As I opened my eyes, I woke to the sounds of birds chirping and feeling the warmth of the sun’s rays beaming down on my face.
I instinctively dug into my plastic storage tub for the supplies to make a cup of instant coffee and thought for a moment that homelessness wasn’t all that bad.
Then I felt the all-too familiar rumbling in my stomach and realised that I needed to get ready to venture out on my daily mission to find food.
For 10 years, this was my reality – sleeping in tents in wooded areas that were marked with ‘no trespassing’ signs or occasionally roughing it for the night on a piece of cardboard laid upon the cool concrete sidewalks within local shopping plazas.
I would step out onto the curb of the footpath holding my tattered piece of cardboard with the word ‘hungry’ scrawled upon it in a faded permanent marker. Sometimes the light changed without any good Samaritan providing me with spare change and I would feel tears welling up in my eyes.
I’d also regularly get people rolling down their windows just to scream at me to get a job.
Yet, I needed to keep trying if I want to eat, so I’d say a prayer and return to the curb. When a person with kind eyes eventually rolled down their window and waved me over to hand me money, I’d thank them profusely and head to the nearest fast food restaurant.
While all of this was happening, I’d glance over my shoulder – afraid that the police would spot me begging for food once again.
I often resented the police. Where I lived, it was a traffic violation if a person was caught panhandling and I’d already accumulated a large amount of fines. When it was changed to a criminal charge and the cops threatened to arrest me on several occasions.
I kept thinking, ‘How could they expect me to not beg for food when I’m homeless with a disability (autism and bipolar disorder) and cannot easily manage to get people to hire me or rent to me?’
I first became homeless in 2005 when a vicious storm destroyed my mobile home. I was on track to get back on my feet but then the economic recession hit in 2007, which forced me to return to the streets.
I received disability benefits and struggled to maintain employment due to my mental illness impairing me socially and emotionally.
My husband and I tried to overcome homelessness – only to be repeatedly denied housing assistance through local programs, and for landlords to tell us that we weren’t ‘qualified’ rental applicants.
Even though my husband landed odd jobs here and there, it was only ever enough for us to rent an RV for a short period of time.
Eventually, frustration and hopelessness morphed into acceptance of our circumstances. We stopped trying to get off the streets and instead made the best of our situation.
We found solace in our group of homeless friends, who had become our surrogate family.
On one of my birthdays, my friends spent all day catching fish from a creek that ran alongside the highway so that they could cook me a birthday dinner on our propane stove.
Although my presents consisted of cupcakes with melted buttercream icing and birthday cards from the local dollar store, the celebration was among one the happiest moments of my life.
My friends had hardly any possessions, but they acted from their hearts. That’s how we managed to get by for such a long time.
Being estranged from my own family due to mental illness, I felt loved and accepted. My friends on the streets didn’t judge me because they were outcasts themselves.
We often got together, drank beers, cooked supper, and talked and laughed late into the night. Laughter became our medicine.
We would get creative with our signs, like when one friend held up a stuffed monkey and a sign that read, ‘Hungry, need banana money.’
A passerby must have taken a picture that went viral that day, because all of us were handed bundles of bananas. Even at our lowest point in life, we always managed to find a way to smile.
However, deep down I still yearned for more out of life. I had given up hope of things ever getting better so I sought an escape through reading, and I would occupy myself by reading books from the library.
The stories took me on a journey outside of my life on the streets. When I’d finish reading a book, reality would set back in and I’d look around at my camp realising what my life had come to.
Two books in particular touched my life at the time and they were Breaking Night by Liz Murray, which is about a girl who graduated high school while homeless, and Look Me In The Eye by John Elder, which is about a man with autism who became successful in life in spite of never having been understood.
Both of those books were a source of inspiration, escapism and made me feel hopeful.
For a few years, I also managed to attend college with grants and loans. I utilised public WiFi, bathed in my campus gym, and ate canned goods from the campus food pantry for lunch.
Initially, I felt embarrassed and self-conscious about being a homeless student until one day I presented a video tour of my homeless camp to my class and was flooded with support. Classmates would share their sandwiches with me, pay me to tutor them, and help me with clothes and personal items.
Due to my struggles, I often had to withdraw from classes and failed a few times, but I never gave up.
When I was awarded my Associates of Arts Degree (with honors) after three years, I felt a mixture of emotions including exhilaration, disbelief, and hope. However, my degree just provided general college education and didn’t seem to help me much with regards to a job search.
I felt awkward exiting the woods in a donated business suit and heels and was always filled with anxiety during job interviews. I did manage to get hired at a fast food restaurant and a scrapbook store, but neither job lasted long as my living situation affected my dependability.
Then one day last year – out of the blue – my husband received a call telling him the aunt who raised him had fallen ill and needed his help caring for her property. I felt very reluctant and terrified of leaving behind the life that I had come to know and moving to a rural area, but it was important for my husband to be with his aunt.
As we boarded the plane from Florida to South Carolina – paid through my disability cheque – and that’s when the fear and grief overcame me as we were leaving the life that we had come to know behind.
As of right now, I’m still living at my in-law’s house and having a stable address has made it easier to get established. We now have a place to store our belongings, we can receive mail, and we no longer need to worry about the cops running us off or the raccoons stealing our food, which has been a huge relief.
Although I quickly adjusted to having basic comforts like a refrigerator, TV, and electricity, paying bills has felt overwhelming at times and I have moments where I still long for the simple life, but I know deep down that if I was to return to the streets, I would be yearning for my warm bed within a week.
Since I no longer panhandle and lack transportation to get a job, I am pursuing my lifelong dream of becoming a writer, which is a career that I can handle being bipolar and autistic, and I now feel useful and productive.
I will never forget about my homeless family that loved and accepted me.
Although I have a roof over my head now, everyday continues to be a struggle. Fortunately, having experienced chronic homelessness, I have developed a sense of humility and gratitude.
I have the comfort of knowing that no matter what life throws my way, I’ll be able to survive, keep my head up, and still find a reason to smile.
In this exciting new series from Metro.co.uk, What It Feels Like… not only shares one person’s moving story, but also the details and emotions entwined within it, to allow readers a true insight into their life changing experience.
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