I wrote this a few days ago but wasn’t comfortable posting it right away. Then I read this and was inspired to just go ahead and do the damn thing.
Here we are.
Squatting is a strange thing. Both places that I’ve squatted were places I had access to, technical permission to occupy – I had a key to each, after all – but to unroll my pillow and blanket was a silent prayer, night after night, to go unfound. I had keys but I stowed my meager belongings in boiler rooms and storage closets, hidden as I strove to be. The only alternative I had was to sleep in my car, which carries its own risks – I was ‘discovered’ there once, made to move along; had my car been unoccupied it wouldn’t have been an issue but with a person inside a vehicle became something else altogether, a house that couldn’t or shouldn’t be, a monstrous mongrel of a thing untolerated by comfortable middle-class capitalists.
Where one sleeps at night shouldn’t be a political question. But we’ve made it so, with ever-encroaching privatization of property and regulation of what little public space remains. For the homeless bereft of a sympathetic couch or floorspace, there’s no option that’s not of at least questionable legality.
I’ve returned to both of my squats subsequently, under respectable daylight conditions, with full knowledge and approval from the property owners or managers. It’s a strange place to come back to, a site of such furtive desperation made pedestrian by the function of its routine, bereft of the illicit frisson of nocturnal disappearance and unthreatening in the daylight.
Are we dulled by the conventions we create?
The second time I squatted – homeless at thirty-one, six years after the first time it happened – was both easier and more difficult than my initial experience. At twenty-five I was terrified by the newness of it all and in the second go-’round I at least knew what to do, although the weight of *again* fell more heavily than I might have imagined. But as physically and emotionally challenging as those times were (and they were), there was something badass in all of it as well; an inherent adventuresomeness that looked, from the right angle, like freedom. It was an extraordinary struggle and each night the possibility of discovery loomed but each morning I woke up a little bit gleeful, beating the odds for just one more day.
I am not supposed to say things like that. I am not, generally, supposed to talk about homelessness at all: I am a Georgetown graduate who grew up in a good middle-class family and there are those among friends and relatives who take my homelessness as an accusation against their ability to provide, against their values, against society at large. It was none of those things, of course; I stumbled blindly into poverty, willing to shoulder it as a temporary burden as a two-term AmeriCorps member but utterly oblivious to the notion that it might become a more persistent feature of my life. My mother remains perplexed at my inability to earn money befitting my education. I used to be so myself, but being so socially and culturally marginalized forces a reckoning with the general operating principles of convention that most of us, secure in houses and paychecks and regular meals, have no obligation to endure.
Because almost none of us are truly secure. Dime-store prophets will tell you it’s because the whole damn system is crooked, but that’s too simplistic – there is crookedness in the system and also goodness, but mostly there’s just incompletion; we’ve built, over hundreds of generations, from enclosure laws to the present day, something that works well enough for enough of us that the majority is, if not truly satisfied, then at least more fearful of change than they are of persisting in the status quo. It just might be the very definition of mediocrity, but it’s damn hard to snap out of, and as a culture we’re too busy reassuring ourselves of our greatness to imagine a better way of doing business anyway.
And what of the homeless, of the poor and the people of color and disabled and trans and marginalized? We tend to get written out of the story. We’re unsettling data points and the dominant narrative tends to regress into a smooth, easily comprehensible curve – those models and equations and manipulations are created, of course; they don’t spring fully-formed from a primeval, unacculturated human nature, but are born of education and experience and power, power most of all, the power to erase those who don’t fit.
There are decided perks to having a residence once more, to no longer being homeless. Some of them might exist outside of the world we’ve made but most are indisputably a product of it: getting mail and hanging my clothes rather than keeping them in a suitcase and especially not fearing for my own illegitimacy, never doubting my right to occupy the space where I sleep. I have slid back onto the curve of respectability, just barely but it’s greeted with more approval than the wild wanderings that have defined much of the past decade of my life, a decade which itself constitutes the entirety of my adulthood – I graduated from college ten years ago, and it’s taken this long to beat the weirdness out of me.
But it’s not all gone yet. Revisiting my most recent squat I’m langurous and unhurried; I know this place in evenings and darkness, and there’s no rush to get back to the scrambling, impoverished respectability of my house tonight.
I do not wish to be homeless again, and when homelessness recurred in my life, it was not by design or by choice. But fear of repeating past mistakes can be confining and there are earthquakes in the near horizon of my life, big unavoidable shakeups potentiated with a spectrum from greatness to the harsh unpredictable liberation of failure.
Here, sitting on the same carpet where I once – not so very long ago – slept, I am reminded of the ultimate truth of my squatting, my long couch-surfing, the nights I slept in cars and all the many months when I was homeless: that by refusing to look back or acknowledge where I’ve been is to be complicit in my own erasure, and that there is no shame in surviving.