I HAVE BEEN a homeless woman for five years. Sometimes I am sharply aware of my surroundings; sometimes I am like a plastic doll, my staring eyes open but unseeing, or I am like a zombie, moving but unfeeling.
For the past five years, I have lived in shelters -- for the past two years in a shelter operated by the Community for Creative Non-Violence. I have never been able to reconcile myself to the idea that this is what has become of my life -- nor will I. What I hate most about my life in the shelter is the filth and the wild, unpredictable behavior of the people -- never knowing when someone might scream at me, or attack, or when another woman might proposition me. I understand, but hate, the regimentation, the need to stand in line for toothpaste and toilet paper, the food that's served, the raving drunks at night and the consumptive coughing of some of my companions in the morning.
Ten years ago I had a job as a teacher in the D.C. public schools. I had a beautiful efficiency apartment in the Dupont Circle area. I went to movies and a lot of theater. I had a car -- a tan Volvo -- I had bought from a colleague. I played tennis on the P Street courts. I ate out in restaurants. I had a real life.
My origins are humble. I was born in 1933 in Brooklyn. My parents were not married. I had grown up as a foster child, knowing who my parents were but often -- after years of their casual absence -- having my parents not know who I was. They would come in and out of my life. Mind you, I lived with one or the other parent from time to time, and even had half brothers and sisters. But I lived the virtually isolated life of the institutional child: I went from foster home to foster home, child-care center to child-care center. I never knew what love was.
When I managed to get a scholarship to college, I worked my way through. But after graduation, a pattern (of which I was only half aware) had been established: I found it difficult to make friends and so I was basically friendless -- and lonely. I became something of a job hopper, going from one place to another, working in Philadelphia, then New York, in journalism and advertising, sometimes as a writer, sometimes as a secretary.
In the early 1960s I went back to college, to Columbia University and got a masters' degree in teaching. Eventually I came to Washington.
When, as time went on, I saw what a mess my life was -- unmarried, moving from job to job, still not knowing what I wanted to do with my life, rootless and still without friends, unpleasant to be around -- I tried to get it together, but it was pretty late in the day. I was in my mid-30s. I tried psychotherapy for almost five years, but it didn't help at all, and may have hurt me. Several years after I stopped therapy a catastrophe happened: I began to hear voices and began to make disastrous decision after disastrous decision. I had been an English teacher, but I had stopped teaching and began doing temporary office work and some substitute teaching. But I was unreliable and sometimes impudent, so I lost jobs and it became harder to get work.
Things got so bad with me that I went to my half brother, with whom I had never been close, to ask him for help. He is an Anglican priest, a widower living in New Jersey in a three-bedroom house. I hoped he could help me in some way until I could pull myself together.
"If I don't get some help, I'm going to wind up living in a shelter," I told him.
"Who runs the shelter?"
"Well, they do a good job."
He gave me a cup of tepid coffee and sent me on my way to my first experience in shelter living. Since then, I have lived in six different shelters here in the District. It's an awful life. No one would choose it. One has almost no privacy. Your things get stolen all the time. The few feet of space that is your cot for the night is not a very cozy spot. Any number of bright-eyed, fluffy-tailed volunteers rush up to you when you're half undressed in the evening and eagerly stick their hand out to introduce themselves when you least want to meet someone.
At different times, in different centuries, we are called by different names: poor unfortunates, bums, losers. Now we are called the homeless, bag men and bag ladies, street people. We are the poor -- those who are with you always. How do we live? The least socialized live on the street year in and year out, hardly ever bathing, covered with vermin and babbling to the empty air.
But the majority, like me, seek the refuge of shelters evey night -- only to be cast out into the street again every morning. And so the round goes: inside when the doors open at night -- different times for different shelters -- and outside again, usually by 8 in the morning, day in and day out, year in and year out, weather or season making hardly any difference in the routine, so that some scarcely know what month it is, much less what day.
We are given in the morning a squirt of toothpaste and a supply of toilet paper. The stealing is so bad, these things must be guarded and rationed.
My day begins about 6:30 a.m. A staff member walks through the halls cheerfully calling "Breakfast! Breakfast!" I avoid the gloomy, crowded and dirty bathroom by using a pee pot in my 9-by-12 room, furnished with an army cot and mattress. I have sheets on the bed, which are changed every few months. We don't have access to washing machines to wash sheets. Other than a chair and some empty milk cartons, I have no other furniture in my room.
