Content note: this piece deals with themes of rape, sexual abuse by a family member, and violence and discrimination toward people who are homeless.
Take the bus once a week past the homeless shelter you once stayed at. You can’t afford a real supermarket, one with the giant lights overhead and the infinite selection of not-yet-rotting produce and more brand names than anyone knows what to do with; you can afford this. You can afford the foodbank that requires a referral from a social worker. You can afford to sit in the back and guess who is on the bus for what reason: the men in clean shirts on their phones, their disdain for present company well evident; the women in dresses and sandals and sunglasses, getting off in the parts of the neighbourhood aiming toward gentrification, filled with restaurant patios; the women with visible scars and visible injuries, hands wrung anxiously, avoided by the women in dresses; the men with clothes caked in dirt and hostile expressions, their presence complained about by the respectable on Twitter.
Get recommended news stories about crime in the city. Get recommended news stories about crime in in public spaces. Get recommended news stories about crime on public transport. It’s the same story filtered through a projector, screaming in huge letters across the sky: HOMELESS PEOPLE ARE RUINING THE CITY FOR REAL PEOPLE, FOR RICH PEOPLE, FOR PEOPLE WHO HAVE HOMES TO RETURN TO, WHO HAVE FAMILIES TO RETURN TO, WHO HAVE SOMEONE WHO LOVES THEM, WHO WILL NEVER EXPERIENCE THE TERROR, THE DISPOSABILITY, THE INHUMANITY, THE SELF-REPULSIVENESS, OF BEING THE OBJECT THAT BRINGS DISGUST TO FRUITION IN THE FLINCHING AWAY HANDS OF OTHER PEOPLE, OF NOT EVEN HAVING A SAFE PLACE TO SHOWER OR BRUSH YOUR TEETH, OF LONG SINCE HAVING FORGOTTEN YOU HAVE STARTED TO SMELL – AND THESE PEOPLE, THESE RICH PEOPLE, THESE MIDDLE CLASS PEOPLE, THESE PEOPLE WITH CLEAN FINGERNAILS AND LOVING SPOUSES, THEY DON’T WANNA HAVE TO SEE YOU WHEN THEY WALK THROUGH THEIR PLAYGROUND, THEIR BACKYARD, THEIR STAGE, THEIR HOME. IT’S THEIR CITY, AND YOU ONLY LIVE IN IT. YOU ONLY WANDER THROUGH IT IN SEARCH OF A BATHROOM. YOU HAVE NO RIGHT.
Try to pretend you don’t feel anything when you see the giant words emblazoned: NO FIXED ADDRESS, the implication unstated but perfectly understood. The true crime is homelessness. The true crime is the proximity of filth next to cleanliness, of the inhuman next to the exalted. The solution is to make the inconvenient people disappear. The solution is to stick them in institutions, in prisons, in anything but subsidized housing next to the nice, normal people who want to keep their hands clean. Poverty as treachery. Poverty as social disease. Poverty as the tumor that must be excised for the health of the tissue worth saving, the healthy humans, the subjects deserving of empathy. Try not to ask yourself why this narrative only ever originates from the same news outlets that push stories on how the police are the only thing capable of saving the real, respectable people from the indignity of having to bear witness to a suffering not their own.
Imagine that this is not how people see you. Imagine that the stain has been washed off. Imagine that you never sat on the pavement while the paramedics laughed and refused to place you in an ambulance and take you to the hospital, to offer care to a homeless body, a corrupt body, a worthless body, an unnecessary body. Imagine that it didn’t strike you as strange even then: the way your friend’s voice rose in a crescendo of disbelief and outrage, the way you couldn’t quite believe it, couldn’t quite emphasize with their pain. As if you had value. As if you were a human being. As if you were worth saving.
