I sent off resumes and scored occasional interviews. But the interviewers mainly wanted to hear Hollywood stories and then said, “Thanks we’ll be in touch.” I don’t blame them. I’d hire the person currently working in the magazine business instead of the guy who had a lot of amusing stories about comedy writing but hadn’t worked in a publishing environment for more than a decade.
By 2008, with the older children off at college or working and my job prospects bleak, Marina and I decided to separate. She moved to San Francisco with our two youngest daughters and settled in temporarily with two of our oldest daughters who worked there. I could no longer even afford to house myself. I found friends to take in my two remaining high schoolers.
And then I became homeless.
Yes, I, David Raether, the smart and funny guy who graduated with honors from college and read thousands of books and played the piano and went to church and won television awards, was homeless.
What happens when you hit bottom? I can tell you one thing: you don’t bounce back. You crawl back, fighting every step of the way. It isn’t a straight arc back up either; there are dozens of setbacks every step of the way. And the place you land isn’t anywhere near where you were when you slipped off the cliff.
In the first days and weeks after I became homeless, I was in a daze, utterly and completely disoriented. I felt like a boxer staggering around the ring after a rapid series of blows I didn’t see coming. It took me several months to figure it all out.
When you become homeless, you face a number of practical issues. In fact, when you are homeless, all you face are practical issues.
Where am I going to sleep tonight?
What supermarket has the best samples today with the most protein in them?
How am I going to deal with rainstorms dumping water into my usual sleeping spot?
I have a job interview; I have clean clothes, but how can I make sure I don’t smell?
These are the issues you deal with on a daily basis. Dreary, boring, painful issues that relate directly to your body. And that’s because homelessness is a dreary, boring, and often painful condition.
Your days are very long. The rhythm of work followed by home is gone. It’s replaced by long stretches of empty time. No company, no conversation, no deadlines, nothing.
Several years earlier, one of my sons played on a mainly Hispanic soccer team in Bell Gardens, a working class Hispanic suburb of Los Angeles. I got to know one of the fathers quite well. He was from Guatemala City.
“What’s Guatemala City like?” I asked him one day.
“The days are very long in Guatemala City,” he said.
That was all he said about his life there. And that would probably be the best description of life as a homeless person. The days are very long.
In my past life, I spent a typical autumn Saturday reading the paper and drinking several pots of coffee while working two or three crossword puzzles. Around 11 a.m., Marina and I would drive one or two or six of the kids to the farmers’ market in the parking lot at Pasadena High School. Then we would return home and I would come up with an interesting set of reasons for not working in the yard while settling down on the couch to watch college football. Several hours later, I’d pour a glass or two of wine as the day turned into night, watch a movie, and settle into bed. Not much of a day, really. But when I think of those days now, they seem like some kind of lost paradise.
A Saturday during my homelessness went like this.
I would wake up around 4 a.m., brush myself off, and wander around the streets for awhile until Starbucks opened. I’d spend what little money I had on coffee and hope someone left a copy of the Los Angeles Times so I could work the crossword puzzle. I’d wait. And wait. At 10 a.m., the Pasadena Central Library opens. I would walk up there and surf job websites and send off some resumes and read articles online during my allotted time until noon, or, if I was lucky, early afternoon.
That was the hard part of the day. I’d be hungry. Really hungry. A week since I had a real meal hungry. I’d walk over to Whole Foods on the Arroyo Parkway, which has good food samples on Saturdays, grab a cart, and pretend to shop. (It always helps to put some items in the cart to look the part.) The fruits are by the door – I’d grab a bunch of orange slices and watermelon chunks. Next I go upstairs to where the muffin bits and cheese chunks are and gorge as subtly as possible. I’d return the unpurchased items to their places in the store and exit.
By then it would be mid-afternoon. I’d dream of lying on a couch in a warm living room, watching college football. Instead I would walk to another public library to access the Internet. As the sun sets, I’d head to a coffeehouse in South Pasadena called Kaldi where I could find someone to talk with. It wasn’t the company of loved ones, but they were decent people who didn’t ask too many questions about my circumstances.
Night. At 8 p.m. I’d return to the Starbucks. I would find discarded copies of the New York Times and start working the crossword puzzle. And that was Saturday.
Sundays were the same, and so were Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday and Friday. On public holidays, the libraries closed and I needed to find someplace else to spend my days. Only the rare job interview broke the monotony.
Gradually, however, I adjusted. I accepted that I was not going to have a career anytime soon, but I did need a job. I was not going to own a house, but I did need to find a place to live. I couldn’t cook or afford restaurants, but I did need to eat.
After the first few disorienting weeks of homelessness, I got myself up off the canvas and begin to bob and weave and shake my head. I sniffed the ammonia capsule of reality and realized that I was in the biggest battle of my life.
