I was very good at keeping my homelessness a secret from people at work. I had opened a P.O. box and was using the post office address as my physical address for job-related paperwork, with the box number as my "apartment number." The mail was delivered to the box just the same.
I had my routine down pat. Wake up early, shower at Planet Fitness, make it to work long before everybody else so that my hair had a chance to dry, do my job and head home. I kept my work life and my personal life very separate and didn't usually bother making friends at work. At the end of the day, I wanted to switch off that part of my life. I wasn't the type to go out for drinks after work with coworkers. There was only one occasion when I can remember my two lives bleeding into each other.
It was an employee's birthday, so my boss took the staff out to a local Persian restaurant for some congratulatory falafel. Since the recession was such a popular topic at the time, the conversation soon took that turn. Before I knew what was happening, my boss's partner exclaimed, "I just don't get it! There's absolutely no reason for anybody, even in this economy, to be homeless. I have lots of friends who've been laid off. They're not homeless yet. They're looking for new jobs. The only reason for anybody to be homeless, ever, is because they're lazy."
He leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms smugly. I felt my blood begin to boil.
I cleared my throat.
"I'm homeless. Do you think that I'm lazy?"
A hush swept across the table. Fuck, I was in for it now. But I didn't care. Let them fire me. I couldn't keep quiet while someone was slandering homeless people.
Lazy? Why would a lazy person ever choose this life? You couldn't be both lazy and homeless. You wouldn't survive a week. I knew far lazier people who lived in mansions and thought work meant sitting in your office and playing solitaire while ripping off the ideas of younger, poorer, more talented underlings.
The pause seemed interminable. Then, the girl next to me, a coworker I'd spoken to maybe twice since starting, piped up, "My boyfriend and I lived out of our car for several months last year."
The boss and his partner seemed shaken.
"You never told us that."
"Of course not. Who hires a homeless person?"
"Right," I agreed. "There's such a stigma about it. You had such great things to say about my résumé and my cover letter when you called me in. You told me that I was far more coherent and articulate than hundreds of other applicants for the position, and that was why you wanted to hire me. But would you still have wanted to hire me if I came branded with the word homeless?"
I didn't lose my job that day, as I'd feared. But it did set everyone at that table to thinking, and I was glad that I could at least do that. And they all wanted answers to the usual questions --- how I came to work looking clean, looking normal. I'd allowed my coworkers to learn a little more about me, and I guess at least I was able to challenge the preconceived notions of a small group of people, made them question their initial perceptions.
One prevalent attitude I've noticed toward the homeless: Many people expect them to give up every last indulgence and every last shred of fun. We should spend all our time looking for work (never mind if we already do work, or are looking for work), or perhaps standing on a freeway off-ramp begging for change, or sitting in a government aid office, hoping against hope for assistance. We should spend all our time doing this. After all, if we take any lighthearted time to ourselves at all, we must not really want to re-house ourselves.
I should either be working, searching for work or otherwise appropriately ragged, depressed and undignified, befitting my station, is that it? I should give up absolutely everything to prove just how much I deserve a home, and just how sorry I am for whatever I have done "wrong" that "made" me homeless in the first place.
While I agree that it certainly behooves homeless people to spend their time and resources wisely, and set goals and priorities for themselves, there is an inherent human need for recreation, for relaxation, for fun. Everyone needs time to unwind, and that goes double for a homeless person, because there is little more stressful than this life. Priorities are individual, and I do not believe that the occasional bit of fun should be at the bottom of the heap for anybody, much less that homeless people should be judged harshly if they sometimes choose it.
Excerpted from THE GIRL'S GUIDE TO HOMELESSNESS: A Memoir © Copyright 2011 by Brianna Karp. Reprinted with permission by Harlequin. All rights reserved.