My Secret Life of Homelessness: We Walk Among You

invisible homeless

There are two kinds of invisible homeless people. There are the ones you don’t want to see, and the ones you don’t see at all.

To meet me, you wouldn’t guess I’m homeless. (You wouldn’t guess I’m bipolar either, but that’s another story.)

I don’t look or act homeless, and I don’t loiter or panhandle. I work for a living. I’m an active member of my community. But, like tens of thousands of us in rural Northern California, I’m functionally homeless because there is no affordable housing.

There are often other contributing factors to our homelessness, but mostly, we’re just “working poor” people made homeless by a heartless, broken economy.

Our situations aren’t as grim as those of the tragic victims of Social Darwinism who society despises and disdains as “the homeless.” Still, being an invisible homeless person is no cakewalk.

Here’s part two of a typical day for me sometime in 2008. To read part one, click here.

We Walk Among You

For the second time that night, I was startled awake by a blinding light in my face. The spotlight flicked off, and I was able to see a Grass Valley Police car and the silhouette of a cop inside. He laughed, waved and drove off.

Wait, what? Where was I?

Okay. Safeway parking lot. This is where the sheriff’s deputy had told me to park when he woke me up with a flashlight several hours and miles earlier.

Cops have radios. Maybe the deputy told Grass Valley PD to check on me. Either I was a nefarious person of interest or just an old dude who needed a welfare check.

Whatever. I had to go to the bathroom. Now would be good.

I sat up, fastened my seat belt, and turned the key in the ignition. The key was already in the ignition, because I had to fire up the engine about every half hour during the night to keep warm.

I headed for a Flyer’s gas station. Their bathrooms were always clean. You need to know these things when you’re a homeless nomad.

I bought a few gallons of gas – enough to earn me the right to use the restroom. And use it I did. Besides the usual things you do in a gas station bathroom, I shaved, washed pits and privates, rolled on some deodorant, brushed my teeth and put on fresh clothes (from the suitcase in my car).

It was dawn when I came out of the restroom yawning. Off to work.

As a freelance writer/photographer, I worked in various coffee shops within a 20-mile radius of four, small, Gold Rush towns in the Sierra Nevada Foothills northeast of Sacramento, Calif. For a cup of overpriced coffee and a diet-busting pastry, I could get a couple hours of wireless internet and device-charging electricity.

I was too embarrassed to go back to the public library. I’d been gently busted for snoring loudly. Falling asleep in the library is an almost dead giveaway that you’re homeless.

Remember, the idea here is to be an invisible homeless person. If you get otherized as one of “the homeless,” then you’ll really know what it’s like to be one of the Invisible People.

The Grass Valley Starbucks was tiny and crowded. I squeezed my way in with my bulging Tumi computer briefcase. I moved carefully so as to not knock over somebody’s venti, soy milk, pumpkin latte.

A woman pointed at the 35-pound black anchor dragging on my shoulder down. “What’s that?”

“My office,” I answered

My ex-wife (a contributing factor) gave me the $500 luxury leather bag – which she bought with my credit card. Empty, it was seven pounds of dead weight. Loaded with laptop, camera, notebooks and other delusionally perceived necessities, it was my portable office.

As heavy as it was, the Tumi was a good disguise. An expensive man-bag made me look like a hippie professional teleworker (which I am). A backpack would have implied I was a hippie transient hacking other people’s computers (which I don’t even know how to do).

I bought a venti coffee, a blueberry muffin and left a generous tip. Then, I lurked like a hawk until I snagged a table near an electrical outlet. I plugged in a three-outlet expansion plug so I wouldn’t hog the whole wall outlet. Then I plugged in my cell phone, my electric razor and my Dell Inspiron laptop.

Like my Jeep Grand Cherokee and the Tumi briefcase, the Dell was a remnant from my rich, recent past as an elite technical editor of an international trade magazine.

At the tiny Starbucks table, I completed a feature story on a 4-H girl and her prize-winning turkey. By mid-morning, I had filed the story and three photos with The Union, the local newspaper. The pay was lousy, but articles like that gave me credibility as a productive member of our community.

The real money, however, was in the technical writing assignments I still occasionally landed as a freelance writer.

I packed up my office and set out to resume work at the next Starbucks on my circuit.

On my way to Auburn, I stopped halfway to check into my storage unit near an industrial park. This is where I kept my furniture, file cabinets, clothes, tools – and boxes and boxes of proof that I’d spent most of the last 40 years as a multi-genre writer and journalist.
I picked up a bag of dirty clothes to be washed and dropped off empty beer cans and bottles to be recycled.

I restocked my pill box with just enough pills for the next few days. When you’re on prescription opiates and benzodiazepines, you don’t carry your whole supply with you in case you get robbed. But you do carry your prescriptions in your wallet, so you don’t get busted for illegal possession.

In Auburn, I found an email from an angry editor of a tech magazine who claimed I had missed a deadline. This freaked me out, because I don’t miss deadlines. I immediately called and told him I sent the story in two days ago. He didn’t believe me, so I reconfirmed his email address and resent the article. Twice.

Nevertheless, the story wasn’t getting through. He said I’d never write for him again and definitely wasn’t getting paid for the article.

Ever have a panic attack in a coffee shop? Besides being deeply insulted, this was a financial disaster.

One of the things you learn to do in “bipolar school” (aka cognitive behavioral therapy) is to slow down your breathing and chant mantras to yourself. “Gopala, Gopala, dey aki nan –”
My phone rang. It was the editor. He admitted he’d found all three copies of my story in his spam filter, but somehow, he made it sound like it was still my fault. Anyway, he did concede it was a fine story, and he’d expedite my check.

Often, I worked late into the night. Not today. Getting cursed out and falsely accused had triggered all kinds of childhood PTSD symptoms. Sixty-one-years old, and I could still be reduced to the fears and tears of a five-year-old by an angry man.

Fuck it. I needed to go among people who understood being broke, desperate and homeless was not a character flaw.

To be continued. This is part two in a three-part series. Click here for part one; look for part three on June 22, 2019.

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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