Originally published on thepaltrysum.com
In the middle of the storm it is hard to see the wood for the trees, the wind from the rain or the good from the bad. I lived in that storm for most of my adult life, and it is only in the last week that I have been inside looking out at the storm from a position of relative safety that I have been able to take stock.
I left my husband in early May 2015, got into the hotel shelter-in-place program in November 2020 and into my apartment on August 30, 2021, I think. I can’t work out if I have been in here for five minutes or five days: It has been a blur of keys and beds, doors that lock and windows that close. A banquet of quiet nights without crack-fuelled parties, people trying to break into my room in the shelter, nor the endless round of “welfare checks” three times a day, various interruptions, meetings and demands on my time and emotional energy.
I always said I would never go into a shelter again. Since my marriage at the end of the 20th century, I have been homeless in the periods that I was not living with him. This is because Japan refused to allow me a divorce and a settlement. I was chattel–and to a certain extent I still am. He will not divorce me, and the laws and barriers that stand in my way mean that I am still married to a man that I haven’t seen since 2015. When I ask him why he will not agree to my leaving the marriage he tells me there is only one way out for me–feet first in a box. I have to survive and outlive the motherfucker to give myself the luxury of standing over his grave to make sure that he is not getting out of it again. The masters of the war on women, the male pillars of the patriarchy, will not let me off so easy.
He currently lives in a different U.S. state to me–he is a legal and upstanding resident of this country that I love. Besides beating me up, and as far as I know, one poor girl in college in a U.S. state decades ago, he has never been in trouble with the law. Having sold the Tokyo apartment from under me and hidden the money, he is happily living and tormenting me from afar. Not far enough. I cannot leave California to go to his very dangerous red state, to try and push a divorce. I was refused a divorce previously in multiple countries. How can that even be morally correct? I don’t want to be married to him—he should not have the right to refuse to allow me to leave that marriage. Lawyers have told me that “men get very angry when you try to take their money” and to offer him a divorce whereby I do not ask for any portion of the pensions, investments, property or savings, nor alimony or child support, and accept a divorce with no financial settlement. I recently decided to give up on justice and a settlement, and offered him just that. A divorce, free and clear–he gets to keep his money and I leave a twenty-something year marriage, after having my health destroyed, with nothing. He refused. Feet first. My only way out. He can oblige if I decide that I have had enough of breathing.
So that is how I became long-term homeless. No family, no friends to help. No savings. No access to family bank accounts. No credit card. No cell phone. No checkbook. Nothing. Not only nothing and nobody to help, but also two children who needed me more than anything. I was not allowed to work in Japan after I married. He forbade it. If I was going to walk away from the beautiful big Tokyo apartment that ‘we’ owned, I was going to walk away to no home at all. No home for me. No home for the children. No money. No health care. No schooling. No safety. The marriage reduced me to the point of utter dependency. I was so depressed and constantly injured that I started to diminish. I withered away. I stopped eating through lack of food. I started drinking, stealing “his” booze from the cabinet like a bad child. The pain I was in on a daily basis threatened to destroy me. I remember staring down at my legs, purple from toes to thighs, swollen and hammered on with chair legs and fists, desperately unwell from an STD he passed to me from his unprotected visits to prostitutes, lip split, children hanging round my ankles crying, not enough food for myself, barely enough for the kids, having to cook him steak only for him to throw in the trash while I looked forwards to my once every three days meal.
I had been homeless for much of my adult life. Previous to going to Japan, life had been peppered by periods of being unhoused. At 17, I ran away from home because I was being abused. I went from being abused as a child, to living on the 13th floor of a tower block, sleeping on a mattress on the floor of a shooting gallery where I was squatting with a group of other young runaways, addicts and misfits. I moved around, couch surfed, temporarily joined communes and traveled. My drug problems spiraled out of control, and I ended up on the street in a large city. To try and sleep outside, under the street lamps, trying to find the brightest busiest place possible, near bathrooms or at least a park to piss in, fighting blue light in bathrooms that is set up so you can’t see a vein to hit, fighting hunger, fighting exhaustion and the grime. Socks turning to stiff brown sweat and dirt soaked cardboard, feet rotting. My toes turned black and green, partly from using my feet to hide my IV drug habit from johns, partly from an inability to clean up. Showers were luxuries. I detest being dirty. Being so filthy was torture to me. Hair greasy, stinking, that sweet straw-like smell that clings to those that lack hygiene facilities, itching, rotting, deteriorating. I had gone from functional to desolation row and back again so many times I gave up on any chance of a life that would mean anything.
All this time I wrote. I wrote in notebooks, I wrote on the guitar, I wrote and I played and I encouraged those around me: the clowns, the thieves, the circus acts and the seamstresses. There is a certain camaraderie in the gutter, the backseat of the beaters, the hitchhiking successes, the festivals and the flickering of the street lamps. To be able to turn a light off when I want to is a luxury that I have rarely had during my adult life. Sleeping in the dark with no one watching me is a rare wonder. I feel human, instead of feral. Out there you will find street philosophers, blues players, nurses and docs, chemists and enforcers. Out there you will find a guy who will give you half his last sandwich: the widow’s mite. I taught my babies the rules of the road. Buying a single gingerbread man, I broke it into two equal pieces: we don’t have much but what we do have we share.
