Coming back to the shelter after a day at the library writing became more and more depressing over time. As the weather warmed, some in the shelter were content to just hang around on the dirty concrete expanse out in front of the shelter. These were people that had just given up on everything and become listless. The crowd and the unfortunate lack of drainage inevitably turned the place into a fetid, stinking mess. Not very welcoming.
My wife always liked me to call her when I left the library at night and stay on the phone with her until I got inside, just to make sure that I made it safely. Whenever I got to the front of the shelter, I told her that I was at the “miasma,” and she knew that I was about to go in.
One night as I was heading back, there was a woman in the train car across from me who was obviously heading to the shelter as well.
She was completely shoeless and her bare, worn and calloused feet were laden with scars. They must have been horribly painful, but you couldn’t tell it to look at her. Her face and figure were gaunt and emaciated, and she was clearly suffering the ravages of long-term methamphetamine addiction.
She was completely expressionless as she slouched against the side of the car, her frail body rocking with the motion of the train. I imagined her in my mind as she would appear without the ravages of the meth, without the greasy, unwashed hair and the chemical tooth rot. The image that formed was amazing, she would have been so beautiful. I wondered if there was enough love in the world for her to somehow regain that beauty, she was still so young. We arrived at the shelter stop and I left the shoeless woman behind.
The summer crowd out front was thick, with maybe 20 or 30 people smoking, bantering, staring sullenly about and bartering to get more cigarettes.
I stared at the ground to discourage any attempt at conversation. I was in a hurry, and this was always the most depressing part of the journey. As I rounded the end of the wheelchair ramp, I noticed another young woman leaning against the black steel fence that bordered the concrete apron. She appeared to be unconscious, and the top of a syringe protruded from her bra. It was the only top that she was wearing.
After almost nine months living at the shelter, I had finally been assigned a case manager.
I was scheduled to go over all the paperwork for housing lists with her the next day. The ridiculously deep pile of paperwork necessary to get on all the lists was intimidating to say the least. It was more paperwork than I had ever seen. It’s no wonder that so many people stay homeless. Many homeless people simply do not have the mental capacity to even begin to grasp how to work through the piles of paperwork required for every little bit of assistance.
My case manager and I went through the pages the next morning, checking to make sure each section was correctly filled out. As time passed, I grew more and more despondent about the chances that my wife and I would be together again anytime soon. There were so many little things that would disqualify you for this list, for that list, and that other list.
Utah actually considers a couple capable of fending for themselves entirely if they make over $1,000 a month. Considering the average rent in Salt Lake City passed the $1,000-a-month a long time ago, I find that astonishing.
At one point we landed on a part where I had failed to fill anything in: the veteran question.
“I never know what to put when I run into this question,” I explained, “I joined up, but that was before I knew that I had Autism Spectrum Disorder, of course. So the army tossed me out before I had finished my tour.”
My case manager just stared at me in surprise, eyes wide and mouth agape.
“Oh, my God!” She said finally, “you joined the service? Why didn’t you ever tell anybody?”
“Well I didn’t finish my tour,” I stammered, “so I didn’t think that it counted.”
My case manager abruptly stood and said; “well, come on, let’s go downstairs and find out!”
I followed her downstairs to the SSVF (Supportive Services for Veteran Families) office. My case manager and I walked right in and sat across from the lead counselor, watching as she entered my social security number into the database. After about a minute she looked over and said; “Yeah, here you are, honorable discharge due to unspecified medical reason, does that sound about right?”
“Yeah,” I said, “they put me in a psych ward for a few weeks, and then they just discharged me. So, what does this mean?”
“This means,” my now-former case manager said, “that we can throw away that big pile of paperwork, because now you qualify for rapid re-housing for veterans! You’re going to be back together with your wife a lot sooner than you thought!”
She high-fived me as the SSVF coordinator gave me a huge smile.
“Yep, we’re going to be able to get you out of here! Isn’t that great?”
