Mental Illness Leads College Student Down Road to Homelessness

Ben Bonkoske with his bike

I grew up in an affluent community with white privilege. However, I was not spared the burden of living without shelter. Throughout my experiences, I was living with mental health complications. Since I was improperly diagnosed and not treating my condition with medication, I ended up dealing with the consequences.

When I was 18, I ran away from home for the first time. Eighteen is an unfair age because on paper you are responsible for yourself. However, you don’t have the support systems or emotional intelligence to navigate the real world. Not to mention, I was bipolar.

I had just graduated from high school and it was the last straw of a physically and emotionally abusive relationship with my father. I called the police. When they arrived, I broke into tears because my dad was no longer my legal guardian. He wasn’t responsible for me and I could technically “do whatever I wanted”. The problem was I didn’t have anywhere to go. Since anywhere was better than being a victim, I gathered some spare clothes, gave back my phone and walked out the door.

This began a stretch of sleeping on the beaches of Lake Michigan, couch surfing, and the occasional one night stand.

I have always been able to adapt. Anybody who has experience with homelessness will understand it is imperative that you know how to be resourceful. The first thing I did was go to the library.

I didn’t have the discernment that it may not be wise to integrate myself into a culture of panhandlers. But that is exactly what I did. I shared my story. One man understood. Although it seemed like he had enough to worry about, a hungry runaway teen seemed like his karmic obligation. I did what I had to do. I got a cup and started begging. Despite worrying that I’d see anybody from my graduating class, I made $10 my first day. With it I purchased a loaf of bread, peanut butter, jelly and nuts. This is all I ate for a whole week since I spent whatever else I made on weed.

Sleeping on the beach is not comfortable.

You usually settle down after midnight. Then it takes an hour to get comfortable within the dunes. The sunrise is at five o’clock so you are inclined to get a move on before the police give you a ticket. I was psychotic without the needed sleep and would do anything to crash on a stranger’s couch in the hopes that I would accumulate more than seven hours of sleep. Also, I didn’t want to be seen sleeping on a bench in broad daylight. I made do with explaining my situation to most people and they would give me a few spare dollars. Eventually I had enough money to treat myself to McDonalds.

After two weeks of sleeping on the beach, getting to know the folk, idling my days with smoking, and panhandling, my best friend opened his house as my refuge. At first, I had too much pride to accept. But he insisted that I stay with him out of worry for my well-being. This gave me access to a computer. I instantly started finding all of the jobs for painting, landscaping, and manual labor I could find on Craigslist. I was making some money and I had a place to stay. By the end of the summer, my dad acknowledged that college was still on the table. A psychedelic experience at a Grateful Dead concert made me realize how lucky I was to have the opportunity for higher education and I sat through a painful 10-hour drive to North Carolina.

Two years of mental instability, depression, and underachievement later, I decided I needed a change from school.

Through the inspiration of Jack Kerouac, I got a hiking backpack and started life on the road. I hitchhiked from North Carolina to New York City with no money, a tent, and some food.

I learned what a thru-hiker was on my journey and realized that there were people who walked across the Appalachian Trail for fun, not survival. The concept was still elusive to me because I was convinced that I might die by my dangerous pilgrimage. It was one of the most humbling, ego dissolving experiences of my life to give up material possessions and live a minimalist lifestyle. I was taught insightful techniques of how to stealth camp, carry only what I needed, and survive off of uncooked items like grains, fruits, and nuts.

When I made it to New York a month and a half later, I realized what is helpful on “the trail” and what is useful in a city are two separate concepts. I spent my first night wandering through the busy streets, unable to sleep or find refuge.

I asked a man if he had anywhere to stay at two o’clock in the morning outside of Central Park. “You’re looking at it,” he said. He explained there were shelters that would help people my age (now 20 at the time). I vaguely asked directions and went looking for places that might house me. I was turned away multiple times until I finally ended up at Bellevue Hospital. They made me get rid of all of my baggage, which included some heroin I had acquired.

I renounced all drugs and eventually found shelter at The Covenant House in Hell’s Kitchen where I was set up with a case manager for the next month.

I became violently sick due to drug withdrawals and the shelter helped me through the unbearable pain by letting me rest in bed for a few days. Once on the other side, I started to make friends and a life in the city. My case manager helped me sign up for Post-Mates. I started working from five in the morning until five at night while eating meals from the shelter in between. On weekends, I went to the New York Public Library where I started writing my first novel.

It was strange because I was the only white guy in the shelter. They all took bets on how soon I would run off back to my old life. They explained I had given up my white-privilege by becoming institutionalized and I was worse off than most of them. I soon dissolved back into my old habits of smoking weed daily and convinced myself I needed to finish college. So I left the city and went back to North Carolina to graduate.

During my Junior year, I became involved in a lucrative entrepreneurial venture and made roughly $10,000. I decided I was going to use it to bike across America.

I bought a bike, an Eno, and had enough money for hotels and food to make it all the way to California. The trip was unbelievable. However, by the time I made it to Los Angeles to visit my brother, my money had dwindled to an unfortunate amount. I decided to stop taking my bipolar medication and picked up a heavy drug habit again.

I saw The Grateful Dead again. Ironically, the same band that once made me realize how lucky I was to have a higher education now inspired me to surrender everything I owned. A very high amount of psychedelics, opiate, and alcohol delirium tremors threw me into a manic episode. I abandoned my bike, which had so many valuable things, threw my credit card on the street, ditched my phone, and walked away from it all.

I was in tears, convinced that what I was doing was noble in some sense. But this quickly wore off. I tried to retrace my steps, but by the time I found the corner where I left everything, it was already gone. I spent my first night sleeping on a flea-infested couch outside of an apartment. This made me have to change my clothes with the over-saturated amount of spare clothing articles in the condensed streets of San Francisco. I didn’t recover from it until six months later.

San Francisco has a very high population of homeless people.

I would spend my days down at Market Street dancing for money or eating out of trash cans down by the Bay. It was graphic and since I didn’t have a phone, I felt like I didn’t have an alternative being nearly 3,000 miles away from home. I finally found a computer to log into my email to reach out to my dad. But I didn’t remember my account password, so I couldn’t get in contact with anyone. Nobody gave me a phone because I looked like a junkie.

I didn’t have a routine or friendships. Every day I was running on the bare minimum of food and sleep. People that I became acquainted with simply disappeared. I would compromise myself for money to shoot up with.

About three weeks after a missing person’s report had been filed by my father, I was sleeping in a laundry room of a hotel. I was on the fourth floor and heard someone who sounded like the police knocking on the door. I decided my best escape was out the window. So I climbed out on the roof. Deciding I didn’t have a reason to live, I jumped four stories out the window.

Ben will share part two of his story on Thursday, September 24, 2020.

Ben Bonkoske

Ben Bonkoske


Ben Bonkoske is a graduate from the University of North Carolina, Asheville where he wrote his own major focusing on Inequality in America. He is the author of the novel Spoon in the Road. You can find more of his work at his website

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