A room of one's own

When I’ve been homeless, the hardest part has been the lack of privacy. The “privilege of privacy” is something many take for granted, but for those of us who have experienced homelessness firsthand, privacy becomes a mindset, rather than a physical reality. And that fortress of privacy within one’s mind adds to the wide chasm between the housed and the homeless, often making homeless people seem “crazy” to housed folks. And when one has been forced to make mental doors that shut, since physical doors to shut for safety are nonexistent, it is as if there is a change to one’s soul.

Homeless people are burdened with an obligation to hide, while given no privacy. Often homeless folks learn to “hide” mentally, like an ostrich hiding its head in the sand. It is a sanity tactic, even if it appears “nuts” to people with privacy privilege. The ability to shut a door with 4 walls is something many take for granted. Such privacy affords a human a moment to let down his guard, emotionally and physically. Physical privacy allows a person some rest, a moment to rejuvenate. But homeless folks never get that moment to relax, let down their guard, and rejuvenate. Kept on alert at all times, guarding all belongings, and self, in public, is exhausting, both physically and mentally.

To many people who have been homeless and lived on the street, getting away from people is their greatest dream. Already tainted as untouchables or the unwanted, people have collectively left a bad taste in many homeless people’s hearts. And the constant exposure to other people is as eroding as any physical weather elements. Honestly, I found the constant exposure to people to be much more dangerous to my mental and physical health than the exposure to cold, rain, etc., when homeless.

This human need for privacy to regroup, to heal and recover from life’s traumas, to feel safe, emotionally and physically, is something the “housing first” movement understands. A movement to HOUSE the homeless, with no strings attached, is a big step forward, being promoted by organizations such as “Pathways to Housing.”

Pathways says it is inhumane to hold homeless people “hostage” with a laundry list of obligations to get stable BEFORE receiving help with housing. And it is true that many people WITH housing, and large incomes as well, cannot conquer their drug addiction and mental health issues. So to ask low-income folks who are homeless to conquer those demons FIRST, as a prerequisite for housing, truly is cruel and inhumane.

Pathways believes “only housing cures homelessness.” That sounds so simple, but it is quite profound. They are saying that the issues of drug abuse, mental illness and homelessness are separate. They are saying those 3 issues entail separate remedies, and that the remedy for homelessness is actually quite simple compared with the other issues. Curing homelessness merely entails providing stable and secure housing for the homeless. “Pathways” provides permanent housing of the tenant’s choice, and then offers voluntary, not mandatory, programs to help tenants with other issues, such as drug addiction or depression.

“Pathways” understands that when homeless, survival is first and foremost. Self-improvement tales a back seat to survival, when homeless. By giving homeless people some privacy, some alone time, and some safety, and by giving them a “physical” door, so they can open the “mental” doors they shut long ago, “housing first” programs are healing the souls of homeless folks.

Often privacy is the most necessary missing element for the recovery of a homeless person’s hope and faith, and a return of their dignity. Often privacy is the missing prerequisite for peace in the souls of many homeless people. The privacy becomes a symbol of safety, even. We come to know we are safe, because we have privacy.

Although many homeless people appear to be anti-social, due to shutting emotional/mental doors to compensate for no physical doors to shut, I think there is a process to opening back up to people, to trusting again, to re-integration…and ironically, getting alone time, and privacy, can be the first step to overcoming anti-social behaviors.

I was a homeless kid: in institutions, foster care, as a homeless teen. The message I got was I was an unwanted party crasher on this planet. I was taught to hide myself in this society as a child. I have been homeless as an adult in my past, as well. I have reoccurring nightmares involving doors. I will rent an apt., move in, then realize the front door has a 10 inch gap under it, between the floor and its bottom, making it easy to enter under the door, even when locked. Or I move into an apt. and the front door literally falls off when I shut it, as if it has no hinges, etc. My father broke down my locked bedroom door in a drunken rage in my teens. As a child in MacLaren Hall, a torturous holding place for unwanted and severely abused children in Los Angeles, I had no privacy, no doors to lock out the violent guards and children who were acting out what they had seen adults do to them. Doors are a big thing to me….and many others like me.

“What is a room without a door, Which sometimes locks or stands ajar? What is a room without a wall, To keep out sight and sound from all? And dwellers in each room should have, The right to choose their own design And color schemes to suit their own, Though differing from mine.” – Pete Seeger

Read the author’s other work at www.kirstenanderberg.com. Also, check out www.pathwaystohousing.org.