I just sat there stupefied for a few seconds; I couldn’t believe what I had just heard. The madness, the emotional trauma, the dehumanization and the physical discomfort of the shelter had already wormed its way into my psyche. Was it really going to end? Was I really going to be able to live with my wife again? It seemed too good to be true.
Some people would have jumped up and down screaming with joy, some people would have wept. I just sat there, numb and in shock. I guess in my mind I hadn’t really seen a way out. There are so many obstacles to finding a home again once you’ve lost it. It’s not that anybody ever really accepts homelessness. They just become accustomed to its permanence. So many people get out only by way of tragedy.
My now-former case manager put a hand on my shoulder and said; “come on, let’s go throw all that stupid paperwork away and you can call your wife and tell her the good news!”
I looked at the SSVF and asked: “Are you sure I really qualify? Are you absolutely positive?”
She clearly understood my astonishment. “Yep, we’re going to get you out of here, no kidding! All you needed to qualify is a single day in the service and an honorable discharge! You’re really good to go!”
The first apartment that they tried to set us up with rejected us out of hand. My wife and I got a bad reference from a prior landlord, so we were disqualified. We were crushed. We had so loved the apartment; it was in a beautiful complex that had all the amenities.
Working through the pile of paperwork that we had to fill out for the lease application, it seemed to me that they were looking for perfect people only. There was a credit check, a criminal background check, a search of eviction records and a reference check. Everything but a damned drug test, and it wouldn’t have surprised me if they had asked for that!
I was dejected but not really surprised by the rejection.
The stringent qualification parameters made it very clear how it was that escaping homelessness was so difficult. The first few weeks of our search led us to three rejections. It seemed that the “rapid-rehousing” program wasn’t going to be so rapid after all.
Then one morning another SSVF worker came to get me and drove me up to a small apartment building by the University of Utah. I was depressed by the sight of the dingy, ancient building. It was dirty and had garbage all over the place. Nevertheless, I called my wife and we set up an appointment to see the apartment.
I felt that I would be staying at the shelter for a while longer when my wife and I looked at the apartment.
It was tiny, and it had a dirty plain white vinyl floor, which was yellowing and peeling in the corners. The windows were so filthy that they were hard to see through. That was a good thing, as there was garbage and dried dog feces on the ground outside. The kitchen, such as it was, had an ancient half-sized electric stove and only two upper cupboards over a tiny countertop. The countertop was only large enough for a small microwave and maybe a toaster.
There were no frills at all, no air conditioner to combat the 1oo degree heat, no dishwasher, no microwave. There was only one tiny closet in the bedroom. I just looked at my wife and shook my head; there was no way we would be taking this.
The landlord caught my glance and said: “We have two more upstairs, if you’d like to look at those.” She was clearly having trouble keeping the place filled. I just shrugged and looked at my wife, and she said that we would.
The first upstairs apartment that we looked at was just more of the same. As we approached the third apartment, the landlord said: “We haven’t cleaned this next one, so it still has furniture in it. The guy who was in there was going to go to the university, but then he changed his mind and decided to go to a different university. So he just told us to toss his stuff and flew out. We haven’t even looked at it yet, but he did fix it up a bit before he changed his mind and left.”
I just shrugged and said; “OK,” feeling like we were just going through the motions.
The third apartment was a surprise, however.
It was the same size as the rest, but the plain white linoleum had been replaced with a pleasant hardwood floor, and the furniture was all in great shape. There was a desk, sofa, glass coffee table, end table, bed and rollaway clothes rack. The bed was brand-new with a gel foam mattress that would be incredibly comfortable after the hard, thin mats at the shelter. There was a brand-new microwave on the counter and clean dishes and utensils in the cupboards and drawers. There was even a Brita water filtration device in the refrigerator. Best of all, the newly installed bedroom window overlooked the massive north face of Mount Olympus, which is an amazing sight. I had climbed that in my younger days when I was obsessed with mountains. I was suddenly hopeful that my wife would be okay with it.
