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".