I'm Homeless, And Reading And Writing Fiction Helps Me Make Sense Of Things
If my life were a novel, the summary would be this: I am jobless, broke, and homeless for the second time in five years. I don't know when or what my next meal will be.
I don't look like a typical homeless person. My hair is almost always in a bun. I carry a book, a notebook for my observations and random scribblings, and my cell phone. I wear a pair of headphones around my neck like a tattoo. Inside my bag is a portable charger. Like many people my age, my phone is always on.
But the similarities end there. My phone is always on — not to field a flood of invitations, notifications, or snaps, not to post vacation pics or navigate to parties — but because I need to be available every moment of everyday for just the slightest possibility that somewhere, sometime, a house might open up. In our area, and for people as poor as we are, homes for rent are so hard to come by and so quick to disappear that listings get several dozen calls overnight.
Everything I own is split between a storage shed and the pick-up camper we live in, a tiny space with one bed, a couch, and a tiny stove. “It’s like camping!” my mother says, though we can still see the glow of the Walmart sign across the parking lot, even with all the curtains closed. It is a bit like camping in that we had to prepare for it and it’s a lot more enjoyable when the weather is nice — since the roof collapsed a while ago, we try and keep out heavy wind and the worst of the rain via an enormous, roped-down trap. Just like when you go camping, you miss warm showers and your laptop after only a few days.
But I’m used to it. I know that is in itself a problem, because when I talk to people about my life, they pick out the smallest details and marvel over them: like, that lacking toothpaste is a Big Deal. I’m not a slob, but toothpaste has never been a priority over actual food to live on or gas to drive my brother to school — not when we had a home and certainly not now. I care about my teeth, but for five years I couldn’t even see a dentist because I’d aged out of state insurance. No amount of brushing could fix that.
I worried I would wear our poverty like a second skin. I was terrified that people would be able to see the truth by looking at me.
Before we officially moved out of our last house, I worried I would wear our poverty like a second skin. I was terrified that people would be able to see the truth by looking at me. But no one thinks twice of a young girl reading a book or listening to music, even if she has six different devices charging from a power strip in the corner of a fast food restaurant.
There is strength in invisibility. Loneliness, too. As the days blur together, I often feel as if I'm blurring with them. Disappearing into the background, blending, I sometimes feel not entirely real. My life seems to shift and break at odd angles, like a bad jump cut in a movie. A boy might compliments my hair, but I can’t manage a reply. All I can think about is how I haven’t been able to wash it for a week. Choosing between gas or food, sleeping in a parking lot in a heavy windstorm with only prayers and that flimsy tarp to keep the roof from leaking, considering shaving my head so it’s easier to manage without consistent access to a shower — this is my everyday.
It’s easier to imagine I did something wrong, made a mistake somewhere, than to consider the possibility that this could happen to anyone.
Many people have told me they had no idea how bad poverty and homelessness is in America. They never imagined that someone just like them could lose everything in a matter of days, even after months of hard work to prevent it. It’s easier to imagine I did something wrong, made a mistake somewhere, than to consider the possibility that this could happen to anyone.
The temptation is there even for me. It is easier, ironically, to distance myself from the reality of our situation when a homeless man asks me for change outside of a store. I’m not like him, I think — even if I’ve worn my shirt for a week. Even if I, too, want to beg — not for that kind of change, but for change, period.
It’s hard to see people living beyond these problems, on the other side of them, as anything other than characters in a book. I am so far gone from remembering that reality I feel as if I’m living two different storylines. One version of me is sprinting across a football field’s length of Walmart parking lot in my pajamas (in the rain at 2AM) just to use their restroom to pee, but it’s an entirely different person joking about Starbucks name misspellings on Twitter.
And then there are times I must consider several of my realities at once, like when I consider if it is even appropriate to joke about Starbucks at all. Can I share that publicly? Starbucks is expensive and I have made my financial problems very clear. Should I mention that I bought my drink with a gift card someone sent to my P.O. Box? Would that come across as bragging?
Maybe I shouldn’t post anything at all… I weigh the options over and over until I can decide what takes priority. I can’t be sad all the time, but I don’t want to be accused of lying if I seem too happy, or of exaggerating my problems. At the same time, I can’t seem like I’m wallowing, or taking advantage of people’s sympathy.
You must consider every outcome before making a decision. Uncertainty is the only constant.
Writing is my passage into new experience events and lifestyles I could never dream of reaching in my real life.