During the nearly 18 months I spent homeless off and on, and during the ensuing years, I learned that I am more resourceful than I ever imagined, less respectable than I ever figured, and, ultimately, braver and more resilient than I ever dreamed. An important tool in my return to life has been Craigslist. It was through Craigslist that I found odd jobs — gigs, they often are called — doing everything from ghost-writing a memoir for a retired Caltech professor who had aphasia to web content writing jobs to actual real jobs with actual real startups.
Excellent op-ed in the Winnipeg Free Press by Sam Tsemberis and Vicky Stergiopoulos
In Canada, we conducted the largest randomized controlled trial of its kind in the world on homelessness by comparing housing-first to services as usual (the At Home/Chez Soi study) involving 2,255 participants who were homeless across five Canadian cities (Moncton, Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver). The one-year results, recently reported by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, indicate HF is significantly more effective than services as usual in providing stable housing for people who had been homeless for years and who have complex clinical needs.
Also compelling was the finding that for every two government dollars invested in the HF program, $1 was saved. Savings were even greater for those who used services the most, with $3 saved for every $2 spent.
It’s no wonder the federal government supports housing-first: It is highly effective and can save money.
So Canada is on the right track. We have both funds and evidence-based policy for moving forward on homelessness. However, we still face two major hurdles in order to successfully meet a housing-first model.
First, the majority of programs currently funded across the country can be described as providing services for people who are homeless. Shelters, drop-in centres, and especially transitional or short-term housing programs must be helped to shift resources to programs that end homelessness instead. We will need to invest in providing training and consultation services to communities so they will obtain the guidance and support, timelines, and performance indicators necessary to move the system toward this new, much-needed direction.
The second hurdle concerns implementing housing-first programs so they are consistent with the basic principles of the model that achieved the outstanding outcomes in the At Home/Chez Soi study. Housing-first moves people rapidly from shelters or the streets into stable housing and provides evidence-based clinical and social supports to address social, mental-health, health, addiction, educational, employment issues and others. By providing services using a team approach and co-ordinating housing, clinical and social supports, this model reduces problems associated with fragmentation of services and improves inter-sectoral collaboration that usually plagues individuals and families seeking treatment.
In other words, housing-first, if implemented properly will transform public services across the country as we know them, and to do this effectively, teams will need adequate support and guidance to do so.
In the Denver suburbs, as in much of the U.S., the Great Recession turned formerly stable families into the new homeless—and left many living in budget hotels.
At any given time, roughly 20 to 40 guests are staying long term. Since they pay by the week, they call themselves “weeklies.” To score the cheap rates, $210 for individuals and slightly more for families, they must pay in advance. Residents sign a form that lists the activities that could get them kicked out (mostly involving drugs) and warns that they won’t get reimbursed if they leave early, no exceptions. Some families stay only for a few weeks, some for months, giving the hotel the feeling of a dormitory. A rotating cast of front-desk clerks sells candy and rations towels and washcloths. Though some of the clerks are kind and helpful, the guests think of them as enforcers, and the clerks tend to treat the weeklies less as customers than as undergraduates stealing toilet paper and sneaking in hot plates.
With its 121 rooms, cleaning service, and keycards, the place is not a fleabag. But it is also not the kind of hotel where the coffee pots and hair dryers reliably work or the comforters match the drapes. A traveler stopping here to avoid bad weather might notice the difference: a clerk who takes a little too long to offer grudging help, an absence of name tags for the staff, an empty spot on the placard that is supposed to provide the manager’s name, a stained lobby carpet, a guest or two with a slightly illicit aura.
Hotels have always served people who need an off-the-record place to live—sex workers, drug dealers—and the Ramada has its share of people who are hiding out. (Bounty hunters come to the hotel so often that the weeklies know their names and say hi.) But in the aftermath of the Great Recession, the Ramada’s clientele shifted away from such regulars to include suburban families who had been used to staying in hotels only on vacations. Many of the families still had incomes. Some had long been struggling members of the working class, fighting to stay better than broke; others had fallen suddenly out of the middle class.
Across the country, suburban poverty rose by more than half in the first decade of the new century. Families now find themselves navigating landscapes that were built around wealth: single-family houses that are sold, not rented; too few apartment buildings; and government agencies hidden at the far edge of the suburban ring, more responsive to trash-pickup complaints than rising hunger rates.
I think this article actually made me experience and emotion and cry. Read the entire story and it will break your heart.
I was 12 when I first attended my first funeral. We had a friend at a nursing home and Mr. Crawford lived next door. We would go and visit our family friend and see him each time where he was quite nice to all of us, often giving me some money for candy and to get a coffee for my mom.
When he died, we went to the funeral chapel where his family went on at length about how horrible of human being he was and what a bad father he had been. We just listened but I was shocked when the minister started his eulogy with, “He was a very bad man”.
