by Jack Bragen
Our streets have become a dumping ground for unfortunate people who could not keep up with the expectations of society. In the bottom of our socioeconomic structure there is a giant trapdoor through which people can fall if they can’t keep pace.
Disabled people who can’t keep up with full-time, professional work will often fall through this trapdoor. If their family is unwilling or unable to provide enough help, this lubricates the hinges of the trapdoor. If the unwary person takes on predatory credit, it adds extra momentum downward.
All these prospects are terrifying.
I am 59 years old, and my chances of obtaining full-time professional work are nil. I continue to exist thanks to people in the social services systems. But I know that I need to get in gear with something. And I haven’t arrived at the holy grail of a good source of enough money to live on.
When young, we have an illusion of immortality. That goes away at about the same time that the inevitable medical conditions that come with getting older enter the picture.
I never thought this would happen to me. And now I’m scrambling to make it not happen. And that’s my agenda at this point.
I’ve watched television news interviews of people who ended up homeless. Their stories often involve close relatives turning their backs. In my case, it is not so much that relatives are turning their backs—my family is great. Yet most members have very limited resources and can’t house me if something were to go wrong.
Unfortunately, the term “safety net” is outdated and ridiculous.
From where I stand, I’m trying to prevent my own homelessness in part by looking at what didn’t work for other people who fell through that trapdoor.
Where I live there is a possibility that many tenants will be evicted in the coming months. The building is scheduled to be renovated. I haven’t dealt with the possibility of eviction because I was too preoccupied with meeting my immediate needs and dealing with the aftermath of physically separating from my spouse. I had an opportunity to move to more permanent housing several months back, but I was so spent—having moved to where I am now that I couldn’t wrap my mind and body around doing a second move so soon. But now it strikes me that I was in denial.
Because I wasn’t dealing with facts well enough I could end up reaping grim results.
Yet I can’t really be homeless. I probably wouldn’t survive more than a couple of days on the street. I have medical issues, and I don’t have the physical ability to withstand the elements or to postpone eating and drinking.
MONDAY MORNING: I needed to do my cigarette run before the parking situation would become impossible (Where I live the parking gets filled by 8:30, and any empty spaces are rapidly filled).
I drive to the nearby convenience store.
I get out of the car, and a man who sits on the ground thirty yards away yells, “Good morning!” in a loud, warbling tone. I do not respond. I go into the store, buy a pack of cigarettes, and step back out the door.
A woman stands nearby, maybe ten feet from me. She is blonde haired, pretty and wearing a jean jacket.
I do not respond. I wanted to say sorry and that I needed to hang onto my money. But I do not speak, and I get back into the car. And I am acutely aware, this could happen to me. But it couldn’t happen, because if I were to become homeless, I wouldn’t last, and there would be no ability to stand and ask for spare change.
I return to the parking space I’d just left in front of the apartment building. I hobble to the elevator on painful, arthritic knees. I get to my unit, and I think to myself, this apartment building is one rung above being homeless. So I hope the management is happy with me.
I want to get into housing where there is no fear of being cast out. I need to upgrade my gig work so that it can bring in decent money. Can fearfulness induce better performance at this?
I am not young, and yet I can see a long and difficult road ahead. I can only hope to resolve my overall situation and to have maybe a good ten years of not struggling and remaining in adequate health so that I can enjoy a few things.
This is not the life I had hoped for. My chances were compromised at a young age when I became mentally ill. I had an encounter with the criminal justice system, was diagnosed with schizophrenia and put on medication, and was told that I would do “fairly well for a long time,” in the words of Dr. Trachtenberg. He was from a generation of psychiatrists who lacked any real empathy or humanization of mentally ill patients.
At the time I became mentally ill homelessness had not reached the immense proportions of today. Having some type of housing was presumed a given. Through the 1980s into the 1990s and to today, the structure has changed. It has become normalized to see people falling apart and dying on the streets.
If the best that I can hope for is five or ten years of “the good life” then I’ve been robbed. But for now, I will be happy when I can be in safe, clean, comfortable housing, a home that’s not in jeopardy that I can afford.
The danger of homelessness and the horrifying consequences that come with it are modern-day realities. They are genuinely real specters for millions of Americans. Yet the biggest obstacle keeping me from taking action to avoid it is my own fearfulness. If I can act from a place of confidence and not fear, I will be one step ahead.
There is no reliable method of predicting the future. And there is value to living in the now. If I can be happy right now, with what I have—and without what I don’t have—I might be getting the most I can get. This is not to discard working for a better future. This is not to discard anticipating future disasters and attempting to avoid them—these are necessary things. Yet it helps to take a vacation from the avoidance of future calamities. And during this vacation, I can enjoy a sandwich of salami and fake cheese on white bread. I can enjoy room temperature instant coffee that I wish I could put ice into. When I have that, I’ve given myself a few moments of relaxation, and I can take a breath, and eventually take on my problems when I am ready to do so.
Homelessness often strikes people when they get older and when they do not have parents to fall back on. So, I must be especially careful. My mother is like an angel. She has often lived vicariously through her kids. She has done things for her kids that are far beyond what should be expected. My mother is God. And when I get to the point where I cannot rely on her help, I will truly have to be a fully grown man, and this will be a very hard thing to do.
But some day—and currently I am approaching age 60±I will have to be a man. And this transition will be necessary, a stage in growth and development that has been postponed far too long. And in the process I’m writing stories about it, stories that will outlive me. No one can predict the future. But maybe my stories will last a while and will entertain and enlighten people in future generations. And maybe that makes it worth enduring a little bit of fear.
Jack Bragen lives and writes in Martinez, California.