There is a point in every day where the tide of human affairs recedes, when streets empty, stores close and people retreat, as light itself withdraws from the world.
It is the point where once-mothers sit alone in big houses, that ought to be filled with the voices of children demanding dinner and needing baths, and pour themselves a whisky; the point where those newly without partners blink into the shadows; the point where men keep working and cats scamper fence lines for their supper.
It is the dimming of the day and the lonely must adapt to silence.
For those without homes to go to, this shifting of the day, the tide of evening that transits light to dark, is a menace that casts them adrift from all of life, from all of life. They are left on the tideline, washed up on empty streets unnoticed, like sodden autumn leaves blown by the wind and unwanted plastic caps stuck in the sand – waiting, for the tide to return, to swallow them up again, to reclaim them, to note their existence in the burgeoning busy world of morning.
There were many reasons I decided to sleep in the car while I drove around Scotland’s north. Chief among them was financial – it’s not cheap to hire a car and this journey demanded my own vehicle; and it’s a challenge to travel for a year without working. If I sunk my money into a car, then it would have to be my all and my everything: transport, home, office.
The thought excited me – there is nothing I love more than sleeping close to the earth and the wild universe. A car would give me surround views of sunrises, sunsets and night skies; it would sleep me close to the wind and driving rain.
I knew that I would be challenged by the murderer in my mind, those irrational voices of fear that do their damnedest to terrorise plans and immobilise courage.
But I was unprepared for the rush of illegitimacy I would feel about my place in our world, each and every evening when night came to claim the light and all that was left for me was to find a place to sleep.
This was how, without intention, I entered the realm of the homeless, and, thus, what I came to call my Accidental Experiment with Homelessness.
I do not claim my experiment to be reflective or even representative of true homelessness: I do not have a drug addiction, am not alcohol dependent and nor do I suffer mental illness; I am not a man; I have a plastic card that will buy me out of the situation any time I choose; I have friends and family who would ‘save’ me on my own terms any time I asked; I have a big fat fluffy puffy sleeping bag to keep me warm and I have health insurance.
Nonetheless, here, in small points, is what I learned from my Accidental Experiment with Homelessness:
* we, the ones who belong to society, create the furtiveness we associate with those who are homeless: the projection is ours, not theirs;
** the less visible we are in our world, the less right we feel to be visible: this creates a sense of illegitimacy that is toxic for the soul;
*** we who belong possess everything: we hoard what we don’t even want in the first place;
**** stairwells in carparks smell like piss because we who belong lock public toilets at night: it is extremely difficult to maintain personal hygiene and health in modern society, and respect the needs of that society for cleanliness, when a human being is without access to a bathroom.
One morning on the Isle of Skye, about seven days into my experiment, I was sitting in a cafe that welcomed me and my computer (charging up my various technologies: camera, computer, phone while I worked), when I overheard this tale:
The previous night, on a quiet and distant corner of the island, a woman who had supported a man who was a drunkard could no longer bear the load. She told him he must leave her home. The man responded by going outside, pouring petrol over himself and striking a match.
The women in the cafe telling this story were local, in the way newcomers to an ancient island like to consider themselves local; the cafe owners were their audience. The group of four stood in the window, telling and retelling the tale, dealing themselves into the story: who heard the sirens of the ambulance, who saw the sudden helicopter come to ferry the man to a hospital on the mainland, who was closest to the action and who had heard what.
They said things like ‘she’ll never forgive herself’ and ‘he’s still alive, can you imagine’ and ‘why would he drink so much anyway’ and ‘fancy that happening in quiet little Kensaleyre’.
It was their mock moral outrage that caused me to look up and deal myself into their story.
For I knew, or thought I knew, or at least had a modicum of insight into a possibility, for why the man had set himself on fire.
However, it was their attitude towards the woman and ‘her problem’ that compelled me to speak.
‘It’s all our problem,’ I said. ‘All of us have created this situation and any one of us could have helped this woman out.’
They turned to stare, a space opening in their huddle.
The woman most excited by the story nodded, knowingly, and said ‘yes, she enabled him to drink’
I blinked, turning my mind over quickly, wondering what on earth she thought I’d just said: is that all she heard in my comment?
Having claimed their attention, however, I wasn’t letting it go without effort:
I told them I had been experimenting with homelessness by sleeping in my car for the previous week. Quite frankly I hadn’t really identified my situation as ‘homelessness’ until that moment. I added the word ‘experiment’ to legitimise my place in their world, to reassure them I was one of them, currency for their attention.
I told them that public toilets on the island lock at 8pm sharp and do not reopen until 8am the following morning. For some reason this has come to represent for me the depth of how we (those who belong) lock out of our society those whom we perceive do not – how we deny other human beings their most basic needs.
