A few years ago I had the unfortunate experience of joining the homeless and dispossessed. This is the first time I have ever discussed it with anybody other than my significant other, so bear with me while I exorcise the experience...
It began about five years ago when having become disenchanted with my chosen career as a systems developer and programmer. I decided to take a break and become the assistant manager of a public house. The hours were awful and the pay was appalling, but it got me away from the depersonalized and depressing slog I was having as an IT manager in a small company. I needed a break and I needed to be with people for a change rather than machines.
It started out well enough when within months I was helping to run one of the top three public houses owned by the largest brewery in the UK. I was living in a million pound property and managing 15 people, on the fast track to eventually managing my own pub. In the course of six months I was taking the exams required to be a licensee and the day to day running was entirely in my hands.
However things were not entirely fabulous, I was living in a tiny horrible room and working from seven in the morning until midnight, six or seven days a week. When I got up in the morning and went to bed at night, I was still at work and couldn't escape from the constant pressure of the job. The pub was located far away from all my friends and when I did get any free time the last thing I wanted to do was travel... I just slept.
Finally after another six months I needed a break so I went off to Ireland to visit relatives, when it became apparent that like many managers of public houses, I was developing a very impressive alcohol habit... I needed it in the morning to wake up, during the day to keep me going and vast quantities at night just to get to sleep. I thought it strange that I hadn't really noticed it until I was with friends and relatives again, but they were concerned and worried about me.
All too soon the two weeks were up and I flew back to the UK. I was standing outside the building at six in the morning, the can of cider in my hand just dreading starting the whole process again. Without a word to anyone I turned my back on the job and my colleagues and just walked away. I had nowhere to go but the idea of this hell continuing was just too much to comprehend. I needed time alone, away from everyone to get my head back on.
As I walked and walked, I plummeted into the depths of depression. My bank account was almost bare and all I had to my name was a bag of clothes. To get sober and straight again I had to drink what was left and be completely destitute. I know this is a bizarre concept but in my head at the time, I knew that if I had money I would spend it on alcohol.
I was paranoid and scared but I knew that if I was going to work this out of my system it had to be done. The first night I slept in a shop doorway was an education in itself; I had slept out in tents when on camping trips or at music festivals but the bitingly cold air at night was a new experience. I rapidly learned why the homeless sleep on cardboard boxes, it insulates you from the cold hard concrete. Sleeping in boxes hides you from the wind.
Meeting my new friends was an education in itself. I was rapidly accepted as "one of them"—a person in misery with nowhere to go. I met children who had run away from home, thinking they could join the army or something just to get away from abusive relations. I met the mentally ill and alcoholics who had lives with homes and family in the past but had either lost them or been thrown out. Teenagers locked out by parents they could no longer communicate with or relate to. Drug addicts who blanked it all out with whatever substance was close at hand.
Considering what was going on around me, I am astounded I managed to get sober, but I did. I started getting to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings every day, sometimes twice a day. I had eaten other peoples' discarded food and waste for what seemed an eternity until I found soup runs and hostels which could provide me with food but not shelter. I started getting myself organized and signed on to receive social security but that was going to take a while to come through so I kept on doing what I was doing.
With my mind coming back to me, I began to observe what had happened to me with a clearer head. I watched as the commuters and tourists averted their eyes from me in disgust, unable to comprehend how someone could sink so low. I met beggars who went home at night to sleep in warm beds and safe houses. I met prostitutes, pimps, pushers and perverts all of whom were looking for a chink in your armour, to gain any leverage or advantage.
I learned all about survival and keeping a low profile, carrying weapons for protection and avoiding regular beatings from drunks and groups of young men with attitude and testosterone to burn. And I learnt a great deal about myself... how when you strip away the civility of society it is an ugly and scary place. The most important things in life are not friends and family, but food, safety and shelter in that order. Things I have never really taken for granted ever since.
After three months of this I checked myself into an alcohol recovery project with my new social security book, for without it you cannot get a hostel or shelter to take you in. I spent another three months confined within those walls undergoing constant counseling and analysis with the promise of sheltered accommodation maybe a year down the line. Eventually I walked out of that too and opened a squat with four American travellers and a couple of Polish girls. But that's another story...
I don't walk down the street and avoid the homeless anymore; sometimes I stop and talk a little and if I can, help with advice and a kind word. I have heard a lot of stupid things said about the homeless but when it happened to me I met kind souls who helped me. I like to think that I can help now and again myself rather than just walk on by.