But You Don't Look Homeless...
A few friends and I met in Los Angeles at 101 Café on a Saturday afternoon. Per usual, we ate well and laughed until we cried. We also spoke about our future goals and how we planned on achieving them. Jasmynne-Shaye Robbins was one of those friends, and she revealed that she was planning something that involved feeding the homeless. I remember the excitement emanating from her as she shared her new endeavor with us. I felt like I wanted to help a bit but wasn't sure how I could. I asked a few questions and quietly thought about her answers and how I could participate in her vision. The conversation changed, as conversations do, and as the night slowly crept up on us, we all said our good-byes and went our separate ways.
The next day while running errands, Jaz’ enthusiasm replayed in my mind. I was also reminded of my own personal experiences with living in poverty.
The majority of people who know me aren't aware that I experienced homelessness three times. At one point, I lived in my car for 11 months. I would freshen up in a McDonald’s or a gas station, and in my mind I normalized it. If someone were to have asked me then if it was difficult, I would’ve said no. It had gotten easier when I had money for a gym membership so I could work out and shower.
I also know what it feels like to be confined to the dollar menu at every fast-food restaurant. I remember going to a Mexican restaurant that had Tacos al Carbon for a dollar. These are single tacos with two flour tortillas. I would separate the tortillas and make two little tacos. Obviously it was the same amount of food, but in my head, I was eating two tacos instead of one. Perhaps that sounds silly, but it helped. When living in your car, you are only eating fast food because there is no place to store or cook anything. Restaurants with dollar menus and small items not only helped me eat but also allowed me to do so without having to worry about leftovers, which would spoil and be a waste of money—money that was already difficult to come by in my situation.
Fortunately, during my last bout with homelessness I wasn’t alone. I was dating someone who was also recently homeless. Homelessness, for most people, is embarrassing and something that you want to forget; and even though I have their blessing to tell this part of the story, I will still be circumspect when it comes to them. I am mentioning them because they are an integral part of my journey, considering that their presence made the situation easier for me to tolerate. They had some family trouble and needed a place to stay, but when they finally found an apartment, it turned out to be a shady, unsafe environment. They knew my living situation, and we decided that it’d be a good idea to be in the car together. The stakes were much higher because when they were hungry I always provided, no matter what. I won’t go into details, but my love for them would never let me see them hungry, even if I didn’t eat. On the days that we had nothing to do and we needed a break from looking for jobs, we'd go to the Ralphs grocery store on Sunset Boulevard and sit in the coffee shop. We'd each have something small like a yogurt or a protein bar. It sufficed for the time being; I suppose, because it had to. What was important was that we were surviving and we had each other.
There are numerous reasons I ended up without a roof over my head more than once, but ultimately the recurring theme was lack of money. I lived a life where, if there wasn’t money coming in, then it cost me more than the next person. There was no living with my mother until I got back on my feet, no father to give me money to "get by" during rough times. A few friends let me crash on their couches here and there, but for the most part I was on my own. If there was a miscalculation, if I lost a lost job, or if I simply couldn’t afford living in a place, I found myself in a friend's living room or in my car, looking for a safe place to sleep. At one point I was living in my grandmother's home after she passed away. I don't recall if anyone knew that I was staying there, but I woke up one morning to a white family of four staring at me. I knew sleeping there was temporary, but I didn't know that it would be only a few weeks because, unbeknownst to me, the house had been sold. I quickly grabbed my belongings and left, embarrassed, shell-shocked, and out on the street again.
Thankfully, the one constant during my times of homelessness was that I had a car. Not everyone has that. I can't imagine where I would've been without that car. But there were still challenges. Many times I was awoken in the middle of the night by police flashing their lights in my face while asking me a million questions. Often I was ripped from my sleep by someone either staring at me or trying to open my car door. It was traumatizing, to say the least, but I was still, in a way, protected. In February 2017, a new law was passed: parking for habitation purposes on residential streets from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. is now banned. It wasn’t that long ago that I was homeless, and if this would've been a law during the times that I was down and out, it would have definitely exacerbated my already precarious situation.
The few people I told my secret couldn't believe it. I would always get replies such as, "Wow, really?” and, “But you don't look homeless." I would feel good about that, but now, writing this, I am reminded of the hard work it took to be homeless and not appear that way. In retrospect, being homeless was, in fact, extremely difficult—one of the most difficult experiences of my life. Apparently, it isn't mentally or physically healthy being in survival mode 24/7; I know that now.
Memories of my homeless encounters combined with a desire to find my purpose consumed me. Not in a bad way—it was mostly subconscious throughout my day. I'd have a memory and I'd sit and think. Months prior, I had read books written by some of the greats such as Wayne Dyer, Charlene E. Green, Eckhart Tolle. I had learned so much in a short period of time, and my life was changing. There was a quote I read somewhere—I am not sure who said it—but the power of the message was like a blinking fluorescent arrow pointing me in the right direction: "You find your purpose in life by being of service to others."
With all these thoughts rolling around in my head, along with the conversation with Jaz at 101 Café, I quickly arrived at the conclusion that I was 100% sure that I needed to be right alongside her in the project, helping in some capacity.
Fast forward a little over a year, and I am wonderstruck at how much my life has changed. I'm not saying that feeding the homeless is my sole purpose in life; what I'm saying is being involved in work that is selfless, work that isn’t about you or what you can gain, changes your life for the better. The stars have aligned for me in other areas, and during dark times they've shined brighter to help me see my path more clearly. Many doors have been opened for me recently, and I'm sure these serendipitous occurrences are a result of my work with Healing, Hope & Love. After our meeting at 101 Café, I am glad that I followed that nudge of not only helping but also agreeing to be the program director of Food For Friends. I am also proud to hold the coveted title of Treasurer with such a prestigious non-profit organization. While working with Healing, Hope & Love, I have learned so much about myself, and I feel honored to be part of the "action step" that forces me to be better and gives me the opportunity to make a difference. This is only the beginning, and I am ecstatic about what is to come.