Fiction has always been my saving grace. Writing, like reading, has allowed me to discover new worlds without ever leaving my bedroom, to make friends even during my loneliest teenage years. It's no surprise then, that I grew up wanting to be a novelist. Writing is my passage into new experience events and lifestyles I could never dream of reaching in my real life.
Fiction is a lifeline. I have always clung to it. Maybe that’s because, at least in part, my real story is one I never wanted to tell.
Ironically, if I was the author of my own story, I'd be pretty pleased with my current predicament. Authors, by and large, are not merciful. Characters suffer, overcome, and then suffer more. When I’m planning out a new story, my guiding thought is to find the worst possible thing that could happen to a character, enact it, rinse, and repeat. Of course, that difficulty is always a preamble to a happy ending or a sudden resolution. By the end of the book, all the suffering makes sense because we see that it was necessary. That it was worth it.
In that sense, and if life does imitate fiction, the absence of hope is hope. If my life is a story, then all the bad things that happen are simply bumps, minor foothills that will eventually reveal something better on the other side.
By this logic, I am heroic. I am primed for action. I have nothing to lose. I am living in the "hope is lost" moment. Now is the time to rise up and overcome.
If I am the hero, that is. If I am the hero, this isn’t the end. It can’t be.
But what if I'm not? Stories need side characters, after all. What if I'm just meant for the sidelines, what if I’m meant to be a bit player, a foil, a cautionary tale? Not everyone is guaranteed a happy ending.
Fiction is an escape. It clearly lays out who the heroes and the villains are. Go this way for this outcome and that way for another. Even with dizzying turns, there is always some form of gravity. No matter how devastating the world becomes, there is always hope on the horizon.
In real life, you can never be sure that you are close to a happy ending, or that there will be one at all.
Reality is much harsher. Reality hides villains in the bodies of people you are supposed to trust. In real life, you can never be sure that you are close to a happy ending, or that there will be one at all.
Poverty intensifies this. Like a thriller novel, it takes problem after problem and builds upon them until it’s impossible to keep up. At a certain point, being poor feels less like an obstacle but instead the story itself. Poverty teaches you lessons of daily fear and of blind acceptance: Never hope for difference. Never ask for something better. Don’t aspire for more than you have (and don’t ever forget your gratitude), because poverty’s greatest rule is also its most common lesson: disappointment. Every opportunity — for a job, a house, even a partner — no matter how dangerous or miserable, is balanced against the possibility that the alternative is worse. There is always a worse. Upsetting the balance, no matter how precarious it is, might cost you everything.
Writing is such a distant dream — even for the well-educated middle class — that in me it feels sometimes like a form of delusion and even selfishness. What gives me the right to dream so big?
Some days I wish on everything I have not to want so badly. If I could just focus my passion elsewhere — or better yet, if it could go away entirely — life would be so much easier. Writing is such a distant dream — even for the well-educated middle class — that in me it feels sometimes like a form of delusion and even selfishness. What gives me the right to dream so big? What gives me the right to dream at all? I am supposed to want nothing more than an end to my poverty.
But I do.
In a way, I’m asking for even more than the homeless man who begs for change. I don’t ask strangers for money outright, but I did ask my YouTube subscribers to forgive my absence because of our crisis. I included links to PayPal and my Patreon page, ways to directly fund me. I am living off the generosity of others. I’m just doing it in a much more digital way (but what else do you expect of a millennial?).
But more than that, I’ve asked for something deeper. I’ve asked for blind faith. I have cried about my fear of disappearing. I have asked the world to wait for me, to give me a chance to tell my story.
I know that even if I do find a way to keep writing, my story will never speak for all of the other people out there living identical plotlines — not just the beggar on the storefront, but those who haven’t yet become him, and those so close to the edge they’re still controlled by it, trapped by ultimatums and relationships and jobs they despise.
Fiction is a way of making meaning out of things we fear are meaningless. On the days I feel invisible, writing makes me concrete.
My addiction to fiction, I think, is about more than just telling stories. Fiction is a way of making meaning out of things we fear are meaningless. On the days I feel invisible, writing makes me concrete. Published words take my life, and the lives of so many others, out of the shadows. Even in the dark, unseen and private, writing can take devastation and give it strength. Words can write power and purpose — hope — out of thin air.
I think there are lessons even in the way that fiction deceives. We need to believe in heroes, just as we need to believe in happy endings, even if we don’t quite know what they look like.
I need to believe.
Maybe that’s ultimately why I love fiction — not because it tells you how the world is, or even how it should be, but because it reminds you that the world can be written and rewritten, over and over, by anyone who cares enough to try.