08 April 2021

So You Want to Live Free

My latest story, "The Sweet Life" will be published in the July/August edition of AHMM.  It has some relationship to this blog.  

Back – God help us! – 52 years ago, I left home in the middle of the night after one of the most frighteningly violent days of my short life.  I'm not going into the details.  But I truly believed that if I didn't leave that night I wasn't going to be alive much longer.  

I remember that night, but not much of the next couple of weeks.  But eventually I found myself on the road, looking for a haven.  I went to Coronado, then I went up to San Francisco - to join the hippie ranks, of course.  But by then the hippies were all gone (most to Northern California or Oregon, where a lot of them started communes).  Haight Ashbury was still there, but it was mostly hard-core druggies by the time I got there.  I went south, to L.A., and ended up in Hollywood, where I disappeared into street culture for the next couple of years.  

First of all, we need to remember that people have been / gone homeless for millenia.  Back in the Middle Ages, when the wealthy lords figured out that raising sheep on huge acreages was less trouble and more profitable than dealing with farming and farmers, they got rid of their tenants, who mostly fled to the cities or the forests. Every famine, people fled to wherever they thought they might find food. (Joseph's brothers to Egypt.) After every war, from the Crusades to Afghanistan / Iraq, some soldiers have returned damaged and hopeless and drifted, again, to the wilderness, whether cities or forest or desert.

What's changed is that today it's harder to be left alone than it was even 50 years ago.  You used to be  able to sleep in certain parks, under overpasses, derelict buildings, vacant lots, and the occasional free church.  You could even find a cheap place to rent every once in a while, and set up a makeshift commune.  But today… much harder.  The cities don't want the homeless, and they now have sufficient laws and police to harass, evict, move on, and/or jail people who live on the streets, in tents, on the ground, or in RVs.  See my 2014 blog, The Surplus Population.  Still frighteningly accurate.  And as for affordable housing anywhere?  Ha!  And good luck on finding a wilderness to disappear into.  

But the lifestyle itself hasn't changed.  

(1) Nobody becomes homeless by choice.  There's a story behind every homeless person.  S/he lost their job, their lifestyle, their mind, their health, their home, their family...  Something put them there, and I never met anyone who chose it willingly because it was a fun, free way to live.  What that something was is important to know if you ever want to get them off the streets.  Not everyone wants to go home.  I know I never once thought about going home, no matter how weird things got, because at least when someone did something awful / violent to me, it wasn't someone claiming to love me.  

(2) Over time, you get used to it.  The first requirement of life on the streets is to develop good radar for who dangerous and who isn't.  You will make mistakes.  Second is to find the infrastructure you need to stay alive:  usable restrooms, restaurants, churches, charitable organizations, etc.  Third is to learn the rhythms of the people around you, the police on the beat, the businesses, and how to work with them.

(3) Over time, you get used to it.  Street life is a whole lot of time to kill in between moments of great urgency, and sometimes great danger.  How do you spend that time?  Sleeping, when possible.  Talking constantly.  Looking around for anything that can be sold, spent, or used.  More talking.  Looking for food.  Lot of smoking.  (Smoking used to be cheaper than eating, and in the 60s and 70s even people who would never dream of handing out money would give you a cigarette.)  More talking.  The result of all that talking is some of the most unbelievable plots, plans, schemes, conspiracy theories and stories ever heard - believed.  Sometimes I think QAnon is simply channeling street people.  

(4a) You try to get used to it.  It's a strange mix of people on the streets.  Most of them are perfectly harmless; they're just unsightly.  But there are also the mentally ill - mostly harmless, despite talking to the air, which used to look a lot stranger before cell phones. But you can't ever tell if they would lose it.  Even worse are the predators, who specifically prey on their fellow travelers, often by pretending to be their friend.  Think Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy.  And at least he wasn't violent. 

(4b) There's also a strange mix of people who try to help people on the streets.  Many of them mean well:  those who come with food and water, those who offer rides to church or 12-Step meetings, those who provide medical care (we didn't have that in my day), and those who really are doing everything they can to get people off the street and into a stable life.  But there are also predators - the johns, picking up the young girls for some quick cheap sex; the cult leaders, looking for more recruits; the employers, looking for cheap labor; and the killers. 

(5) Over time, some people get more than used to it.  They turn feral - the life of the streets is the only one they can bear.  A life with a bare minimum of comfort / amenities, but a strange freedom.  If you can stand it.  Your time is your own.  You can say pretty much anything you want.  You can go anywhere your legs can take you.  You are not beholden to anyone.  There is no future, but there is certainly a present.  

