"It was a dark and stormy night" may just be a cliche to you, but to me it can mean life or death, depending on how cold it gets. Staying dry doesn't matter if it isn't too cold, and sometimes it isn't worth the enormous effort it takes to shelter myself. When it snows, like today, shelter is priority one, even before food. It takes a whole lot more than those old blankets people keep handing out, thinking they're helping. Well, they are, a little. But if you live out in the elements, it takes at least four layers to stop the cold of the concrete from seeping through, and at least one better be waterproof. Nobody out here really has enough hand-offs, sheets of cardboard, and plastic trash bags to ever be really warm and dry.
I found a covered doorway last night that kept a lot of the wet off me, but there was enough wind to make it less than perfect. I don't have a shopping cart like some of the people who have been out here a long time. I have a little suitcase on wheels with a broken zipper that I found in a dumpster. It has some cartoon character I've never heard of on it. I'm still learning what I can keep and what just weighs me down, and the most important thing I'm learning is that staying dry isn't optional, it's absolutely critical.
I went to college, just like most of the people who pass me on the street. I didn't finish, but I knew enough to get a pretty decent job. I'm glad I didn't have kids, because my husband would have hurt them, too. It took years for me to run, to give up the job, to drive to a different city in a different state, to build a whole new identity so he can't find me. It was tough to choose to run, to give up any security I had. It felt like jumping off a cliff. But when somebody's chasing you with a baseball bat, you jump.
I lived in my car for over two years before it was stolen, along with everything I owned. At least that happened in summer, when not having a jacket didn't mean certain death. But man, that first winter outside taught me things I never dreamed I'd need to know. Now in my third winter outside, I'm an old pro, and I try hard to lend a hand to newbies, especially the younger women like me. I know how vulnerable they feel, and I know at what price those survival lessons come.
A couple generations ago, people could live without property. There was open land. There were fruitful trees and it was OK to catch wild animals to eat, and to build a fire, and to pitch a tent. A hundred years ago, people didn't have to have jobs to earn a living -- they could live off the land, provide for themselves through ingenuity, cooperate with neighbors and share resources. Nobody thought you were crazy if you carried a pack and traveled, always looking for a peaceful place to rest. And if a stranger knocked on your door and asked for food, you gave it to them, because nobody deserves to be hungry. Sometimes you asked for help chopping wood. Sometimes you let them sleep out back under the eaves.
Maybe it's just because there are so many more people now. Maybe access to so many "things" has convinced everybody that we all need all of them. He who dies with the most toys ... still dies. We don't trust anybody anymore. Everything is competition. People don't even know their next-door neighbors.
Let me tell you, when your survival is on the line, you KNOW your neighbors. You'd better be darn sure you know who to trust and who to be wary of. You share, no matter how little you have, and you know others will share with you, because we don't look like much, but we're people too, and each of us matters.
You'll usually find me crouched up against a building during the day. It's partly how I conserve my body heat, it's partly to be unobtrusive, and it's partly because you all have convinced me that I'm just in your way. I might suffer from a little mental illness -- post-traumatic stress or something -- who wouldn't, living this way? But I don't do drugs, and I never hurt anybody. My wish, every day, is that when you see me crouched there, you'll give me the benefit of the doubt and behave as if I were the same as you.
Susie Snortum is passionate about improving society's compassion for meeting basic human needs -- food, shelter, clean water, and dignity.