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CAJUN CORNER A night without, much harder than I expected
I think it is fair to say if I were to say the word “homeless,” many would think of people standing around with various signs attempting to get money or food. Many of us would conjure up visions of alcoholics who choose to live day-to-day looking for just enough to get a buzz. I know I have had these thoughts before. I am ashamed of myself for it, but I am at least willing to admit it.
Those thoughts changed for me when I was able to meet a few homeless people here in Kitsap County recently who found themselves without shelter due to positions lost through the degradation of our national and local economies. These were hard-working folks who found themselves without jobs because their employers had to downsize or even completely shut down.
What happens in times like these is a shift in job classification. Specific jobs within a company can often be added to the workload of another job classification without much drop in the quality of that company’s product.
This is the case for many of the new homeless, victims of foreclosure who once were productive members of society, homeowners and taxpayers. In fact, these people make up the largest portion of the homeless population.
These are the real faces of homelessness. Meeting them made me realize I may not be far away from where they are. As the field of journalism continues to struggle to find profitability in the Internet age, many in the business have seen their friends lose longtime jobs. And it hasn’t stopped. A headline like, “Newspaper circulation may be worse than it looks?,” from the Associated Press, Nov. 23, keeps many concerned. What if I lost my income? How long could I keep my life together?
Doing some math, I was shocked at the answer to my own questions. In the worst-case scenario, I could end up living in my car with my wife and two kids, in less than a year.
Armed with this knowledge and constantly being bombarded with comments from my children like, “I’m so bored” or “There’s nothing to do,” I decided to take part in last Friday’s Sleep Like the Homeless event. I wanted my kids to see what could happen and I wanted a taste of what it might be like if we had to live that way. It was an absolutely terrifying and educational experience neither my kids nor I will soon forget.
The night began at 6 p.m. We drove to a local grocery store and parked beneath one of the lights in the lot. I was trying to get as much light as I could for the children so they could do some homework. At first, they handled it quite well and seemed almost defiant, as if they would just stick it out and prove to me it was no big deal. Then I shut off the car.
“Uhm, the heat doesn’t work without the motor on,” my son said.
“We don’t have enough gas to run the motor son, I’m sorry,” I said.
The children looked at each other and shrugged. A mumbled, “Whatever,” came from the back seat in stereo. They were standing strong, but the night had just begun.
The first complaint came by way of my daughter. She wanted to wait until we got home to do her homework. I explained the purpose of our night out was to do things as though we had no home to go to. She said, “But my back hurts from sitting in this car bending over to write.” I asked her what she thought kids who really lived in their cars did in the same situation. She sighed and went back to her homework, rubbing her neck.
After that, my son, now done with his homework, said he was getting cold. I jumped out and grabbed him the blankets I had stored in the trunk.
“These smell like gas,” he complained.
I apologized to him, explained there was no gas on the blankets and told him his options were to cover up with the gas-smelling blankets or be cold.
“This is stupid,” he replied as he covered up and pinched his nose. “Can we at least listen to the radio?”
“Sorry, son, but that would drain the battery. We can’t do that,” I told him.
Again he sighed, this time accompanied by a little eye-rolling.
“So all we can do is sleep?” he asked, though I don’t think he was really looking for an answer.
My daughter finished her homework and asked about dinner.
“We have two cans of potted meat, a can of kidney beans four granola bars and a pack of two crackers,” I said.
The look they both gave me hurt.
“Are you freakin’ serious?” my son asked.
“Sorry, son,” I replied. “That’s all we have.”
“Someone’s coming over,” my daughter said.
I rolled down the window a bit and a young lady who I assumed was an employee of the store told me we couldn’t stay in the parking lot. I told her we had nowhere to go and I wanted my kids to be safe, so I parked where there would be light.
“I understand,” she said. “I really do. But I still have to ask you to go or else they will call the cops.”
She told me a lady saw the kids under their blankets and told the store manager he should call Child Protective Services on me for endangering my kids.
“Oh well,” my son said smiling. “I guess we will have to go home now.”
But that was not the plan. I started the car and started driving.
“Can we turn on the heater now since we’re driving?” my daughter asked.
I told her running the heater would cause the car to use more gas, so we couldn’t run the heat. She said nothing.
I was trying to find a place to park where we would not be harassed. I decided on another grocery store parking lot, but this time we went to the far back of the lot, near what I perceived to be employee vehicles.
We broke out the food and began dinner. I did not bring a can opener so the beans were useless.
“So all we have now is nasty potted meat and granola bars,” my son said with disappointment. But he was right, and it made my heart hurt.
In that moment, watching my kids eat potted meat from a can with their fingers because we had no utensils, I realized what the hardest part of being homeless would be for me. Not being in a position to provide for my kids would be devastating. I knew they were still going to be hungry after their dinner of meat-from-a-can and a granola bar each. I also knew they were going to be uncomfortable sleeping in a cold car, exposed to the elements and any person who chose to walk by. I didn’t like that feeling.
Now it was 10 p.m. We were fortunate enough not to be asked to move again, probably because we did a good job of being inconspicuous. It was much, much colder now. We were passing the time trying to guess the jobs of people we saw exiting the store. I could tell they were bored and when we were quiet, I could hear someone’s stomach growling, other than my own. Neither asked for more food, but I could see in their eyes they wanted to eat more.
My daughter decided she was tired and asked if we had more blankets because she was still cold. I suggested the kids huddle together and cover up with all of the blankets rather than each covering themselves individually. They complied and laid together, stretching across the back seat.
“Goodnight, guys,” I said, but they didn’t reply. They always told me goodnight. Every night it was a ritual. It was not to be this night.
I sat staring out the window. I couldn’t sleep. I wanted them to be warm so I had very few blankets myself. It was cold. The chattering of my teeth kept me awake the entire night. I just sat there, thinking.
My kids did not sleep well. I watched them all night. They both tossed and turned trying to get comfortable. Their lips and cheeks were almost blue by 5 a.m.
At 6 a.m. I woke them up and told them we were heading home. I have never seen them that excited to go to our boring little house. We pulled into the driveway and they bailed out of the car as if it were on fire. My daughter approached my window.
“Please don’t ever make us do that again, dad,” she said. “I don’t want to be homeless.”
I smiled until she made it inside, then I laid my head on the steering wheel and cried.
“No one does, baby,” I whispered. “No one does.”