I told them how every single night when you are without a home you must find somewhere to sleep. Every single night.
I told them how when night comes to steal the day those without homes are left outside, abandoned by the tide of human affairs, with nothing to do, nowhere to go and no-one to talk to.
When the day is over, everybody goes home. That is what we do.
When you do not have a home, you stay right where you are, as others move into the evening with perceived purpose and friendship. They might be going to restaurants, they might be going to visit friends, they might be returning to families.
Regardless of their objective or endeavour, everyone but you is eventually heading home to sleep in warm beds. You, however, do not know from one day to the next where you will sleep; wherever you find yourself at the end of the day, that is where you will bide, waiting for darkness to fall and claim you, as well as the light.
With this, your invisibility is complete.
The man who set himself on fire knew all this. And he was not willing to re-enter the unbearable loneliness of being that was waiting for him outside that woman’s door.
(Interestingly, the man is still alive: while he is recovering from his burns, if he does recover, he has a bed and food and a bathroom and the kind company of human beings. Don’t you find that unforgivably ironic?)
The group stared at me, stumbling for words to meet my story. I do not mean to judge them for their mock moral outrage – every single one of us is fair game for a good story. We adore drama – news corporations have made fortunes from our obsession with mock moral outrage (yes, even those among you who count them among your enemies). Nor is it my intention to mock this particular woman in turn – she was speaking freely in a private conversation and it is not my business or intention to use her words as a weapon against her. She could be any one of us, is representative of all of us regarding anything at all in which we feel superior, bound to offer an opinion about something we know nothing about and are, in reality, utterly ignorant.
Here is what it is like to sleep on the back seat of a small car in a foreign land every night:
Step 1: where will I sleep?
Evening falls and I am looking for somewhere to sleep that is neither intrusive nor bothersome for others. This means I am casting about for shadows, dodging streetlights that meddle with sleep, testing the vibration of here and there and there and there for the unknown and unimaginable. I am looking for somewhere safe, yet subtle. Unseen, yet within coo-ee of help should I need it.
I am furtive.
Step 2: overcome the murderer in my mind
The moment I find somewhere that might be suitable the voices in my head fire up with all the possible ways I might be murdered this night. I breathe through these wretched scenes, ever and always answering the voices with reason and solution – the car giving me the ready advantage of a locked capsule and a horn for emergencies.
Step 3: reason with illegitimacy
I am a vagrant. A vagabond. An itinerant. A tramp. A drifter. A hobo. I am disconnected from time and place. A woman on the street with no legitimate purpose. I am without worth.
What I am not, for here society has no mercy, is a beggar.
Step 4: wait for darkness to fall
In the northern lands darkness takes so very long to come – at this time of year, about three hours. That is a very long time to wait. So I watch. I lurk. I am a surveyor of human affairs. I am a stalker. A tracker.
Not once in all my ten evenings on the street did anyone glance at the watcher.
Step 5: overcome all the grief of my life
Strangely, into the silence of waiting for darkness, night after night, would step a cloaked stranger with a gilded invitation to revisit the unendurable pain and grief of my life. I gave him no time, no attention. I observed him, that’s all, for this I understood: his invitation to dance is a portal through which the homeless will pass at their peril, for beneath that cloak of sheltered darkness lies despair and from there drunkenness and after that anguish, despondency and hopelessness.
Step 6: last dribbles
At some point between my final snack, most commonly bread and cheese, chocolate and mandarins, and sleep, I clean my teeth. This means driving to an isolated area, unless I am already in an isolated area, and spitting toothpaste onto an uncivilised patch of ground. It also means finding somewhere to pee before bedtime.
This also means I am not drinking as much water through each day as I should, so as not to pee in the night.
Step 7: surrender
Each and every night, as darkness finally lays waste to light, I slip into the back seat of the car, having already puffed up my sleeping bag and folded my jacket into a decent pillow, doing my best to keep my head below the windows (so those who want to murder me do not know I am there and those who want to move me on do not know I am there – invisibility, illegitimacy).
I slide into my pyjamas – a pair of long johns and a long sleeved t-shirt, both fine merino wool, socks for my feet – and then wriggle into my sleeping bag.
I snuggle down and then, as my eyes seek out the stars and the moon and the deep blue of night, and my spirit pursues the wind in the trees or took comfort from the rain on the roof, then, only then, would come the welcome sigh of surrender.
What will be will be; and what is, is that I am in love with the night and the morning light to come.
This was the gift of my champagne homelessness.
Some nights I slept snug as a comforted baby. Other nights I felt like a peanut sleeping in two parts of the back seat, tossing and turning, carefully so as not to draw attention by rocking the car, seeking to ease the ache in my kidneys or the tension in my unstretched knees.
