Maybe home is only a place you make up in your own mind
“Home is a notion that only nations of the homeless fully appreciate and only the uprooted comprehend.” ― Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose
People who love me know that the way I sit on the large sofa is an indicator of my mood. If I’m curled up in the corner, feet under me, elbow resting on the arm of the sofa, and lost in a good book, I’m having a very relaxed day. If I’m just lounging comfortably, legs crossed, hands in my lap, I’m having a good day, and I’m in the mood for conversation. But if I’m lying on the sofa, occupying it in its entirety, back to the world, face to the sofa back, and scrolling through my phone, I’m tired, I’ve had enough, and I’ve probably had a bad day. Someone I used to know used to call it ‘fwumping’. That’s how last night found me; fwumped on the sofa, lost in Twitter, and not interested in anything anyone had to say.
And that’s when I saw it. Whilst scrolling through Twitter, I paused to read what a friend had tweeted not too long ago, along with a picture that said more than a thousand words probably could. In Nevada, a state in one of the richest countries in the world, authorities had painted social-distancing boxes on concrete in a parking lot for the homeless to sleep in. Aghast, I retweeted it. I tweeted: All those empty hotel rooms, while people sleep inside painted boxes on concrete.
Homelessness hits me deep; it hits me where it hurts. Homelessness to me is personal. I know what it’s like. I’ve been a ‘rough sleeper’. I’ve been a statistic. I’ve been part of the ‘vulnerable population’. It’s why I always volunteer to help the homeless in any city I move to and live in. It’s why, when this pandemic started, I have bombarded government agencies and seasoned journalists and rich people around the world who can make a difference. I have asked one question: Who is helping the homeless?
The answer to that, at least in Nevada, is no-one. Nobody is helping the homeless. I don’t call painting boxes on concrete helping; that helps nobody. Why is it that with so many hotels sitting empty, mere husks of themselves, devoid of any occupants in any rooms, that people are risking their lives and sleeping on the streets? People who are neglected and overlooked and invisible to everyone are apparently the most expendable in this crisis. While everyone huddles away indoors, protected, safe, inside the four walls of their homes, homeless people, for no fault of their own, have to remain outdoors, exposed to a deadly virus that could kill them.
I’ve heard all the arguments against the homeless, that they are people who brought it upon themselves, somehow. That they are losers who lost their lives to alcohol or drugs or gambling or some other habit that took hold of them and refused to let go. That they made their beds and they must lie on it. That, somehow, they deserve to be homeless, that it’s their fate because what else could it be? A world that thrives on capitalism makes victims of people every day, but nobody ever takes that into account because everyone is responsible for themselves and if they’ve failed themselves, how can anyone blame the system? I’ve heard all the arguments, and I reject every single one.
I moved to New Zealand in 2002 with a job in hand (one of those that paid under the table), with room and board guaranteed, and with dreams of making a life for myself in a country that I came to love. But I made a wrong decision. I accepted another job offer in Dunedin and I moved there on the strength of that offer. The people who hired me (a rest home) were exploitative and dishonest; they made me work hard for them for two weeks before announcing that they’d found someone else. They also said that I was slow ‘in the beginning’, as anyone would be when they’re learning a new job, but admitted that I’d gotten quicker as time went on. Nevertheless, they told me to turn in my uniform. They also refused to pay me for the two weeks that I’d put in.
I’d moved myself and my cat to an unfamiliar city, away from everyone I knew, and I’d rented an apartment. I had a car that I needed to make monthly payments on. My rent went out every Saturday. I remember shaking while driving home that day after I’d finished my shift (they let me finish my shift before firing me) and then crying for hours in bed as my cat rested next to me and tried to comfort me. I heard the traffic pass by on the road, people living their lives, while my own was collapsing around me.
I picked myself up after a few hours of crying, and, over a cup of tea, I looked through the local newspaper that I went out and bought. I was looking at the jobs section, of course. I circled a few off and went to every single interview I could get. I landed a few part-time jobs babysitting, cleaning, ironing, and washing dishes, but those barely paid for food for my cat and me. I had $2000 in savings, and I was terrified I was going to go through it all and be left with nothing.
