Last week I decided to get out and go to a homeless awareness march downtown. This city has quite a serious poverty and homeless problem, and I feel bad that I can’t do more to help. I share and network, give whenever I have anything to give, try to help when I see people in need, offer rides where possible, but it feels like painfully little compared to the size of the problem.
Homelessness is a personal issue for me. It brings up a lot of feelings, a lot of memories. Even though this is something which happened to me many years ago, the effects have rippled down through the years. I worry about becoming homeless every single day. As a transgender person with very little income, this is a very real possibility, and I have been very careful through to years to never let my children experience homelessness firsthand.
My own experience happened in 1996. I had graduated high school a year ahead of schedule. Suddenly I had to choose a college, rush the applications, and move onto a campus far from home. A great deal was thrust onto me in a very short period of time. In addition to the academic woes of a budding adult in their first foray out of the nest, I had found myself in an abusive relationship.
I remember distinctly the first drive up to the campus, Northwest Missouri State in the beautiful town of Maryville. It was far enough away from home to feel independence, but close enough to visit, and even closer to Iowa where my beloved cousin was living. However, my thoughts were not on having fun with my cousin or how I would adjust to living in a dorm with a roommate or the hectic life of a student with eighteen credit hours jammed into their schedule. I already knew I was pregnant.
My fears were realized when the morning sickness prevented me from attending nearly all of my classes. I was sick constantly, it seemed. I had no idea what to do, where to turn. This would devastate my family, being so irresponsible, even though I had used protection. My grandparents had invested so much into me going to college. So I turned to the father and trusted him to take care of us.
By the beginning of October, I found myself living in my car in Kansas City. His family was there and he had promised they would help, but they would not take us in. Instead we were left to sleep in our vehicles in truck stop parking lots and under railroad bridges, chased from here to there by police, trying desperately to work even though we could barely groom ourselves.
Hell was my contacts being frozen in their case and having to put them in using my rear view mirror just so I could see and stumble my way to the nearest bathroom to throw up. Hell was knowing that for the first trimester, the most important trimester, I was reliant on the nutrition of soup kitchens and food pantries. Hell was trusting the father of my child to find us a place to live and ending up under a bridge. Hell was finally, after three months, calling my grandparents to tell them the heartbreaking truth of how I had failed them.
It was only three months, but it changed me. The passionate person I had been was now obsessive, paranoid, and anxious. I could not let go of things because they might one day be useful. But I also could not stand useless clutter because what if I had to pack it all in a car again? Then I could not junk my van when it broke down because that was my back-up housing. It has been twenty years, and the effects of those three months are still with me.
And it was only three months.
The threat of being homeless again has edged closer and closer in recent years. There were several times when I had to secure shelter for my children without knowing where I would be going if this or that strategy were to fail. Thankfully things worked out each time and my children have not yet experienced homelessness. It has its lessons; a certain freedom, a way of teaching humility, and giving me an appreciation for things I do have. Still, I would not wish it on anyone.
I’m grateful every day for a space that is mine and a warm bed to sleep in. My situation has me only a few dollars each month away from becoming homeless again. For others it may be a paycheck or two, or a few bad decisions. It can happen to anyone, and we should help each other when it does.