I tried to leave many times, ending up in homeless offices and shelters with small children. Each time driven back by The Hague, which does not allow the victims of domestic violence to remove their children from their habitual residence without their abusers’ permission, I started to get very angry indeed. “Don’t look back In anger,” the ‘90s Brit-pop band Oasis admonished me. The Gallaghers were always Beatles-sounding cunts. Faux anthemic drivel. Not fit to kiss Blur’s Adidas trainers. When I started out, I put my life in the hands of rock and roll bands, beat poets, writers and dealers. “Take that look from off yer face… you ain’t gonna never burn my heart out.” Liam isn’t giving up. Nor will I. My anger is never going to burn out. My life was destroyed by childhood abuse; heroin saved me from hanging myself from that big tree opposite my so-called “parents” house. Fuck Prozac. Prozac doesn’t stop the movie flickering through the brain of a young woman who cannot make sense of the abuse she has lived with since she was too young to even comprehend what was hurting her and how. I did the best I could to stay alive. I lived by a creed of not hurting others. I earned my drug money on my back and knees, not by stealing or harming others. They were going to take it anyhow; so, might as well get paid for it.
I’ve slept using boxing gloves as a pillow, I’ve slept in soaking wet sleeping bags, and I’ve slept in parking lots with two kids, feeling like the most useless mother alive. At least I didn’t let him kill me and then kill them in a family annihilation. This is what it cost me. Everything. I read newspaper story after story of men killing their wives, children and pets. When he brought me a kitten and used my adoration for the little furry bastard to torture me further, my blood ran cold. “I could kill all of you and say sorry. Japan would let me go,” he said. “I will tell them that I was stressed at work and you gaijin. I just say ‘gomen.’” I started to believe him. Sleeping in a bundle with my kids and the cat, not ever relaxing enough to not sleep with one eye open, dragged out of my bed to be raped night after night. When I say I will NEVER fuck a man again, despite my natural bisexuality, I am not joking. Never, ever again.
So when I ran and ended up living on the road for five or so years, it was the only way I could stay alive and try to survive as a family. I am angry, all right. I am incandescent. I was a young woman when I married Mr. Charming. I am now an old girl, my sight deteriorating badly on one side because of an injury to the eye caused by the abuse (the split in my cornea healed poorly and was not treated correctly. The scar sticks to my eyelid when I sleep and is torn off every morning when I open my eye. I cannot afford the medicine which might delay the need for a surgery I will probably never be able to afford). I walk with a permanent limp and desperately need an orthopedic consult to find out what happened to my broken and poorly healed leg that leaves me in constant pain. I am deaf on one side due to being hit round the head, and I am covered with scars. My son is traumatized, but brave.
The shelter-in-place hotel system in San Francisco saved our lives. I was not going to last another winter outside, and the kiddo could not work on school work adequately, despite being home schooled, because we moved around and rarely had books or internet, electricity or even water access. When he started online school in SF, finding he was a grade ahead and seeing him shine was perhaps one of the most beautiful realizations of my entire life: I hadn’t done a bad job despite everything. America’s homeless families deserve access for their children to schools, showers and bathrooms. They need food and shelter and support. Instead we were often turned away from food banks because we lacked documentation. My son turned away from schools. No online school or homeschool institution wanted to donate school books when I asked, not even the supposedly ‘Christian’ ones. Christian, my ass: they are businesses who don’t show mercy on unhoused children who need free books. I’m looking at you, Sonlight. Forget asking certain states that allow children who are undocumented and homeless into their public programs–we were turned down time after time.
Homeless families need to not be charged for safe camping. Many nights, I went without food in order to make sure we slept in a safe campground with at least water. Many times, we were left dodging security who would move us on from parking lots that were empty. We were silent and well mannered. Still, we were not permitted to stop. This land is not yours or mine: the homeless are not even allowed to sleep in empty parking lots, and then the housed wonder why the unhoused throw shit on the streets! Don’t look back in anger? Don’t throw away people’s possessions and move them on from where they are sleeping and trying to live. People have to be somewhere. If the city opened up unused hotel rooms and offices to the unhoused, then people could live in a way that is not disturbing to their housed neighbors. Of course, people are angry and desperate, and that leads to erratic behavior. There have been times when I was so angry, I could not function. Angry at where life had thrown me and my children.
It is important when you see people walking down the street swearing and shouting, cursing and spitting, throwing shit and piss, shooting hard drugs and smoking crack, that YOU understand what drove them there. I know you are good people, I know you care about people and not just about property prices and the view being mussed up by the products of a society’s cruelty to those who are victims of that very same society and of life itself—people like me.