Imagine that you are your scholarship. Imagine that you are your grades. Keep telling people about how well you did in your Existentialism class. Keep telling people that you’re going to learn Greek. Maybe if you read enough books, you’ll finally be human. Maybe if you go to university long enough, you’ll forget what it was like to hear a cornered man scream like a wounded animal. That’s always how they did it, at the shelter, they would lock the dissenting individual in, close the doors and call the police, and they would say so euphemistically and polite, “The lobby’s not available right now,” and everyone paced through the common area like the caged animals they were, and you’d get restless, you’d get afraid, you’d get uncomfortable, and they’d let you out the back of the building, and you were smart enough not to walk to the front, not to see that face, not to hear those screams, not to know that it could happen to you to.
Try to forget how your rape kit went. Try to forget how it was not to be a person, to be a lump of flesh, to be screaming and screaming and screaming, and the metal continues on its emotionless journey, because you are a homeless man. Because you don’t feel pain. Because it didn’t really happen. Because you’re batshit crazy.
Imagine that you are not psychotic. Imagine that you have never been psychotic. Imagine that you do not know what it is to feel pain. Imagine that you don’t silently register all the jokes, all the careless remarks, all the implications of everything you’ve ever read about what it is to be A Mentally Ill Person. A Mentally Ill Person is human. A Mentally Ill Person could be anyone. A Mentally Ill Person is your friend, your co-worker. A Mentally Ill Person looks vaguely troubled in those ads giant companies are always placing to remind us that regular, real people can get depressed. They never have homeless people in those ads. There’s never anyone screaming, there’s never you getting slammed into a wall by the police when you got sectioned, there’s never the text: MENTAL ILLNESS CAN HAPPEN TO ANYONE and then a picture of some homeless guy. That’s not who those ads are for. Those ads are for the real people, the normal people, the ones who suffer so silently while doing their jobs and going home to their families. You have a family, right?
Remember the last time you saw your family. Remember every moment your fingers have hovered above your phone every time you’ve thought about calling them (you still know the number, you’ve never forgotten it) and saying, I’m-sorry-and-I-was-stupid-and-I’ll-stop-saying-I-was-raped-if-it-means-you’ll-love-me. Think about the deep, irrevocable sorrow you experience every time you see a woman pushing a stroller or a guy with a baby strapped to his chest in one of those fabric carriers, the baby’s eyes roaming innocent and curious over the city landscape. And you are only ever some stranger downtown. And you don’t get to be loved.
Make a list of everyone who talks to you. Make a list of everyone who believes you got raped. Make a list of everyone who says I’m-so-sorry when you share what was intended as funny anecdotes of shelter living. Make a list of people who treat you like Any Other University Student.
Through gritted teeth, through clenched fists, through pain unbearable and impossible to name, remember what the accessibility advisor told you at the start of your first year: You Don’t Owe Everyone That. You don’t owe them the Recovering Troubled Youth That’s Such A Good Kid Narrative. You don’t owe them the polite, political outrage, the sensible and respectable conversion of every unspeakable horror, every ineffable trauma, into something clean and sterile, something smiling and lifeless, something that doesn’t cry or bleed.
Try to ignore the fact that you want to owe it to them. Try to ignore the fact that you want to stand up and scream. Try to ignore the fact that all you want to do is cut off the professor during the video chat and scream YOU’RE TELLING ME THERE’S NO POVERTY IN THE WEST WHEN YOU HAVE A CAREER? WHEN YOU HAVE A DEGREE? WHEN YOU’VE NEVER BEEN UNCERTAIN IF YOU SHOULD ANSWER “YES, I DO SEX WORK” ON THE SURVEY YOU’RE GETTING A MCDONALD’S GIFT CARD TO FILL OUT BECAUSE A WORKER AT YOUR SO-CALLED SHELTER IS RAPING YOU AS A CONDITION OF YOUR STAY, AND THE SURVEY DID SAY SEX EXCHANGED FOR SHELTER MEETS THEIR DEFINITION OF SEX WORK? You want to tell anyone who has ever studied anything that they’ve never seen it, that they know nothing, that they’ve never had it in their veins, that they’ve never breathed air and you’re paying them thousands to tell you what oxygen is.