That was pretty much what happened. Once my savings were exhausted, I just didn’t have enough money coming in to make the payments I needed to make. Once I began missing rent payments, and car payments, I began fearing the worst. I worked myself to the bone, but I barely kept myself alive. A couple of part-time jobs let me go, and the hours I worked dwindled. I desperately kept looking for more jobs the entire time, but rejection after rejection came in. I didn’t even qualify to work as a server in a restaurant because I didn’t have a work permit.
I was evicted from my apartment, and I moved into my car with my cat. I parked my car in the driveway of an empty house, which had a tap in the garden that I used for water to drink, wash, and wash up, and, luckily, the house came with an outdoor privy. I bought and stocked toilet paper, and kept it clean. I put the back seat of the car down so that I had enough space with the boot and the back of the car, and I made it as homely as possible. Keeping myself clean was a challenge, and I took to showering in the shower at a community swimming pool every two days. I washed my clothes in a public Laundromat. My cat adjusted to her strange new life; she would never wander too far away and came back to the car when I called her. She would curl up with me in the back of the car every night.
Since I no longer had access to a fridge, I was forced to make do with eating bread and ketchup – a combination that still makes me want to throw up – and two-minute noodles. I’d heat the water for the noodles using a car immersion heater. I still cannot look a two-minute noodle in the face. To me, it represents my stark poverty; it reminds me of one of the most difficult times in my life.
I got to missing fruits and vegetables deeply; I used to haunt The Salvation Army office where they used to give away food and drink. I got apple juice, half cartons of milk that would expire in a couple of days, bread, and even fruits if I was lucky. What I didn’t get there, I stole.
I’m obviously not proud of that part of my life, but I was desperate. I used to walk past a fruit and flower shop every day, seemingly stopping to admire the fruit and the flowers. But what I was actually doing was calculating how quickly I could get an orange or two, and maybe an apple, into my satchel. The first few days I did it successfully, I felt great. I would go home and devour my spoils. The next day, I’d go back. In hindsight, I should have just done without, but I was desperate for fresh fruit, which I love, and I couldn’t afford it. I was in survival mode. I won’t defend myself, but if you judge me, you need to stop and examine your privilege.
One day, I was browsing the fresh fruit as usual, and I’d managed to purloin one orange, and was just about to take another, when someone yelled.
I turned around, terrified; I’d been found out; I was going to go to prison; they’d extradite me; it’d be a permanent record on my passport; I’d never travel again. Worse, my poor little cat would be waiting for me to come back home to the car; she would starve; her death would forever be on my hands. All these thoughts passed through my mind in the blink of an eye. The man, a burly bespectacled middle-aged man in a black apron, beckoned. I found my feet moving in his direction. I practised my speech in my head. I pictured myself giving back the orange I’d stolen. I would apologise profusely. I would promise to pay back for all the past oranges I’d taken. I would never steal again.
He held out a bag filled with oranges. I reached out for them before I could stop myself. “Come back next week, you hear me?” he said. I nodded, numb, and whispered a thank you before I turned around, stuffing the bag of oranges into my satchel, and making good my escape. I lived in Dunedin for four more months, and every week, faithfully, I’d go pick up a bag of oranges. When I left Dunedin to go back to India, he was one of the people I said goodbye to.
But that was still four months away, and I was still homeless. I don’t really remember stealing anything else except a tin of baked beans. That was a futile and hopeless operation. I didn’t have a tin opener. Have you ever tried opening a tin without a tin opener? I did. I tried everything. I used stones to dent it; I threw it hard against a wall; I even tried opening it with a saw I found in the garden I was illegally occupying (this is very dangerous; please don’t try it). Nothing worked. In the end, I remember sobbing with frustration. Delicious beans awaited me inside that tin and I just could not get at them.
