What I Learned When I Was Homeless
Home is a lot more than an address.
“Am I really homeless?”
That’s what I often asked myself during the months I was sleeping on my ex-husband’s floor, my clothes crammed into a suitcase next to my head.
When I thought of the word homeless, I pictured someone sitting on the sidewalk asking for spare change. I saw layers of dirty clothes, missing teeth, body odor. I imagined an old lady with a shopping cart, ranting unintelligibly.
I wasn’t sleeping on the street. I wasn’t begging for money. But through three whole seasons – from Halloween to Easter – I didn’t have a home address.
Most of my stuff was still at my ex-boyfriend’s house. I’d walked out on him the night he went on a particularly bad bender and squeezed my wrist so hard I thought it was going to snap. I’d go back to his place to pack and he’d stand over me, yelling that I was a loser, a bitch, a whore. I’d cry, he’d apologize, and I’d end up staying over. Not much got packed, but on those nights, at least I slept in a bed and not on the floor.
Most days I’d camp out at my local coffee shop, plugging away at freelance assignments. A woman used to have meetings there almost every morning, talking loudly about the book she was writing. Her voice was like a knife hacking its way right into my brain, leaving me struggling to string words into sentences. I’d grit my teeth and shove my headphones into my ears when I saw her coming.
Months later, when I had a new apartment and her book was published, I read a review of it, and the memory of those long days at the coffee shop came rushing back. I remembered sun glinting off the windows as icicles dripped on the sidewalk out front and people hurried past; I always wondered where they were going and wished I had somewhere to go. I remembered the banter of the old men who came in each day at the same time, and the smell of the toasted bagel with butter I ordered every afternoon when I was starting to fade.
It’s funny, but looking back at it now, that whole time is painted with a rosy glow. It wasn’t so bad, I think to myself. I’ve never been much of a homebody, anyway – never wanted to stay home if I could go out instead. I spent my childhood bouncing between my divorced parents’ houses, never quite feeling at home at either place. Maybe that’s why I’ve never let myself get too comfortable anywhere.
Not having a home at all forced me to think about what “home” really meant to me. It taught me that home isn’t an address. It’s a feeling.
Home is when one of my daughters tucks her hand into my coat pocket on an icy morning’s walk to school. Home is when I’m running through the park, watching the trees change color and drop their leaves, then bloom again in spring. Home is when I’m laying out my yoga mat and curling up in child’s pose, then stretching out and tilting my heart to the sky. Home is when I’m at church, holding hands with the people on either side of me while we pray together. Home is knowing I have people in my life who will never let me sleep on the street.
I’m about to be homeless again in a matter of days. As I sit here surrounded by boxes that will go into storage at various friends’ places, I try to remind myself of everything I learned the first time I was homeless.
I tell myself it will be an adventure, that plenty of people give up their apartments for months at a time to travel. I think how lucky I am to have friends who come together to form a safety net beneath me, protecting me when I fall. I think what a relief it will be not to wonder how I’m going to pay rent next month, not to have every dollar I earn go towards a place I could never really afford.
My children will be safe with their father, and I’ll still see them every day. As for me, I’ll keep searching for something I’ve never really had: a place to call home.
This post was originally published in 2018. Image via shutterstock.com.
Comment: Have you ever been homeless?
Elizabeth lives in Brooklyn with two daughters, occasional mice and innumerable to-do lists. She runs a nine-minute mile, bakes a mean chocolate chip cookie, and can always be persuaded to sing at a karaoke bar. Follow her on Twitter.