Try to remember that crap you read in one of those therapy books, one for the doctors and nurses and not the crazy people. Try to remember they said it’s characteristic borderline-personality-disordered thinking to believe the helping professional has never been raped, has never been abused, has never suffered. Try to believe it; still, remember when you looked for peer worker jobs online and the search engine mistook your use of Mental Health for something a little more substantial, remember exactly how much a money a part time psychiatrist makes, try not to imagine how different your worlds are.
Remember that it’s rude to talk about money. Remember that rich people don’t like to be informed of the names and faces of the corpses compiling the crushed bottom of the mountain they live on. Remember money doesn’t matter anyway. Remember that you can deep breathe your way out of anything. Remember the hospital doctor who laughed when you said you were suicidal because your life was difficult and not because you’re depressed. If Everyone, it was said – by those with more education than you, Could Become Suicidal Simply Because Their Life Was Difficult, Than Everyone Would Be.
Try to imagine it. Try to do the math. Try to ask yourself if everyone has gotten raped by a family member they trusted and adored and then got raped by a youth worker at the shelter they ran to for safety. Try to imagine that everyone on Earth has become psychotic. Try to imagine that every random stranger you see inoffensively making their way down the pavement is one too many missed olanzapine doses away from chattering incomprehensibly, from the death of rationality, of personhood, of beingness, that has eaten you.
Remember it through prisms and mirrors, through flashbacks and generous nightmares. Remember your voice rising in pitch and fury when you realized the social worker didn’t believe you. Remember the exact moment your soul cracked, the moment you realized all empathy is conditional, the moment you learned that unmet family members unseen and unknown can be vile, awful abusers; known and respected coworkers can’t. Remember how it felt to have your illusions shattered, to walk into the shadow-world of inhumanity, to become a non-thing with no rights and infinite privileges. The privilege to have the worker at the hospital recoil in disgust from your bleeding hands and demand you put on the wristband yourself. The privilege to sound insane when you insist to the guy working the nightshift at the convenience store that the 24-hour McDonald’s is closed. The privilege to puke on the pavement when you think of the name of the worker who raped you, of his face, of his hands, of his smile, like that of an animal on a nature documentary that has just killed something, of the predator uncondemned.
Hope, viciously and without remorse, that they still remember you at that shelter, for you remember them. You remember the redness of the eyes of that one weekend worker, how she pretended not to cry and looked at you like you were broken glass when she knew, remember how it spread through the ranks of the staff like a virus, and even though These Allegations were a forbidden topic of discussion, you knew, you always knew, you could tell who’d been asked in hushed tones and who hadn’t, a man who played ping pong with your rapist flinching back from your eyes when he’d noticed you’d been staring, and he was so obvious about it, so obtrusive, and you thought then of how sophisticated he was, how smooth, the original, the unforgotten, the eternally remembered and never nearly enough despised, the man with the smile and the washed away blood on his hands, how he always knew what he was doing, how he evades punishment and retribution the way all those elegant middle class bodies walking through downtown avoid giving homeless people change.
Try not to get too self-righteous as you remember that you, also, are now a real, rich person, such as those you once despised. Yeah, yeah, you’re on benefits. Yeah, yeah, that’s below the poverty line. But you have a certain kind of mystique you’re trying to generate, more broke-student than formerly-homeless-man-on-benefits. You like to imagine you’re lightyears now from where you once were, as if the magic of denial can transform the messiness of pain into something pure and clean, something that’s never been touched or hurt or wounded, something safe and whole. And so, you only look back for a moment, for a second, for an instant, for a glimpse, as the bus goes past the shelter you once stayed at. And you almost go insane from the sheer force of it, from knowing that beyond that glass now plastered with posters about COVID-19 and masks, you once lived a whole life now lost, a thing you can no longer experience or feel or taste, an image of an image, a degrading photocopy, a monument to a war that’s only over for you. Be grateful that when the bus lurches forward, dragging you to your new life.