Back in December, I attended the Institute for Civic Leadership’s Leadership in Action Breakfast, which featured two advocates for those experiencing homelessness — Mark Swann, executive director of Preble Street, and Suzanne McCormick, executive director of the United Way of Greater Portland. Both served on the city of Portland’s homeless prevention task force (along with Avesta’s President and CEO, Dana Totman) and had compelling information and experiences to share about homelessness in Portland.
Suzanne described her day shadowing employees at the day shelter, where an elderly man was ill with a cold and wanted nothing more than to lie down and rest. But, as Suzanne recounted, lying down is not allowed at the day shelter. This example seemed to really resonate with the crowd, and stuck with me. I take for granted all the comforts that a stable home provides, like a bed to lie in when I’m sick, that those experiencing homelessness must do without. A bed, a place to simply rest, becomes a luxury.
This account will be on my mind tomorrow during Homeless Voices for Justice’s Summer Solstice “sit-out” in Post Office Park in Portland. The summer solstice is the longest day for those experiencing homelessness, and the event demonstrates solidarity and increases community awareness of homelessness during the summer months.
I’ll also be thinking of this moving account of what it means to be homeless that Mark Swann read at that December event. It was written by Bill, a client of the Preble Street Resource Center.
Being homeless means waking up on the floor, mere inches away from a total stranger. It means hoping you can find a seat in the soup kitchen because it is frequently standing room only and you may have to eat standing up. It means walking around in somebody else’s clothes because you don’t have money to buy your own. They don’t fit right but it was the closest you could find from the clothing closet. The shelter had socks so at least your feet are dry, unless it rains and the holes in your shoes start taking in water.
It means carrying everything you own, everything, in a back pack or a black trash bag, trying not to remember when it wasn’t so — the job, the apartment, the wife, the car, the sanity, try to forget the losses, except you can’t because nobody will let you forget — you’re nobody without the trappings of belonging. People will look at you with pity or disgust — hard to know which feels worse. You feel an asthma attack coming on and remember you don’t have an inhaler because you don’t have MaineCare. You hope it’s not too bad and that you can get to the hospital in time if it is. But, who will call 911?
If you’re a woman, you may have to do things your mother told you never to do because you simply can’t take one more night on the floor of the shelter.
It means if you’re a senior citizen, sitting between the two bathrooms at Preble St. and being fearful of leaving because you’re never sure when you’ll have to go.
It means watching from the shadows as the other half lives its life out in the sunshine full of hope and prosperity. And not having either yourself.