After I wash my face, I gather with a grumbling gray knot of women and wait for the doors to open to the room where we have set up tables to eat at. When they do, we enter in scraggly lines for a breakfast of something like stale doughnuts and half rotten cantaloupe, food scrounged from dumpsters or donated by stores when it can no longer be sold. Sometimes when one of us goes into the adjoining storage room where the food is kept, we find rats eating the food.
This morning there is no tea or coffee because yesterday morning a woman picked up the urn and threw it with its scalding water over another woman with whom she suddenly began to quarrel. With the doughnuts, you have to move fast. Sometimes one or two women will grab as many as a dozen and crazily stuff them in their bags; so you have to assert your rights.
When I finish breakfast, I go back to my room, make my bed up with its pretty patchwork coverlet donated by somebody, empty my pee pot, get a squirt of toothpaste from the office, stand in line to brush my teeth and then get dressed and leave for the day.
I have not looked for work for more than two years. I spend my days in a variety of ways. I go to the Library of Congress and read the newspapers -- The Post and The New York Times. I go to mass daily at St. Patrick's. I have lunch at the Church of the Brethren soup kitchen on the Hill. Then I may say a couple of rosaries at St. Peter's; afterward I may wander around, walk to Georgetown, go to the National Gallery, the Renwick, the Corcoran. Sometimes I go to the Hirshhorn, although it's not my favorite. I lead a life of forced leisure -- and ennui.
The comfort begins in the evening. Somehow, no matter that I have done no work, I am exhausted. I want to get into my cot and lie down. I want to get a shower and shut away, in sleep -- if I can -- the strain of another shiftless day.
At night, somewhere along the line, I have been fed at the shelter -- probably a bowl of soup or a plate of macaroni -- something like that, and some bag lady will pronounce that that umpteenth plate of pasta is delicious (the homeless are not your gourmets) and yet another plate of spaghetti or another shimmering square of Jello doesn't dismay them.
But, anyway, it's night and I am not hungry anymore. I'm just exhausted and feeling very grimy. So I make a bee-line for the showers before the hot water runs out and a bee-line for my cot. Some women watch television. I don't. I find it very hard to watch because of the wild babbling and restless movement of demented women around me looking for their next smoke. Or making odd remarks to the television set. They talk, but not in what I would call conversation. They may talk to the air or shout remarks at each other occasionally, but no real communication takes place. It's like a scene from a horror movie.
It's often hard to keep your body and clothes clean. For many months at CCNV, we had no heat or hot water. It took a heroic effort to shower with icy cold water in an icy cold room. I felt I had climbed Mt. Everest every evening. Most did not attempt the ascent but took showers and baths during the day at the day-care shelters -- but I was barred from them at that time. If I'm lucky, there's no fighting over the showers or the filthy baths; rather, I should say the baths left filthy by women too inconsiderate or indifferent to clean them up after using them. I crawl into my cot -- maybe to sleep, maybe not.
I remember once having a bed a few inches from an acute alcoholic woman. (She has since died at the age of 30.) Every night she would stumble piteously about the room and eventually would stumble out into the night for yet another drink. I complained to the staff about her keeping us awake and was told (this was at Hannah House) that if only I would take a sleeping pill, then Bertha's ravings would not disturb me. But I refuse to take any kind of drugs, including tranquilizers. And I don't drink.
I might be able to sleep, too, if everyone in the room had bathed within the last month. But if someone has decided to express her rage with the human race by refusing to bathe, or if someone urinates or defecates in bed in a drunken stupor -- leaving an indescribable stench -- sleep may elude me again. Or the wild ravings of a neighbor, or the lurid details of the exciting sex life iterated and reiterated by some $2 lady-of-the-night may send Morpheus far from my poor cot of pain. Sometimes I feel so frustrated, so helpless, so desperate to get out of here myself that I, too, begin raving but I don't keep people awake. I limit my raving to raving time.
