By Te-Erika Patterson
(Originally published in The Westside Gazette)
On April 11, 2011 my life changed forever. On that day I began The Rebuild Your Life Project, an empowerment outreach aimed to help women to overcome their fear of failure. I faced my own biggest fear, the ultimate indication of failure, by becoming homeless on purpose. I gave away everything that I owned including my apartment and hit the streets with nothing but a small duffel bag, my pocket digital camera and a tripod. I aimed to capture homelessness from the inside out and to showcase specific strategies to overcome it so that the women who I teach would never fear it again.
On the day that I walked out of my apartment and into the street, with only hope in my heart and a few dollars to my name, my entire worldview shifted and I saw the light.
There is a stigma attached to the perception of homelessness. The people who are deemed unfortunate enough to exist without a stable home are depicted as shiftless, unintelligent, depressed, mentally ill, drug addicted and hopeless. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The homeless individuals that I met can be divided into two umbrella groups, the perpetually homeless and the temporarily homeless.
The Temporarily Homeless
Those individuals and families that I met who were temporarily homeless were forced into the situation by an abrupt change in their employment status or physical capabilities. When faced with the option of sleeping on the streets, under an expressway or finding a spot in a homeless shelter, they chose the latter quickly and with ease. Most homeless shelters offer a strict life restructuring program that the homeless individual must follow in exchange for room and board. If the program is followed through to the end, the individual will once again be employed and have a home of their own. This is the goal of most homeless shelters.
The mentality of the temporarily homeless is vastly different from those who are perpetually homeless. The temporarily homeless have a rigid standard of living that pushes them to do the work or make the sacrifices that are necessary to regain that standard if it is ever lost. They have developed a survival skill set of employment experience and intellectual prowess that enables them to maintain their standard of living. Under no certain terms would they ever consider making a cardboard box their permanent residence.
The temporarily homeless have a survival skill set that will enable them to climb out of their homeless situation much easier than their counterparts. The temporarily homeless may become depressed, but they love their standard of living more than they benefit from the feeling of self pity so they quickly snap out of it and use their intelligence to move themselves forward. It is very unlikely that an individual who becomes temporarily homeless once, will face that same scenario again.
The Perpetually Homeless
Those individuals who are perpetually homeless were once temporarily homeless individuals and possessed the same functioning survival skill set and standard of living which once motivated them to maintain their lifestyle.
One of the traps of homelessness is being exposed to a new survival skill set which leads to being engaged in a different standard of living which then becomes acceptable and comfortable.
The perpetually homeless individual is not depressed about being homeless. This individual feels a certain power over the life due to the fact that they are not bound by anything or anyone. They can come and go as they please. They do not have to dress to impress anyone unless they want to. Their invisibility is a treat and most welcomed after years of marching to the beat of the opinions of the ever changing masses.
The perpetually homeless individual has friends, has sex, falls in love and travels at their leisure. Their survival skill set is filled with loopholes and adventures that most will never know but are just as enchanting and awe inspiring as the standard Disney vacation.
Once a person becomes a perpetually homeless individual it is very uncommon for them to move out of that lifestyle because it is an easy fit. Humanity is generous and forgiving. A homeless individual could have most of their needs taken care of by different strangers everyday and never run out of opportunities because people in general are helpful and pride themselves on caring for the homeless.
The homeless population is often harassed by the police and political agendas yet one of the basic human acts of kindness is to care for the homeless. People take the time to volunteer or to donate food and clothing because they know how close they are to being homeless or to remind themselves of their own good fortune. Regardless of the motive of the giver, they give abundantly and the homeless accept their help as though it is provision from a parent.
The survival skill set of the perpetually homeless individual is a bit more primitive than the average person but so is their standard of living. When I met Tamika Johnson and Frank Carter, who call themselves The Coconut Man and The Coconut Woman of South Beach, I was stunned to learn that they had been living the homeless lifestyle together for more than 10 years. The young, attractive and intelligent couple, have created their own business that caters to tourists who flock to South Florida.
By selling coconut water from coconuts that they harvest from palm trees on South Beach, Tamika and Frank have been able to survive and thrive with no permanent shelter by creating their own source of income and a distinct standard for living which enables them to focus more on what they love to do, spend time with each other and party in the South Beach night life.
We can not accurately assess that perpetually homeless individuals have “given up on life” simply because they are not shackled to the idea of ownership that ultimately ends up enslaving them. In fact, to live and love in such a minimal fashion yields a tremendous freedom that the most wealthy man will only experience in the final moments before he takes his last breath.
NEXT- Part 5- Nothing Is Permanent
To learn more about The Rebuild Your Life Project please visit The Rebuild Your Life Project.org
Thank you so much for this series. You have no idea how much peace you’ve brought me. You’ve helped me to understand a loved one who has chosen a homeless lifestyle for himself. I needed to hear this:
“In fact, to live and love in such a minimal fashion yields a tremendous freedom that the most wealthy man will only experience in the final moments before he takes his last breath.”
Wow. I can see how that can be a powerful draw; it’s certainly nothing to pity.
I appreciate the dedication it took to immerse yourself in the reality of today’s American homeless person. Great work.
I’ve been browsing for a better representation of homelessness!