During this time I was still going to my babysitting job, taking care of my cat, and managing, somehow, to take care of myself the best way that I could, the best way that I knew how. Nothing in my life had prepared me for being homeless in a foreign country, thousands of miles away from home, alone in a city where I knew nobody, but I was somehow managing to continue to keep myself and my cat alive. Someone recommended a homeless shelter to me, and I went there to ask if they had room for me, but the entire setup scared me terribly. The doors to the women’s section would be locked from the outside at night; I couldn’t take my cat; the woman in the cubicle next to mine kept commenting about the colour of my skin (everyone in that shelter was white); another woman told me not to steal anyone else’s things, and nobody else was even remotely my age (I was in my twenties). I escaped, after telling the nice matron in charge that I’d think about it. I never thought about it. I never went back.
My life in my car ended rather abruptly when my car was repossessed. I’d told them my address when I’d moved, and they knew where to find me. My old neighbour took in my cat, which was a huge worry that was lifted. I slept rough for a couple of weeks; in doorways; inside a church where I snuck in during the evening prayers and stayed long after everyone left; even a terrifying night on the street where I was kicked by a group of young men who were thrilled to find a vulnerable target. I remember terror; the taste of my blood in my mouth as they kicked my face; I remember being afraid that I was going to be raped.
After that night, I was too terrified to sleep and too afraid to stay on the streets. I was chased out of a few places I tried to shelter in. Eventually, I slept sitting in the chairs inside the Laundromat, with my possessions in bags around me. I lost weight; my dark circles around my eyes threatened to take over my face; my hair fell out in clumps. I don’t know why I stubbornly held on; I still thought that I could make it, that I would find a job, get a proper visa to stay in New Zealand and make a life for myself that I wanted. I think of that stubborn despair now and I marvel at myself. Who was that? I don’t know, but I do know this: I could never, ever, go through that again. I am just not strong enough. That episode of my life took all my strength out of me.
Eventually, I found a job cleaning a backpacker’s hostel, and the kind people who owned it agreed to let me sleep there in exchange for me cleaning for them for free. I had a hot shower (the pool showers were always cold or tepid) for the first time in months on my first day there. My things fit neatly under my bed and inside my locker. I went to visit my cat, which was emotional, but she was doing well, which was all I wanted. My old neighbour told me she was looking for someone to take my cat permanently, a new happy home where she would be fed and loved. I was heartbroken, but I knew I couldn’t take care of her. I agreed.
That night, I slept in a bed. I couldn’t stop crying as I looked at the wall next to my bed, and the big glass window above it. I shared my room with seven other backpackers, but unlike me, they were all just passing through. I was staying for a while. I continued to babysit and bought myself food with the money I made. I still went to The Salvation Army for handouts, because I didn’t make enough to buy myself decent food. I cooked at the hostel and ate my meals with people who treated me like I was one of them. I made friends from around the world: the US, the UK, Israel, Japan, Germany, Canada, Argentina. Most of those friends are friends to this day.
Eventually, I gave up and went to Flight Centre to book my trip back home. I’d bought a round trip ticket when I came to New Zealand, and since I was leaving in just under a year, it was still an active ticket. I tried to buy my mother a souvenir from New Zealand by trying to sell my gold chain, but the ladies in the shop advised me not to sell it for $45. The gold standards are different in India and New Zealand, and the chain was worth a lot more. I saw sense and agreed. In the end, I bought my family chocolate and biscuits. I’m surprised that I could even afford that.
I became homeless in New Zealand through no fault of my own; it was an unfortunate set of circumstances. I was a gullible young woman in a foreign country and I was taken advantage of. I did all the right things; I moved to Dunedin after I got a job. I had a savings of $2000 to sustain me in case of an emergency. I worked hard to find a job and worked hard at the jobs that did fall into my lap for minimum wage. I became the perfect victim of a system that makes it easy to manipulate people like me.
So the next time you look at a homeless person, think of me. Think of this essay. Think of how easy it is for a person’s life to change, and to fall to pieces. Think of the person you are looking at as a human being, with hopes, and dreams, and fears. Be their voice, because they have had their voices taken from them. And trust me when I tell you this, but they deserve a chance, irrespective of their past choices or their previous mistakes. Everybody does.