What I Learned While Homeless

A reflection on homelessness and its lessons after 10 years of sleeping on the streets.

By Mary Stewart

I recently relocated and reconciled with my husband to get off the street and receive the mental health care that I desperately needed. But my experience with homelessness will always be an integral part of who I am. And given my low income and barriers to self sufficiency, I’ll always be one SSI check away from returning to homelessness.

Looking back at the ten plus years that I slept outside, I realize that homelessness taught me a lot about life. Sure, when I first became homeless, it felt like an utter catastrophe, but over time it was more like an extended camping trip. It’s all a matter of perspective, and that applies to any adversity that we face in life — we can either allow hardships to make us, or break us.

I recall when I was growing up, I threw a fit at my tenth birthday party because my grandmother got me both a chocolate and a vanilla cake. I didn’t want a vanilla cake, but now it doesn’t matter if I have a cake at all. Homelessness has taught me gratitude. The things that used to matter to me now seem frivolous and meaningless.

The best birthday party I ever had was when my homeless friends surprised me by catching catfish all day to cook me a birthday dinner. They even spent their panhandling money on buying me birthday cards from the dollar store and placed candles on my melted butter cream cupcakes. I learned that the most meaningful gifts are the ones that come from the heart.

It’s really the little things in life that matter the most. After you’ve been homeless a while, the biggest blessing in the world is a cold glass of water. I used to be a vegan, and even though I still prefer fish, beans and vegetables, I have no issue eating a dollar menu hamburger. Once you know what hunger feels like, you learn to be thankful for just having food to eat — regardless of whether you like it or not.

I always felt alone and unloved after being disowned by my family for mental illness, that is until I became chronically homelessness — that’s when I experienced true friendship and unconditional love.

I created my own surrogate family out of my homeless friends. They didn’t care that I was mentally ill, low income and an alcoholic because they were also misfits. For the first time in my life, I learned the meaning of real friendships. You really do find out who your friends are when you’re at the bottom of the barrel.

One of the things that I enjoyed most about panhandling was that it gave me the opportunity to see people’s hearts. Sure, it was hurtful when a man told me that I was a pathetic excuse for a human being, and a woman told me that it was my own fault that I was homeless and pregnant. Those insults have seared into my soul and continue to affect my sense of self worth.

But, I also saw a lot of goodness in the world.

Homelessness gave me a chance to see both the best and worst sides of humanity. Many times, people have handed me twenty and even hundred dollar bills. Other times, they would simply smile and wave at me, and I appreciated their acknowledgment even though it did nothing to resolve my hunger.

Surprisingly, I liked it most when people took the time to get to know me and treat me like a human being.
One couple took me out to lunch at Burger King and bought me clothes at goodwill. They even gave me and a friend of mine care packages and checked up on us. I’m still friends with that couple on Facebook.

I never went without the entire time that I was homeless, even though I rarely went to soup kitchens or homeless ministries. Although I was never ashamed to ask for help, I turned more to prayer once the panhandling laws became stricter.

And I still received help!

I remember the one time I was sitting at a bus stop and someone suddenly jumped out of their car and ran two lanes over to give me a fifty dollar bill. Another time, someone handed me a twenty at the library. This happened several times.

Homelessness gave me a chance to see both the best and worst sides of humanity.

I don’t like to push my beliefs on anyone, but I personally can’t deny the existence of a higher power. My secret to survival was praying every morning and sharing my blessings with other homeless people. Homelessness definitely increased my spirituality. When I had given up on humanity, I had no one left to turn to but God, and He always came through.

Homelessness also taught me perseverance. When I was attending college while homeless, my advisor told me that I needed food and shelter before I’d be able to focus on education. But I proved her wrong. I went on to graduate with my Associates degree cum laude.

If you think about it, a tent is a shelter, and I either panhandled for food, or ate canned goods from the campus food pantry. It took hard work, perseverance and sacrifice, but I did it.

When you’re experiencing hardships and can’t find an immediate way to change your circumstances, your only option is to accept where you are at the moment and make the best of it. But you also need to know when to throw in the towel. In this last episode of homelessness I was pursuing my Bachelors degree, but the lack of mental health care in Palm Beach County led me to withdraw and relocate.

Now I live in a dilapidated house that has been in my husband’s family for generations, and I must say that housing is overrated. While I do enjoy television, electricity and a way to cook, it’s hard to make it without transportation. And my husband suddenly wants all the finer things in life that we can’t afford. I don’t need smart TVs, internet hook up, or air conditioning. I was perfectly happy in my tent without the amenities that the world has come to rely on.

I remember watching people constantly being on their phones oblivious to the world around them, and honking at pedestrians who were making them two seconds late to their destinations. In line at the gas station, I would see people spend a hundred dollars on lottery tickets with the hope of getting richer, when my friend was standing on the median hungry.

Homelessness changed my values and perspectives on life. While I was fortunate enough to stream free TV on my phone, most of my friends didn’t have that luxury. The world was our reality TV, and it made us realize how different we were from everyone else. We enjoyed the company of those sitting next to us, and were rarely in any rush to get things done. If we had a hundred dollars, it would probably go to beer and a huge cook out to feed our friends — or maybe a motel room.

I learned to improvise and put my creativity to good use while homeless. I even rigged an outdoor shower, and once built an oven in the woods to bake biscuits. It was a simple life where I woke up to the tune of birds chirping in the morning and fell asleep to the sounds of crickets. I currently have a quiet place in the backyard where I can still enjoy nature’s lullaby.

So, is homelessness really a catastrophe? It depends on how you look at it.

I personally think that homelessness made me a better person, and wish that others could have my learning experience. We live in a superficial world where iPhones, smart devices and designer clothes are considered necessities, but the truth is that you don’t need any of those things to be happy.

Sure, it would’ve been nice to finish college and have a career. I would’ve been able to pay off debts, get my license reinstated, and rent or buy my own place. But maybe that just isn’t in the cards for me. After all, I do have a disability that will continue to limit me for the rest of my life. Fortunately, homelessness has taught me how to be content on the barest of minimum.

The hard reality is that there are no guarantees in life. You can have it all, only to lose it in a heartbeat. Even the most stable person is subject to health issues, natural disasters, lay offs, divorce and stock market crashes — all of which can lead to homelessness. It’s not wise to become reliant on items that can be taken from you at any time. That’s not how you find true happiness.

True happiness comes from within and isn’t dependent upon circumstances, objects, or financial success. Nor is it dependent upon relationships — even though you should cherish every moment with your loved ones.

Everything in life is only here for a season. I may have it all today, and turn around and lose all of it tomorrow, but I know that I’ll still be OK.

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