When I became a pastor, I did a lot of funerals. Some of them were celebrations of life, others were horrible to perform and yes, I buried some really bad men over the years. Each time I tried my best to respect the person and life that I was burying while keeping some sense of reality of the life they lived.
In the work I do now, our clients die very young. The drugs, violence, lifestyle and alcohol takes it toll on your body. Toss in HIV/Aids/Hep-C or cancer from the smoking and you have a really low life expectancy. I have helped more than one mother clean out a locker in a shelter where the only thing she has left of her son was a pair of jeans, a jacket, and really nothing else. I have always found myself hoping that there be something of value in there, a watch or a something of value for the parent to hold on to but there never is. Many tears have been shed by family members during those times.
In most situations I find myself boxing stuff up and realizing that for the most part, no one was going to come get it. Months later my janitor asks me what I want him to do with the sealed box. No one has come to get it.
Every couple of months I hear that a client that I had worked with has died. In each and every case I fire up my computer and Google their name. I search The StarPhoenix’s obituary website and I scour the internet to find out if it is true. I rarely find anything. Over the next couple of days I generally run into a member of the Saskatoon Health Region or the Saskatoon City Police and ask them. In every case I get the same reply that they have died.
They often die alone. There is no media coverage, no obituary, no will, no assets, and to be honest, almost no one cared. Many colleagues just block it out like it doesn’t exist. The file is closed and they are done. Death has never bothered me, neither does the grieving process but in these cases I find myself not sure what to do. The idea that someone has lived their entire life and there is no trace of it left seems wrong to me.
I guess as a blogger and a writer, I find myself in a situation where I write to process. After a sleepless night last night thinking of a couple of people that I had known well that had died, I came in early to work to write something, anything about their lives as I saw them. Of course I never know what do next. I tweeted this morning that I was struggling with his and it resonated with people but I don’t know what to do next.
Is the best way to mark one’s life to have a service provider eulogize them? My first encounter with one gentleman was when he assaulted Wendy with a bottle of Listerine she wouldn’t sell him in about 1998. Of course the other part of that story is that he would beat her at cribbage all of the time when she helped out at a drop-in centre. Do you tell the stories of abuse, residential schools, the people that they hurt.
One of the people that recently deceased was a women that I wrote about two years ago in The StarPhoenix. She had AIDS at the time, was pimped out by her boyfriend and was high for every single interaction that I had with her over seven years. At the same time I appreciated every single strung out conversation we ever had and I was saddened and sickened when I would see her beaten and bruised. It’s weird but I miss her.
They had a legacy with me and we have a bunch of stories that shaped me that are too bizarre to write here (somethings are only funny if you know the person)
The world doesn’t stop for death. When you die, people come together, tell some stories, each some sandwiches, sing some hymns, and drink some coffee. I am not asking the world to stop, I just think they should have some form of legacy.
In Toronto, they have a homeless memorial. In Saskatoon we have a walk to remember those lost in the sex trade but at the end of the day they were individuals that lived and died in our city, it would be great if they are remembered as such. The question for me to figure out, what is the best way to do that.
San Francisco is teeming with tech entrepreneurs who want to save the world but who’ll pass by the homeless person on the street without a second glance.
Doniece Sandoval, a Bay Area tech entrepreneur, is not one of them. Her latest trick? Turning retired city buses into mobile showers for the homeless. The initiative, known as Lava Mae, is a response to a desperate need in the city. According to the most recent count, more than 6,500 homeless people sleep on the street or in shelters in San Francisco, and there are only eight shower facilities specifically available to the homeless, and most of these have just one or two stalls and aren’t open every day.
I love the idea but I find the homeless number of 6,500 people more than a little depressing. The idea of showers and facilities for the homeless has also been done quite well in Seattle at Urban Rest Stops.
The Urban Rest Stop (URS) is a hygiene center providing free restrooms, showers and laundry facilities to homeless men, women and children within a clean, safe and dignified environment. The URS has five private shower rooms, 9 washer and 14 dryer units, and large men’s and women’s restrooms. Patrons receive free toiletries including toothbrushes, toothpaste, disposable razors, shaving cream, shampoo and soap. Patrons may borrow overalls while they wash their clothes.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada paid a visit to the Boyle Street Community Services in Edmonton on Saturday.
As Nicole Weisberg reports, the commission has been gathering stories about the impact of residential schools on Aboriginal Peoples across Canada — but this is the first time it has visited Edmonton’s inner city.
Excellent video explaining Housing First by the fine folks at the Calgary Homeless Foundation. Framing Housing First presents a 360 degree look at the concept through voices of people in the community, those working front lines, agency, corporate and government , volunteers and those who are now living in community
The video quality is poor but this is a great view of what is happening at Eva’s Phoenix