I remember the first time I told someone that I’d been homeless as a child. I was 16, babysitting with a friend for a church function. The kids were finally in bed, and we were sitting on the patchy carpet in front of the fingerprint-smudged television telling each other secrets from our past -- the kind of thing you do very earnestly at 16. I looked down at my intertwining fingers and mumbled, “When I was little, my family was homeless for a while.” Shame burned on my lips. It felt like the very worst thing I could ever told someone.
Luckily, I made this revelation to a very good friend and she is forever endeared to me for her gentle response. Over the years, it’s gotten easier for me to mention it, and I’ve even written about it before. But it’s not something I talk about lightly, and as it’s not something that comes up easily in conversation, there aren’t very many people in my life who know about it. I’m more open about the issues of abuse from my family history than I am about having been homeless, which is slightly strange if I really think about it.
I wasn’t homeless long term, but it was long enough that it left a mark. My family was very low income, and we lived below the poverty line for at least the first 10 years of my life. Food stamps and state welfare were commonplace, but we had a roof over our heads. When I was seven, circumstances changed, and we found ourselves living in a pop-up Coleman tent, the kind with a hard shell bottom and canvas top.
There were a lot of traumatic things during that time, for all of us. Lice, foodborne illnesses, constant colds, Malt-O-Meal for every single breakfast. Living six people to a tent is an enterprise I would give zero stars to. I consider myself lucky, because I was young enough that details are fuzzy for me. My family was extremely fortunate in a variety of ways, and after what seemed like forever but what was probably closer to six months, we packed up four kids to two seatbelts in our ancient Datsun and moved cities. Living in an actual house again was the best moment of my childhood.
These days, the story has faded into the background of my mind. It’s not exactly the worst thing that’s ever happened to me, and it doesn’t seem all that important in the grand scheme of things. It didn’t really occur to me that I was hiding something until suddenly, it did. Whenever I hear someone speaking disparagingly about the homeless, something in me rises up. You know the kinds of things people say -- “Don’t give them money, they’ll just use it for drugs,” “They just need to get a job, lazy bums,” “It’s their own fault, if you help them it just convinces them to stay that way.”
I’ve heard much worse than that, and I always leap to defending the humanity of the homeless. I’ve given principled lectures on how all humans have dignity, no matter their circumstances, and that we can’t know what led them to their situation. I talk about my experiences volunteering in soup kitchens and food banks, and say that everyone deserves to be fed and warm at night, no matter what.
What I don’t say is that when I volunteered at the food bank, I was also a recipient of it. When we helped serve Thanksgiving dinner for the homeless at our church, it was our dinner too. I don’t mention my story, and I’ve never really stopped to ponder why until recently. It dawned on me that an easy recitation of the facts of what led to me being homeless would do a lot of good to dispel the stereotypes and misinformation I’m railing against. But I balked at the thought of revealing that information lightly, and I’ve figured out why.
I don’t talk about my time without a home, not because it’s forgotten or because it’s not relevant. I deliberately don’t mention it because I’m ashamed of it. Even though it wasn’t my fault, and not my family’s fault; even though it happened so long ago and can’t hurt me now. I began to wonder if it was because, on some level, I believed those stereotypes about the homeless that I speak against. Was it because I didn’t want to associate myself with that image?
Growing up poor isn’t uncommon, but growing up homeless, even for a short period of time, is, at least in my social circle. I tried so hard throughout my teen years to assimilate, to catch up after years of homeschooling and relative isolation. I learned to hide things that seemed repulsive, and our society is often repulsed by the homeless. I’m still relatively young, and I’ve already decided that my adult life won’t be about the same values that my upbringing was. I’m beginning to believe that owning my life, even the harder parts, is part of that.
Yes, I have been homeless, and no, it’s not what you think it is. I’m going to tell the story from now on.