VOICES FROM THE STREETS: A wake-up call

In an interview for the last issue of Spare Change News, I spoke a little about the last time I was homeless four years ago.

It didn’t last very long, about three or four months, but it was just a tad traumatic for me. And yes, traumatic is a bit of a strong word. But it was how I felt. I mentioned it briefly in another column when it was happening, but I never really talked about how I felt.

In fact, until I talked about it to Andrew I hadn’t really thought about it much either. It happened rather suddenly. My relationship of 12 years had ended and I had been off the streets quite a while before this relationship began. Truth is, after my girlfriend and I broke up, I could have stayed.

As you may imagine it was just a little awkward, so I packed my gear put it in storage and left. I left in the morning so it didn’t seem so bad at first. I went to the proper agencies and got started on my housing search.

I thought to myself: “I can do this.”

But as afternoon turned into evening, I started to feel differently. It was a warm night. Harvard had its graduation that day so there were people everywhere. That old lonely feeling I used to get began to creep in and I was beginning to think leaving my ex’s was a bad idea. I started thinking that this shouldn’t be happening to me.

I was still the president of the Homeless Empowerment Project at the time and everything seemed so wrong. I dreaded going to a shelter that night so I slept outside. Naturally, I had to get wasted to do that. I made it through the night and went to the shelter the next day. My routine for the next few days was to get up early, shower and head out the door before anyone got up.

I had food stamps so my breakfast for a while consisted of bananas and yogurt, as these had plenty of protein, so my diabetes wouldn’t act up. Then I would head over to the office for the day.

Sometimes I’d go sell papers.

I was staying at the Caspar shelter in Cambridge, mainly because the staff knew me from years ago. Sadly it is a wet shelter and even though there were permanent beds for those who didn’t partake in illicit substances, you still mingled with those that did. There were nights when I just wanted to go sleep in the street so I wouldn’t have to deal with the insanity.

I met a girl at the shelter and we became friends. She had an opiate problem (why me?), but she gave me a reason to go in at night. My housing search wasn’t going well. Someone asked me—being who I am, didn’t I know anyone who could pull some strings for me? I replied: “politics is funny.” He didn’t know what I meant and I wasn’t gonna explain it.

I ended up in the hospital at one point for what I first thought was a heart problem but turned out to be food poisoning. While I was there I talked to someone about my situation and how I was on the edge and was having trouble sleeping. They prescribed me Xanax.

I went back to the shelter and you know what they say: “If you lay down with dogs.” Things went sour pretty quickly. I took a leave of absence from Spare Change News to try and get myself together. When I got out, my friend had been booted out of the shelter. We couch surfed until we ended up at my son’s mother’s place. She had remarried long ago but we were still friends. She had heard what was going on and was worried.

My friend eventually went her own way but I ended up staying. It’s been four years. Maybe I needed that experience to remind me who I was. I’d become a little cocky and self important.

When you get like that, God gives you a wake up call. So be careful peeps, you never know when you’ll get yours.

James Shearer

James Shearer is a writer and co-founder of Spare Change News.

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