It is said that the homeless are just like “us”, by which is meant “normal, middle class people”. That is only partly true. The homeless start out just like us, but they are re-trained to live lives of perpetual chronic stress. While the stress level of the homeless should be obvious to everyone, it isn’t necessarily seriously considered.
A person finds themselves homeless, a place they never thought they would be in. Perhaps, up to this point, they have even looked down on homeless people, seeing them as those who failed. Now they are there themselves, and they do not need anyone to tell them that they need to immediately get off the streets. So they call their family, call their friends, they contact the government, they go to shelters—and they find that there isn’t any help for them. Now they are the ones who have failed, they are failures in the society they grew up in. For some, this feeling of social inadequacy is overcome, but for many it continues for the rest of the time they are on the street.
Sleep is almost impossible, especially at first. Sleeping outside is strange, even if it is warm, but often it is not warm. The wind on one’s face, the stirring of anything—person, animal, branch blown by the wind—keeps you awake, or wakes you many times in the night. Later on, sleep is also difficult, perhaps because one’s camp isn’t adequate for the rain, or because of fear of the many other people you share a single room with in the shelter.
Once a person is homeless for a while, they realize just how vulnerable they are. They hear stories about people who are attacked in the middle of the night, or about police disturbing you or telling you to move early in the morning, often with their dogs and Taser guns. The fact that you can be stopped and often are by the police just for “looking” homeless, or ticketed if you are found in a camp is enough to make you nervous. The strange looks people give you, the complaints of shoppers if you stop in front of a store to rest, managers or church workers who yell at you for just trying to survive.
And the walking! Some cities have all the services in one location, which means you have to deal with all the crazy people in one place. But in most cities, many churches or agencies offer different services in different places. This means miles of walking just to get from one meal to another. Clothes are in one place, food in another, shelter in another.
After a person has been homeless for a while, the amount of alcohol they drink increases. It helps reduce the stress temporarily, and a lot of alcohol means that the stress just disappears after a while, leaving one in a blissful state. Of course, in the end it doesn’t reduce stress. First of all, alcohol is a depressant, so after the bliss is over, it leaves one morose, or perhaps irrationally angry. This not only causes stress for the individual, but for all those around them. But being without the alcohol doesn’t help either, because withdrawals makes one irritable and if one has had a lot of alcohol over a long period of time, withdrawals can even kill you.
The other homeless can also be a source of stress. They are just as stressed, just as desperate as you are yourself. But you can’t leave them, because you all use the same services, the same resources. The homeless are stuck with each other. But they can’t trust each other, not really. There may be individuals who can be trusted, but as a group they must be seen as potential thieves, potential violent criminals. Few of them actually are—fewer than in the housed population—but because you are so vulnerable, and the few items you carry with you are all necessary, you have to ward against them all.
Some of the homeless tell themselves that all the homeless aren’t to be trusted as a group. But since the one speaking is part of that group, that increases one’s anxiety about oneself. If I am a part of an untrustworthy group, what does that make me?
Think about this lifestyle, think about this mindset. How long could you stand it? Certainly you would try to get out, but what if you can’t? How long could you endure before you started cracking? A month? Six? What about people who have had to endure this living for years? Some aspects of their lives they would have gotten used to. But the stress is always there. Always. No matter what you do to try to deal with it, it is always an issue.