Homeless Patrons: Mini-Training (Part 1 of 5)
Homeless individual's lives are substantially different than yours in at least five different ways:
Homelessness is Exhausting
It is exhausting to be homeless.
I used to run a “poverty simulator” for college students where I would put them through a simulated homelessness experience for a weekend.
Everyone who ever did the simulator was shocked at how tired they were by the end. Most groups had to take a nap in the middle of the first day. A few people got migraines. One person threw up from sheer exhaustion.
There are a few key reasons why homelessness is exhausting:
Homelessness is Boring
In order to better understand the life of the individuals I serve, I have multiple times tried living in the shelter for days at a time (and even walked the streets). Every time I do it I am shocked by just how bloody boring it is.
Given just how boring it is, I am not surprised by how many homeless individuals are avid readers: books break up the monotony and keep the mind sharp.
I have no doubt that library staff are the group that takes its reading most seriously. I am also certain, though, that homeless people are a close second!
Imagine being cut off from most of your friends and family.
Imagine being unemployed (and possibly unemployable because of mental health issues).
Imagine that you don’t even own a TV that you can watch when you want (if the shelter has a TV you have to watch whatever and whenever they choose).
Imagine having many hours every single day where you had absolutely nothing to do.
What would you do to fight off the boredom and exercise your mind?
Since you work at a library, I am guessing that you would do exactly what MANY homeless individuals do: You would read a book!
“Space” is Different
Homeless individuals do not look at space the way that you and I do. The reason is quite simple: they don’t have any!
After a hard day at work you can go home and relax. You have a bedroom you can retreat to. Perhaps you even have a den, office or finished basement where you can go to be alone. At a minimum, you have a private bathroom with a door that locks.
You have space that is uniquely yours where you can go to be alone and unwind.
Homeless individuals do not.
If they have a rough day (which is most days) there is no square footage anywhere in the world that is entirely theirs. Anywhere they go to be alone (a park, a port-a-potty, an abandoned building) can have intruders at any moment. At a minimum, they are always at risk of intrusion from criminals and over-zealous law enforcement.
Shelters are crowded noisy places. Soup kitchens are crowded noisy places. Clothes closets are crowded noisy places.
Can you even imagine what it must be like to have absolutely nowhere in the world that is “yours?” When I worked in a shelter, I would come home after a long day and wonder how many of the residents would love to have a home the size of my bathroom!
Because of this, libraries take on a new level of importance for homeless individuals. While it is not private space, per se, libraries do offer an uncrowded quiet environment where individuals are usually left alone as long as they don’t cause trouble.
In other words, libraries are a decent replacement for private space!
“Possessions” are Different
Imagine that you will be evicted from your home tomorrow and that you have nowhere to go.
Think through all of your bags (backpacks, suitcases, etc.) and decide which one you will use to pack up what you want to take with you. Keep in mind that you will have to physically carry it. Backpacks are more comfortable, but suitcases offer more space.
Now that you have picked a bag, think through which of your belongings will fit. Wedding photos? Baby photos of your children? A present you received from your deceased father? Birth certificate? Toothbrush?
Now what clothing will you bring? You will only have room for clothing that is appropriate for the current season. How many pairs of socks? How many shirts? What would you pack?
Every homeless individual is forced to go through what you just imagined. Actually, they are usually forced to go through it twice: once when they are evicted and again when they get to the shelter and realize that there isn’t space to store everything they originally chose.
Most shelters simply do not have space to store all the belongings that people would like to keep. At Hesed House where I worked, individuals received their own half-locker (donated from a local high school), but only when we actually had an available locker. We maintained a waiting list for people who didn’t have a locker yet. Some shelters have more storage space; others are not able to store any belongings.
So, if someone comes into your library with a garbage bags of belongings and refuses to part with them, please remember that it may contain the only remaining pictures that he has of his deceased parents.
“Time” is Different
How often do you think about retirement? About where you want to be in five years? About this time next year? About next Christmas? About what you have to do next week? How often do you think about tomorrow?
Thinking about the future is a luxury.
When you haven’t eaten in two days, next week is irrelevant. When the temperature drops below freezing unexpectedly, tomorrow doesn’t matter.
The mere act of surviving today makes it very difficult to think about tomorrow.
So, if it appears that a homeless individual has not thought about the long-term consequences of an action, they may literally have not thought about any time beyond where they are going to sleep tonight.
Of course, in the long run this is a very unproductive approach. Long-term plans help us climb out of our current circumstances. Unfortunately, it is a vicious cycle where a survival mindset traps individuals in a situation of merely surviving.