How I Became Homeless

A Unique Look at Life on the Streets

Santa Barbara Rescue Mission, Thanksgiving dinner 2010.
Nick St. Oegger (file photo)

Being homeless is not as bad as everyone would have you believe. It’s the judgment that hurts. Houselessness can happen quite easily.

If you have a sublease, and your tenant-landlord arbitrarily decides to demand more money from you, it does not matter how many of his or her own words in writing you present as evidence — if they are on the lease, they will threaten to call the cops and, to avoid a scene, it is best to simply pack up and leave. As a recent hire at my place of work, I don’t have enough regular hours to pay rent yet and, coming off a lengthy stint as a deadbeat artist in L.A., I don’t have the kind of savings to ride out insolvency. Thus, I found myself sleeping under a bush one July night not too long ago.

Austin Rucker

There is one solid benefit to being homeless: It leads to a highly anthropological study of the people around you, and you can enjoy the withering stares and angry judgment of regular Santa Barbarans as you walk down the street. I’m no mind reader, but I know at least once someone must have thought, “That man is addicted to drugs or alcoholic.”

But I am not.

In fact, I have no time to spend money. My accounting looks brighter than ever, and it has put a serious perspective on what counts and does not count as a necessary expenditure (laundry) versus luxury item (prepared food). Also, as a sober, employed, somewhat psychologically stable human, I am keenly aware of the indignity heaped on the helpless, and of largely inaccurate assumptions in society’s attempt to deal with homeless presence at places like the library.

My first day came to an end, I got off work, packed my stuff into a bag, left a few possessions and a very nice bottle of wine at the old apartment and found that the two motels I could afford were full. So I spent a night under a bush.

Sleeping under a bush is not a pleasant experience. You tromp through the dark and find a small tree or any semblance of a roof. Then take your giant duffel bag containing every earthly possession you own, use it as a pillow, and use whatever sheet you have to keep warm. You make sure to tighten up clothing around your ankles and socks so that bugs cannot climb up your limbs, and you cover your face so bugs cannot bite it. And no matter what, do not let yourself be extremely visible: Illegal camping can get you fined and your only option is a bush near a used tire store, you certainly do not want to get charged money to spend a cold night being bitten by bugs and staying invariably cold. Altogether, sleeping outside with no shelter means waking up every two or three hours. Noise, bug bites, limbs going to sleep, and paranoia are not good bedfellows.

At around 4:30 a.m. when the first blue morning haze sets in, most homeless Americans wake up. First light means visibility, and visibility means police can give you tickets and passers by can throw harsh judgment your way. Some homeless Americans immediately start drinking.

In Isla Vista, St. Brigid’s now-destroyed fort of peace for the homeless once provided breakfast and resources. The people there helped at least one new homeless person that day find a place to stay. It turned out my best option was hauling everything I owned across town to the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission. The Santa Barbara Rescue Mission does three things that are very important. First, they provide a bed for anyone with a photo I.D. Second, they provide dinner for anyone who shows up. Third, in the morning everyone there gets breakfast. The only request is to not show up blatantly under the influence and, if you are hopelessly addicted, to please not entertain your habit nearby as this is flaunting their rules and will not be tolerated. Between the Rescue Mission, the Salvation Army (which provides free lunches), and Casa Esperanza (which provides a warm buffet every single day) there are ample resources for any homeless person to get at least two free meals per day with no caveat. Anybody with a sign asking for help, direct them to one of the facilities listed, they will help. There are ample resources for food and recovery and job location.

My first night there, the door opened at 6:15, men flooded in, checked bags, smoked cigarettes, jabbered about politics, ate dinner, the went to a giant group shower and to sleep at around 8 p.m. This is better than a bush, slightly.


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