What do the rich worry about? (I read Town and Country avidly in the public library.) Wearing the latest fashion; marrying the successful spouse, being beautiful. The poor hardly worry at all: They complain about what they have been handed and whether the handout will be there tomorrow; they worry that this shelter will close down, but they don't have social worries -- just the boredom of a life that's been handed to them and that many homeless women seem unable to envision as being much better -- for they are not only unemployed, many are unemployable.
I haven't been in a day shelter for a long time, having been barred for violent behavior. I threw a half cup of Kool Aid into the face of a staff member and then, when the police were called, proceeded to attack with a pound of summer-soft butter. The staff has few strong people to evict a violent person and often has to resort to the police to resolve problems. A year earlier, at Mt. Carmel, I had a fist fight with a woman who jumped me from behind. I added to my own culpability by using a racial slur.
The reason I like CCNV is that the young staff treats its "guests" with much gentleness and courtesy, almost as if we were visiting royalty instead of riff-raff. This helps make up for the constant insults and abuse from your fellow homeless, verbal and otherwise -- especially the insult of theft and abuse of property, which is a constant problem. I have had almost everything I have ever owned stolen. Respect of personal property is not high. Nor is self-respect.
At the day shelters, people sit around, some sleep off their medication or they begin their alcoholic routine, they smoke, watch television. I go to libraries and museums, and though I don't suppose he cares to know -- what I call J. Carter Brown's Royal Heritage of Furniture (and others call the Treasure Houses of Britain) was an essentially boring show of mediocre pieces lent by boring, if not bored, people. Di and Charles are very nice bores, too, so there!
The longer you stay homeless the farther away help seems to get. Will you ever get out and be normal again? I look around in amazement at my surroundings. What am I doing here? I tell myself that what is happening to me is not my life. My life is something else, not this. Then why am I here among the outcasts? I believe, apart from having been a foster child, that I have been suffering remorse over an abortion I underwent more than 20 years before. I have been running away from myself ever since then.
This experience of homelessness has made me face the truth of myself through a long complicated psychological process. Even before then I had thought about suicide at times in my life. I have made a few unsuccessful attempts. I need help, but not institutionalization. I don't want to be coerced. People who want to help often don't have the ability to help.
Each day is very monotonously like another -- out in the morning, wandering around -- and back at night, month after month, year after year. Still, I'm lucky in ways: I may be homeless but I'm not without shelter or food or care. Free medical, dental and psychological care are available -- if I want to be patient enough to seek them out. If you have something going for you, something to work with, some kind of psychological toehold for someone to make, some nice people are there to give you a leg up the ladder or encourage you when you can't seem to crawl out of wherever you are. I have had an unhappy life, but I don't consider myself an unhappy person. I have not lost hope.
Is there a solution -- for them, for us -- for me? The homeless are all lumped together -- the old, senile, elderly, alcoholic, mentally ill, sociopathic are not separated out from the rest. Until the problem of homelessness is analyzed, it will not be solved. Who are they? Where do the different groups belong? We often have children living at CCNV. Is this a good thing? For the very crazy? For the mothers? For the kids?
There is very little coordination between shelters and thus is a lot of overlap of services, in my observation. One person may have many people all working fruitlessly with her because no one knows of the other person's existence. I don't think the community of Washington has to reprimand itself for not doing enough -- but for not analyzing the problem of homelessness enough.
Just before writing this article, I was gently put in Providence Hospital for a week. Bars on the window. Drugs every few hours. Forced recreation. Scolding if you lie down too much. Nothing to do but smoke. Boredom. Everyone half-stupified under medication. The smell of hospital everywhere.
There is something to do outside. Something to look at. The homeless can go to their favorite corner to beg (I refuse to beg.) Once or twice, if they're lucky begging, they can go for a cup of coffee. They can hope that the next day will be different. They can make plans for themselves. (A lot of people escape from homelessness. It's a fluid society.) Inside an institution, there is nothing to do for yourself, for your future.
I don't think anyone except the sickest would wish for such an existence as a homeless person -- with its terrible monotony and boredom. But there is a spiritual adventure in any deprivation, as anyone who has ever been through one will tell you. I have become devoutly religious, going to mass and saying a rosary every day. Sometimes I am in church for hours. I believe our God has a way of shaking us out of our smugness, bringing us back home to Him one way or another. And so for all my sorrow, I would not have missed my life in shelters -- and I know how strong this statement is -- if that was the only road to bring me back humbly to His feet.