weak. Perhaps you lay motionless in bed thinking that even if you die, it will be okay, because death is better than how you felt in that moment, suffering with pain, fever and endless bathroom emergencies.
Remember that time?
Most of us have had that sort of illness at least once in our lives. A horrific virus, bacterial infection, flu or bronchitis – maybe even pneumonia. While thinking back to that horrible time, how grateful were you to be in your own bed, in your own residence, with your own bathroom? You had the option of stepping in the shower to feel clean. There was a kitchen to boil water and make tea and honey or have some hot soup. And, while you may not have been actively thinking about it at the time, you in fact were grateful you had that place to convalesce. Unless you had some other experience, you probably never stopped to think, “What if I didn’t have this place? I wonder what homeless people do when they get sick?”
As I write this, I am just getting over a severe cold and touch of bronchitis.
It is January and it is unnaturally warm, which tends to make for very bad sick seasons. People with colds and flu are more apt to go out to stores and public places than they would if it were bitter cold, as January in upstate New York should be.
The last time I had caught a cold was 18 years ago. In the summer of 2014, I contracted a stomach virus (knocking on wood as I don’t want to get that again anytime soon).
The last two times I was very ill, I was housed. This time I am holed up in my “hobo tent”, as I call it, located in a secret location in a filthy old building. There is a public bathroom that I can access but I try to never be seen in daytime. If I am discovered, I could lose this hiding place and end up worse off than I am.
Being sick, I had little choice but to lay on my mat in the tent with a box of tissues and ride the wave. I had a low grade fever, but thankfully, it never went much higher. Yet, as miserable as I was, I was still grateful for this place because I am all too aware of the alternatives.
I have a few friends on Twitter that are also homeless.
They live either on the streets or in their vehicles. All of these ladies are disabled and have chronic illnesses, just like me. Too sick to work, too poor to get their own housing, they are forced to live in their vehicles. Each day erodes their health a little more. The same is true of me, but to a lesser extent. I have a little bit more protection where I am, at least for the moment.
Imagine living in your car and being disabled. On top of everything else, you catch a nasty virus because your immune system is so run down. Just stop for a moment and really try to imagine it. This happens every day, around the world. And yes, right here in America where all the people I just mentioned on Twitter are full-fledged citizens born in the USA.
Take the case of my online friend Denise, who goes by @homelessmom_pup on Twitter.
Since March of 2016 she has been living in her vehicle with her 22-year-old disabled daughter and their 14-year-old service dog, Jade who suffers from congestive heart failure. Recently, Denise contracted the shingles, a viral disease caused by the same virus that causes chicken pox! For those who do not know, this can be a very painful illness that tends to hit people whose immune systems are compromised.
Lack of sleep, lack of good nutrition and constant high stress are the three main factors that cause homeless people to have weakened immunity. Once sick, it’s hard to recover without access to a bed to rest on and a bathroom to stay clean.
In fact, Denise once told me that her daily life revolves entirely around finding bathrooms. Can you imagine that challenge while you are suffering with a nasty virus? She did end up in a hospital several times this year for various issues, including a blood clot in her leg and for the shingles. But hospitals only keep you for short periods and try to release patients as quickly as they can. She can only stay in a hotel if she receives donations via a link on her Twitter profile. Those brief times in a hotel are few and far between. She has no history of substance abuse or gambling. She was a disabled mother who ended up living in her vehicle. It seems absolutely impossible to think that in a country of extreme excesses and waste, there is no solution to prevent humans from suffering like that.
Yet, here we are.
For the general public that thinks this is not their problem, remember this: when a sick person is out in public, they can infect others. This has come sharply into focus recently with the sudden outbreak of the coronavirus. When the next pandemic hits humanity, it will not care who you are. However, it will hit the homeless community hard due to our vulnerability.
As long as the world sees homeless people as less than human, suffering will continue. Whatever compassion may exist for homeless people, there is far more hate and disgust for them.
As for me, I am on the mend. I often joke that my auto-immune illnesses busy my immune system so much with attacking my own body and cells that it practically ignores outside germs. I suffer daily with not feeling well. But getting sick on top of multiple sclerosis and all my other maladies is not something I want to repeat. I do my best to stay very clean, eat well and sleep as much as I can when possible. I just hope I get my housing situation resolved soon.
In the meantime, I’ll stay strong enough to avoid viruses.
The next time you get sick, whether you’re home in bed with the flu or puking over your toilet in the bathroom, I want you to stop and think, “At least I’m not homeless right now.” Just practice gratitude – take it from one who knows. No matter how much it sucks to get sick, it sucks more when you are homeless.
I wish you all good health.