The intersection that I call home
Note: this post began as a commissioned 600-word essay for the September issue of the United Church Observer magazine and is immeasurably better for the edits by both managing editor Jocelyn Bell and editorial intern Elena Gritzan; I thank them—for the opportunity to reach a larger audience, as well as their editorial judgement; flaws will indicate where I have ignored them. I would also like to thank Trinity United’s Doug Jameson, who was probably right when he suggested that I needed an attitude adjustment regarding everything north and east of the Fairview neighbourhood.
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As a long-term homeless person, I now have a much greater understanding and appreciation of home than I ever did when I had a ceiling over my head and four rooms to myself. This is less ironic than it sounds. Before, I simply had no good reason to think critically about what “home” meant.
After becoming homeless, I yearned to be rescued from the terra incognita of life on the streets. However, there was no rescue. This was 2004. The Liberal government of British Columbia was showing a new tough love toward the poor and homeless. Left to my own devices, I had no choice but to get over my fear and disorientation and come to terms with the reality of my situation—in order to survive, if nothing else. Being homeless on the streets of Vancouver became my new normal, and I adapted.
One adjustment I had to make quickly was figuring out how to get a decent night’s rest while outside, a practice called sleeping rough. Within two weeks of becoming homeless, I managed to convince a mini storage company to rent me a small locker—I was not going to live out of a shopping cart. Keeping that locker became a vital responsibility. And because, 11 years ago, emergency shelters were synonymous with bedbugs, I wasn’t going near one for fear of bringing the bloodsuckers back to the storage company’s hundreds of lockers.
In order to sleep rough, I had to adopt a much more relaxed attitude toward the ideas of private property and trespassing. I had to learn how to treat the outside as my inside, wilfully blinding myself to public scrutiny in order to get some semblance of privacy. I had to find somewhere that was safe and accepting. I don’t think I realized it at first, but though I was homeless, I was trying to make some kind of home for myself.
These many years later, the parkade that I sleep in certainly feels homey and welcoming. I look forward to rolling up there with my bike and trailer at night, and I wake up every morning feeling refreshed and eager for the new day.
One thing that being homeless has taught me is that “home” is an idea before it is a reality. When you strip it back to essentials, there doesn’t need to be cable television, hot and cold running water or modern conveniences of any kind—not even walls, for that matter. Home is the intersection of freedom and safety, which together equals comfort. It’s that place where you can sleep in peace and where you are as free as possible to be yourself. Everything else, it turns out, is a bonus.
No long-term homeless person that I’ve spoken to about the subject feels truly “homeless.” All of us find our comfort zone someplace: in a neighbourhood, a street block, a park or a parkade. The term “homeless” is an imposition that most of us, I think, wear lightly with a kind of shrug, as if to say that it really doesn’t fit us, but there’s nothing that we can do about it.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that we homeless people—like all people—strive to make homes for ourselves, even in the midst of what some would characterize as ruined lives.
If it helps at all, picture us as the survivors of a natural disaster—a devastating earthquake, for example (one that happens to be called poverty and circumstance). Then we’re just ordinary, plucky, folk making our way through adversity, like people do the world over. Click the image to enlarge it.