Moving up and looking back

Gary aka John Doe
Spare Change News

When thrust into a situation that takes you out of your element, you become vulnerable. When you’re with strangers that are in the same, or a similar, situation, there’s a comfort brought back within you. It’s not a matter of “misery loves company,” however; it’s a common ground that makes you feel less alone, and in this some very strong friendships can be forged.

I’ve met some amazing people and heard incredible tales. But more significant, I’ve made some of my closest friends since becoming homeless, and it’s a pure form of friendship, devoid of any room for judgment or egos.

Also, beyond close friends, there have been many I’ve come across whom I’ve reached out to in an effort to help, as well as those who come to me for advice and advocating. All of these people are important to me, as I want to see people move forward rather than backward or remain stagnant.

To further this point, I’m currently in a soup kitchen near Harvard Square writing this article, and a guy I know from my old shelter came in. Let’s call him Steve. Steve has been sitting here telling me how he’s given up, and is planning on heading into “the hills” for the winter. The sad part is that he’s dead serious, as he’s spent the last four winters outside.

I’ve been begging Steve for weeks to take more aggressive steps with his caseworkers and advocates, but he has been in this game, losing, for so long now that there is just no fight left in him.

This is where the point of this article comes to light.

My very first article for Spare Change News was a recap of my first night in a homeless shelter. Oddly enough it bordered on a fluff piece, in the sense that by the time I arrived I was extremely cold, tired, and hungry after days on the street and hospital. It was a good experience considering the situation.

However, since writing that article I have been in the shelter system, and observed its flaws and strong points. I have soaked in every bit of knowledge from this process that I could, and learned to play the game on two different levels at once.

My payoff finally came, and my perseverance landed me into one of the most exclusive shelters, not just in Boston, but possibly the country.

I now come “home” every night to a hot meal, as well as wake up to a hot cup of coffee and lovely selection of breakfast items and juices. I now sleep on a real bed, with real pillow instead of ½ inch thick vinyl “pillows” and “mattresses.”

Even more significant is the restoration of my sense of dignity. For the last four months I’ve endured jail-style toilets with zero privacy, I had not slept past 6:30 a.m., went months before being able to walk freely in the night air, forced to remain outdoors on weekends in storms when there are no soup kitchens or drop in centers open.

In the last week I was able to use the bathroom in private, sleep in on the weekend as well as come and go as I please. Able to come “home” at the end of the day, have a hot meal, and then go back out if I so choose, or simply go out into the yard and read a book or write.

I’m greeted by friendly staff every day. I have an amazing team assembled, consisting of some of the best social workers, housing advocates, therapists, and caseworkers in the business.

Most important of all is that as long as I follow the rules, which more than fair and simple, I can remain in this “house/shelter” until I’m housed!

With all these wildly amazing opportunities I’ve been given, one with think that it’s all smooth and easy. However there is something that I did not foresee: The guilt that comes with moving forward and leaving your friends behind, so to speak.

There’s a guy who became a great, and trusted, friend. Him and I entered my last shelter on the same day, back in May, for what was regulated as a 90 days in, and then 30 days out program.

Upon my arrival, I immediately took full advantage of any resource available to me, as well as the ability to think and plan clearly that comes with the security of knowing you’ll have a roof over your head, albeit a short time. Without ever losing sight that I had 89 days to work on securing a roof over my head for the 30 days out.

When fixing something like being homeless, is your number one priority, you are already setting up for disaster.

While we moved along together, I had helped my friend obtain some public assistance like food stamps, health insurance, and so on. However, he had a stubbornness in him that held him back at times, and just maintained the attitude that it would work out. There was always that promised week of work, or a room to use, that simply never panned out, or was even properly pursued.

When our 90 days was up I had already secured a 30-day extension, by actually selling myself to the board of directors with a “Client/ Guest Proposal.” I still look back and believe that I only got the extension because I confused them with a proposal and they simply didn’t know how to take it, so figured I’d probably be easier to just let stick around, regardless of not technically meeting the criteria.
So on that day, I stayed behind, and watched a dear friend go out onto the street, with no plans, ill equipped gear, and a long extended forecast of rain rumored to be coming.

Five days had now gone by. Through dedication and relentless persistence, in spite of uncooperative circumstances, I had pulled off getting myself into this new shelter that was going to now help me get housed, and let me stay until that comes. I was to check in that night by 8:00 p.m.

As the day went by, I tied up a few loose ends, packed as much of my belongings as I could carry in the pouring rain, and walked to the gazebo to stay dry while I waited out the time before I could check in to my new shelter. When I got there, I ran into my buddy. He had apparently been sleeping there trying to stay dry, even though he had been outdoors in the rain for days, and everything he owned was soaked beyond belief. He was shivering, and could barely move from the long days he spent on the streets, with a hopelessness in his eyes that I had never seen before.

After hours of pleading with him, he finally agreed to go to the emergency room, and finally take advantage of that health care he obtained. As my day was closing, and I was preparing to move to another chapter in my life, my friend checked into the hospital, and I left the Boston suburb and returned to Cambridge.

That night, as I arrived, I remember being excited simply seeing that the address where I was told to arrive was a house. Nothing like the old fire station I was previously staying in. I walked up to the porch and rang the bell. I was greeted by a delightful inviting woman, who immediately made me feel welcome.

She gave me a tour of the house, and I recognized a few faces from different places I go in “the circuit,” as well meet others who seem quite happy and content. Not before long I was offered a hot meal, and a cold beverage.

As I sat there eating my hot meal, excited about my new environment, but also concerned for the friend who was now in the hospital, another event was unfolding with another extremely close friend, back at the old shelter.

My buddy there, let’s call this one Sam, was an amazingly brilliant man with two masters degrees, a crazy sense of humor and energy, along with an ability to stand up to anyone and always say his piece. Being very eccentric, not many understood him, and to an extent he was always sort of “protected” when I was there, out of respect for our friendship. However within the first night of my leaving, things got very heated for him in the shelter, and a problem was quickly escalating between him and several other guys, as well as him going after shelter management on a variety of issues.

The following morning, I got up very early from my new comfortable bed and quiet bedroom that I share with two others. As I woke, I thought my mind was playing tricks on me; however, it was true. I could actually smell fresh blueberry pancakes being made. The house staff greeted me with a smile, and offered me pancakes, along with a huge assortment of other breakfast items to choose from. I took a sip of my coffee, and drifted away for a moment at the delicious taste, compared to the awful coffee–if lucky enough to get it back at the old shelter.

While I was enjoying my breakfast the friend back at the old shelter was making a silent exit at dawns first light, because he could no longer stay there for fear of being beaten, or worse.
I found him that morning a block away from my new “home.”

Steve is now staying on the streets, where he feels safer, not far from me, and we still see each daily and share a meal, or a good talk. However, it’s hard for me to enjoy my new, relatively speaking, luxurious lifestyle, while those closest to me are moving backward.

As I wrap this up, I can at least report that Steve has left the hospital and is now in a 28-day program, where afterward he can then return to the old shelter for another 90 days, and hopefully do it right this next time around.

My other buddy, Sam, I just left an hour ago, and he is off doing his thing, and working on his writing. I managed to acquire a two-week guest pass to the YMCA so he’s at least been able to shower, but there’s a hurricane coming this weekend, and no matter how hard I try I can’t convince to go back into another shelter.

With harsh weather including the recent hurricane, I am able to simply stay inside, sleep late, and watch a little TV. I worked hard for this. I beat impossible odds for this. If only I could truly enjoy it.

GARY AKA JOHN DOE writes a blog at