Living in the car enabled me to catch every dawn and every sunset, the midnight glide of every moon. Being homeless ensured I was in an elevated state of presence – nothing claimed my attention other than that which was relevant to me in any given moment.
It is important to remember my homelessness was a choice, because it would be a mistake to transfer my bold statements onto others whom life or circumstance has thrown onto the street.
For the price for these freedoms was disconnection from the human world humming around me, and with that disconnection came dispossession.
There was a night I paid four precious pounds for crap tomato soup in an overpriced pub and sipped on a brandy, just to keep my own company in the company of strangers: it was here that I noticed that the more disconnected I became, the more unworthy I felt, and the more unworthy I felt the less able I was to enter into easy connections with others.
This was the legacy of furtiveness, the penalty I paid for my life in the shadows. I could say the situation was exacerbated by the terse nature of the Scots, but I have noticed the same energies that played with me playing with the hearts and minds of the homeless all over the world.
What was truly interesting to me was the resentment I began to feel towards those on the other side of the inpenetrable castle walls that are modern society – not about what they have (families, friends, abundant food and warm beds), but about their possession, their ownership, of everything they could possibly lay claim to, including the most basic of human needs – toilet, respect, safety.
And this is how I understood that we the privileged create the furtiveness we mistrust in itinerants. Our mistrust and fear locks the toilets, for example, so ‘they’ won’t mess them up or sleep in them or take drugs in them or drink in them or have sex in them or god only knows what other stories we tell that compel us to lock the toilets.
Most of us will never ever ever need a public toilet after 8pm – yet we lock them.
When I was visiting Grand Canyon I stayed in Flagstaff, where one morning, sitting on a bench outside the library, a pair of homeless men started up a conversation with me while they waited for the library to open. They usually lived in Phoenix, but it was so hot there, they’d scrounged a bus fare to get away from the summer. Here, I now know, is why they were waiting for the library to open:
* somewhere comfortable to sit and keep cool from the heat of the day,
* a place to engage in legitimate purpose,
* a haven in which they might keep the quiet company of strangers with whom they shared an interest,
* unquestionable right of access to public toilets.
I don’t know if we who belong will ever ‘solve’ homelessness, for however any society organises itself there will be those who thrive on the system, those who buckle down and conform, and those who fall well outside.
What I do know is that those of us who belong could be kinder, we could see more than we do, and instead of opening our mouths and saying the stupid things that unconsciously shape our world, we could look deeper – a little or a lot deeper is up to us.
Because all of us are have contributed to the story about the man who set himself on fire, and other stories like it that occur every single day all over our beautiful world.
We could seek small solutions, for example, instead of indulging each other’s penchant for mock moral outrage.
We could knock on the door of the woman who could no longer bear the burden of the drunkard alone and say ‘I am so sorry, I hope you know this was not your fault’ or ‘I am so sorry, we should have done more to help you’ or ‘I am so sorry, is there anything we can do for you now?’
How hard is it to keep the toilets open?
At the very least we can admit our powerlessness before that which we do not understand.
Perhaps our world would be kinder if we didn’t possess everything, like others have no right to what we ourselves don’t even want.
Perhaps we could start paying attention to people who know a lot more than we do about the various issues that cause us academic disquiet (when they do not intrude on our own lives) and headline drama (when they do).
Mostly, we could just spare a thought, at the dimming of the day, for the people left in the screaming silence of emptied streets, when those we cannot see must settle on the shoreline, without money in the too too bitter cold, and wait for the human tide to return.
For me, my homelessness was fuelled by a longing to be outdoors in beautiful places, a need to save myself a small fortune in accommodation and a yearning to be braver than I am, to be free from the fears that shape and limit my world (or at the very least familiar with the voices in my head).
I wondered often if being a woman alone made me suspicious in a way men are not. Certainly the dimming of the day is a time most difficult for a woman traveling alone, with or without financial resources – perhaps this is why it is only ever women who say to me ‘I would love to do travel (to x or y or z) but I do not have the courage’.
My inspiration to keep going, as I settled into my nights, was my son, Ben, who walked 7000 kms from Canterbury to Jerusalem, mostly alone, finding his bed wherever he found himself at nightfall or beyond: the loneliness endured, the emptiness shared.
Like mine, his was champagne homelessness; not in any way representative of what it might be like to be without true resources.
What I know is this: homelessness reinforced my courage, but perhaps and probably only because it was a choice; it illuminated my role in the perpetuation of unkindness in our world (sorry, ignorance is not an excuse); and it reminded me how to live simply, each according to their need, and let each moment be my guide: this is the very least I can offer our beautiful world.