I'm not romanticizing it like some people have (read John Steinbeck's Cannery Row for that).  It's hard.  It takes a hell of a lot of energy, just to stay alive every day. The life expectancy of a homeless person is very low.  And, as I said, there is no future, other than the ones cooked up in all those endless hours of talking.  The young street urchins waxing hopeful about being discovered and being the next singing sensation, model, actor, etc. (remember, I was in Hollywood).  The older guys talking about moving to the wilderness - Alaska, Rocky Mountains, wherever.  I never knew anyone who got any of those dreams.  Where they were was where they were.  

Me, all I wanted was to stay alive until I was old enough to go legal, and then come in off the streets and get a job and an apartment of my own.  I was lucky - through the grace of God, I did.  (BTW, doing that presented a whole new set of challenges.)  But - also through the grace of God – I've never forgotten. Everything I learned on the streets has come in handy in the rest of my life.

PS: Update on Allan. March 22nd, I took him to the doctor because he was having trouble breathing; they tested his oxygen levels, which were in the 70s, so it was off to the ER. He stayed in the hospital till 6 PM on Wednesday. Long story short: he has severe emphysema, will be on 24/7 oxygen for the foreseeable future, and has many upcoming doctor's visits, tests, etc., ahead of him. BUT he’s home.

Oh, and we've named his 24/7 oxygen concentrator "George".


  1. Oh, man. This brings sadness in me so early in the morning. I live in a small town and the police have rid us of the homeless. They arrest them. The homeless go away. On the side of the police cars is the motto, “quality of life.” Yeah. Right.

  2. Terrific and timely. I am glad Alan is home and hope he will do well with the help of "George"

  3. Thanks, O'Neil, Janice. Yeah, there's a real push to move the homeless - and the poor, for that matter - somewhere else, like that gets rid of the problem.

  4. Eve, hope you and Alan have good health insurance. The current cost of medical attention is outrageous. If Kiti and I didn't have the great insurance we do in retirement, then we would now be homeless. When I got preprocessed for surgery, I overheard the guy at another desk maxing out his credit cards and still coming up short trying to prepay/qualify for his mother's pending surgery.

    Best wishes for Alan's recovery.

  5. Wow, Eve. Just wow. I had a story involving a homeless kid come out in December. I read your column with trepidation, fearing you'd say something that would make clear I'd made a mistake with the character, but I didn't. I'm sorry you had that terrible experience in your first home that put you on that road to homelessness, I'm glad you found your way out, and I hope Alan is improving.

  6. R.T. - thank God for Medicare! And a decent supplemental.
    Barb - Life does throw some twists at us. It was a hard time but, as I said, I've found what I learned there has stood me in good stead ever since.

  7. Dearest Eve, You are a living miracle. I am so proud of you. You are one of the few that made it. I am so glad that we met each other in Little 5 Points in Atlanta. You

  8. New York

    About the time you struck off on your own, I was riding the Staten Island Ferry into Manhattan, when a blonde, sylph-like girl took the bench beside me. She told me she’d traveled to NYC from Virginia and was looking for the East Village, home of the Fillmore East and Hippie Haven. A tattered, ankle-length, black velvet dress enhanced her pale and delicate complexion. She carried only a small purse, hardly more than a pouch and absolutely nothing else. My first inclination she wore nothing under the long dress seemed likely.

    I had work and then classes, which precluded playing tour guide. Beautiful waif that she was, I was barely street-smart enough not to offer my place to stay. I helped her find the right bus to Greenwich Village, but I had a sick feeling if she still harboured innocence, she wouldn’t for long. She was one toke from stumbling upon a Charlie Manson.


    The city of Orlando fined and attempted to criminalize anyone who fed the homeless. That sort of edict makes me rush out with oranges, cheese, and leftover Halloween treats. There was an undeveloped wooded area just above West Colonial on John Young Parkway that was quietly used by a number of homeless. The city moved in with bulldozers and scraped the land bare. Apparently our city fathers and mothers think raw dirt looks better than green trees and poor people.

    Eve, I wonder if you could create a homeless amateur detective?

    And finally, I’m glad Allan’s home. Best of luck all around!

  9. Leigh, I still give money and /or food to the homeless. So sue me.
    That's a real idea - a homeless amateur detective. I'll mull it over.


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