My name is Ray Rueter Swanson. I currently live in Kuna, Idaho,* but was I born and raised in Albany, N.Y. I came to this writing project by way of a friend in Boise, and the following is a description of my life compressed into a two-day period about a week ago, what would be a fairly typical two days for me and the life I am currently having to lead, along with some thoughts and feelings, many of which have been collected and ruminated upon for several years.

Let’s say my friends call me Ray Ray, and my street name is Radar, and the thought of having a “street” name would never have occurred to me nine years ago, but it is, as it turns out, a fully practical and legitimate thing to do.

A dude we will call Rococo told me, in a town where it mattered, to steer clear of most public places, for no better reason than that the public didn’t like persons “of unknown character” around. It turned out to be good advice in Rensselaer, NY. Which brings me to the first truth I suppose I’d like to point out:

HOMELESSNESS IS NOT WHAT YOU THINK IT IS

Put another way, if you’ve never been truly homeless as an adult, and you think you “know about homelessness…”

You are wrong.

But this is true mainly because, for pretty much anyone, being homeless is simply unthinkable*Some of the details in this essay, including the author’s name, have been changed in order to protect his privacy.

The idea of being “that way,” of being homeless like those people you see sometimes, seems about as close and likely as suddenly turning into an oriental rug, or becoming a frog, or eating a pencil… so unlikely that it shrinks from the realm of any possibility.

Probably the greatest hindrance to bridging the gulf of understanding between the general public and the homelessness situation is the complete denial of most everyone in regular society that such a thing could ever possibly happen to them, or what that train of events would even look like…

And therefore it is irrelevant. Nowhere in American society is the “Us vs. Them” dichotomy as deeply ingrained and yet just as deeply false.

Except in the rarest of cases… (inherited fortunes, winning the lottery, being the King of Finland, etc., etc.), the idea that “homelessness cannot possibly happen to me” is, I am telling you, a flat lie, and a blatant illusion.

It was an illusion I participated in as completely as anyone nine years ago, and nobody is more surprised about the state of life I now inhabit — and how it got that way — than I am.

Really, to even say “homeless” as a descriptive thing at all, is an over-generalization. I’m pretty sure that the homelessness that I experience, as a middle aged (31 year old) single white male, is profoundly, definitionally, different from what it is like, say, for a woman, or a single mother, or a parent or grandparent, or a homeless kid, or a homeless veteran. (Boy, the fact that all of those things really do exist all over the United States, commonly, as I list them out here, seems so unreal and all the more appalling to me just now.)

However, there is, almost certainly, an underlying set of similar conditions and effects inherent to the condition of being “homeless” here in the U.S., and I’m going to try to give some sense of that in this essay, to describe what it’s like for me personally, and posit some well-honed conclusions off these experiences

MY DAY STARTED WITH…

The clanging of pot and pans.

Not in a good way, like somebody you love is making breakfast, but because in this shelter, in pretty much all of the ones I’ve stayed in, they wake you up at 5 a.m. by banging a ladle on a giant pot or pan.

I don’t know what it feels like to be cattle, unceremoniously woken up for the daily slaughter, but in my mind, this seems like what that would be like. Of the very few days I ever spent in jail, it is EXACTLY what that is like. The glaring, awful light comes on, you are forced awake, and nobody gives a damn.

I’ve never been to boot camp or whatever, but it looks exactly like that, from what I’ve seen on TV. Except in boot camp, at least you’re a soldier, and somebody gives a damn. Nobody here gives a damn about you, at all. Clearly.

It is so clear because, for one, they are banging on pots and pans.

Nothing good ever comes from that.

Not really.

NOW IT’S ABOUT 7:30 A.M.

Rococo told me that getting “services,” homeless services, is like “a revolving door, in the dark, where the entry/door part constantly changes position, or randomly disappears entirely, leaving one in the dark, and guessing.” I feel like that is pretty fair. If you show up at 2 p.m., it will be 2:15 p.m. only. If you show up the next week, (because the “services” are only doled out weekly, then it will be 1:45 p.m. Or you got there on time, but it is “all full.”

Clearly.

The smart ones learn all of this ahead of time, and simply cease trying.

A DE-FACTO REMOVAL OF YOUR PUBLIC CIVIL RIGHTS

While waiting in line for the McDonalds at 6 a.m. (because there was nowhere else better to be at 6 a.m.), a bunch of road workers came in, obvious in the extreme in their Day-Glo green and orange shirts. Another homeless man I was watching got pushed aside, even though he was ahead in line.

The road workers are important, I guess.

And how can I, how could I, argue that? I tried getting a job road working, but for the fact that I was arrested for drug (pot) possession in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 2001, (a low-level misdemeanor), I couldn’t be hired. Another roadblock I cannot, despite any and all effort, navigate.

At least theoretically, I don’t terribly mind these particular humiliations. People work, and society proceeds based, largely, if not wholly, on the backs of the hands of the hard working. I would like to work. I would work hard.

But I can’t MAKE somebody give me a job.

Even McDonald’s. But sitting in the last booth, I get it. People gotta work. And it is the United States.

The United States of Adam Smith Capitalism.

The United States of McDonald’s.

A MORASS OF DRUG ADDICTION AND MENTAL ILLNESS

The shelter scene is just not one that anybody, of ANY quality, would be a part of. I say the hardest thing, the most intractable thing about the homeless conundrum, is that many, if not most homeless folk are quite sick… mentally ill, drug addicted, or both. I am neither of those things, and I am educated, so I can see that from the outside, and can see what a challenge, a rather huge social wrenching, it would be to take care of these folks, at least to try… instead of sending them to county jail, or to some half-ass shelter where they make you pray to eat.

It’s a persistent, personal gloom like one of those cartoon rain clouds that follows the victim around, hovering just over their head, and rains solely on them alone.

Without exception, and at the bare minimum, this is true:

IT’S A WHOLLY, UTTERLY, COMPLETELY, SOLVABLE PROBLEM

My friend in Boise, Idaho, is me. I am my only real friend. The only one to count on, as it turns out.

And there is only so much I can do.

It is so cold here, sometimes… deadly, lethal, kill-you cold. And as I am walking up Glenwood Street, towards Chinden, I see all of these buildings, sheathed in sweet warmth. (You can see it!!! The Warmth!!! Coming out of the tops of these huge, EMPTY buildings as steam from a roof-pipe… and these buildings are EMPTY, and I am so COLD.)

I mean no harm… and even if I did, I can tell you I would restrain any and all aggressive impulse I ever had, to just be warm and dry. And so would you.

But nobody cares, and all the headlights shoot by… I would love to sleep in a warm car, tonight.

This problem is inexcusable in the richest nation on earth.

It is really inexcusable anywhere, but in America? In The United States of McDonald’s? This is The United States of US. We must all work together somehow. And I am Cold. Deathly Cold. I know French. I am a pretty good guitarist, and I can run fast. Really, really fast.

I can crochet. Really. My mom taught me before she died.

And nobody cares.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.

  • Erik Kingston

    Great piece, Radar. Thanks for stepping up and speaking out. And you are absolutely correct: those who haven’t been homeless can’t imagine the reality. And those who’ve never been homeless may not understand that the ‘solutions’ to this reality must be as varied as the ways people can become homeless without even trying.

  • Andrew Ridgeway

    Excellent, insightful analysis. Thanks for sharing, Ray.