COLUMN: The “endless benefits” of being homeless

True, the benefits are endless.

Free food: You get to walk to and from each place that serves meals. As you wonder whether your belongings will still be there when you get back to wherever you are living/sleeping. As you carry the things you cannot risk losing, no matter the weather, no matter the weight.

Free laundry: You get free laundry service, if you get to the laundry sites early enough that you might be one of the first. Whether or not you are early enough to be able to do laundry that day, you get a free workout, lugging your laundry there, and back. And getting to do that again tomorrow, if too many others got there first this morning.

Free restrooms: If you can find them. If they are open.

And if life, health, and/or meds happen in ways that give you short warning about needing the restroom, you get the adrenaline rush and exercise of racing to the nearest open restroom, hoping it’s available; hoping a shop might let you use theirs, if a public restroom isn’t nearby. And you get practice at dealing with embarrassment if you don’t make it in time, and if you don’t have a clean set of clothes to change into. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Another benefit.

Free showers: You get to wait in line for showers, without the luxury of just walking to your closet or dresser for clean clothes. You get to wonder which agencies might have clean clothes to share if you haven’t been lucky enough to be chosen for laundry earlier this week.

Freedom: You get to sleep under the stars if you want to. Hoping you don’t get robbed, assaulted, raped, peed on, or beaten up simply because you are unsheltered.

Free character building opportunities: You get to be out in the world each day, practicing one of the four agreements to never take things personally, as people call you a bum and worse; as people scream at you to get a job. (Even if you already have one. Even if they have no idea why you are not able to work yet, or ever.) As people rev their engines or honk their horns loudly as they drive by. As some people throw fireworks at you. As some people shoot a bullet up into the air as they drive by. As some people do wheelies by your camp and have a loudspeaker narrating what the homeless people are doing, as they laugh and jeer. As people treat you as if you are invisible or vermin each day.

Free housing and other things: You get to navigate the processes to get onto housing wait lists, and other supports. You get to share your story and embarrassments and low points to show why you might be eligible for housing or other programs or basic life needs. You get the benefit and practice in learning bureaucracy and Escher loops.

Shelter: You get to wonder if you can find a shelter bed, as you might also wonder if you can be with your partner and/or pet. You get to ponder the pros and cons, risks and benefits of pursuing shelter separately, and wondering if the benefits are worth the worry and concern and fears you may feel about your partner and safety if you might need to separate until a shelter might have beds for both of you.

Cloak of invisibility: You might wait till sunset and then wait till darkness rolls in before you find a corner to unroll your sleeping bag, hoping no one sees you. You might wake up as the sun rises, to pack everything up, so no one might see you and know you’re one of those homeless people.

Home: You might have a morning where you slept under the stars next to the river on a lovely warm night. And you might wake up to the prettiest sunrise, and bunnies close to you, and a neighborhood cat sleeping on your tummy, because you’ve befriended him and now he’s befriending you back. And you might revel in that one perfect morning that feels like connection and home-ness. Before you get up to real life.

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Lynelle Wilcox has served people experiencing homelessness in Salem for six years - initially volunteering at warming centers and homeless events. As people shared their stories through the years, she saw how much a smile and hello can create commonality, connection, and sometimes hope. And hope can change everything. She writes about some of the things she’s learned along the way, and shares some of the stories. She adores her kids, and loves vivid colors, cats, happy clothes, music, cooking, skies, dogs, and daisies