My head was spinning as we drove back to the shelter. I wasn’t staying this time! I grabbed what few belongings were in the locked drawer below the steel bunk that had been my home for the past few weeks.
My wife was smiling brightly as I threw my possessions into the car. I was happy she was happy. She would be moving out of her son’s expansive home in a wealthy suburb to join her recently homeless husband in a 500-square-foot apartment, but she was happy! Her son wasn’t fond of me, which is okay. People with ASD can be very difficult, but that is another story.
The move-in process was quick because we didn’t need to move in any furniture save for a chest of drawers. The next thing I knew, I had an apartment key and an address for the first time in nearly a year.
That first night and for many after, I lay awake and tried to adjust to the new noises that had replaced the din of the shelter.
Gone was the chaotic 24-hour racket that I had become accustomed to. In its place were new creaks and groans, new gurgles; and silences. The silences are still hard to get used to.
Life after the shelter isn’t easy. The housing vouchers that are used to get people out of the shelter are temporary. You must find another source of income before it expires. It’s either that or you’re homeless again.
The job search for a recently homeless person is very intimidating. How do you hide the fact that you have been homeless? Who can you get to give you references? Do you dare lie?
It’s a bit strange for a former technical engineer with a computer science degree to be looking for work after experiencing homelessness. It happens, yes … just not often. With my recently diagnosed ASD, and my wife disabled by bone density issues, I know that we are in for a difficult time. I am still looking for work as the year comes to a close. Meanwhile, we get by somehow on only $1,153 a month.
‘Get up! Get UP!’
Along with the joys and stresses of starting anew, there has also been tragedy. My wife and I became friends with another recently homeless man who moved in next door. He called himself Guido, although it was not his name. Another veteran, he was gregarious and outgoing where I am shy and withdrawn. I was a little overwhelmed by him, but he and my wife got along great.
We felt that he was a good person trying to overcome a bad criminal record from his past. But Guido had a weakness that we didn’t know about, as we found out one night when we were startled by what sounded like someone screaming. My wife turned down the TV and we listened closely, it sounded like a woman screaming: “Get out! Get out!” But we couldn’t make out the source. We assumed that it was a couple’s quarrel, and therefore none of our business.
We were wrong.
Suddenly, we heard Guido’s girlfriend just outside crying out for someone who knew CPR. A moment of astonishment passed between us and I grabbed my jacket and headed for the door. Just as I got outside, however, paramedics arrived, so I stood aside for them. I watched as they attempted to revive Guido, but it was too late. He was pronounced dead just minutes later due to a heroin overdose.
She hadn’t been screaming “Get out! Get out!” She had been screaming “Get up! Get up!” We had misunderstood.
The paramedics left and Guido’s body just lay inside the open apartment next door as his girlfriend wailed outside. A lone policeman stood watch until the coroner’s van arrived. Thankfully, someone had finally come for Guido’s girlfriend by then, and she didn’t have to see what happened next. The gurney was too wide for the apartment’s narrow stairway, so the two men from the coroner’s office literally dragged the body bag from the next-door apartment and down the stairs. There they wrestled it onto the gurney and loaded it into the van. It struck me hard that Guido had officially made the transition from person to object.
The shock was profound, and we missed Guido dropping by to share a joke or ask us how we were doing. I thought back on the people that I knew who heroin had taken in less than a year’s time, and it was astonishing. Guido made three.
That tragic incident aside, it’s good to be out. When I’m not looking for work, I spend my time finishing a book based on my experiences and studying the issues surrounding homelessness. There is a way to end this modern disaster unfolding on America’s streets, and I want to be part of it.
I woke up early one morning and just laid quiet and listened to my wife’s gentle snoring, her cat’s staccato purr and that funny snuffling noise that my dog makes when he chases rodents in his dreams. It was the music of home, and it was beautiful. We need to bring this music back for everyone.