I can’t remember the exact date, but I remember everything I did one Wednesday in November 1994. I got up, took a shower, had cereal for breakfast, and hastily crammed all my schoolbooks into my worn-out back pack. Because I was on a Tupac kick, I shoved every Tupac cassette into the front pocket of the bag, even Thug Life: Volume 1, the D12-esque side project of Pre-Death Row Tupac associates whose only claim to fame was that their name was Shakur’s stomach tattoo (there was never a Volume 2). I knew I wouldn’t have enough time to listen to 4 entire albums by the time the 22 would drop me off at school, but I just love having a complete set. I was able to get through all of Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z.. before the school bell rang. My English class was boring as usual, but I looked forward to my trigonometry class, that I was acing with an average of 100%. As soon as I entered the trig room, Mr. Henderson pulled me to the side and told me that I had to go to the principal’s office. The look in his eyes was odd, like sorrowful. Was that…pity? I didn’t feel like I was in trouble; I must have left something somewhere in another classroom. Halfway down the hall to the office, I saw my mother. That’s when she told me: we got evicted, and we were homeless.
The next 6 hours were somewhat of a blur. I was in denial, even though we were in the Social Services plaza signing up for Section 8. It took hours, and there was still a 3-year waiting list. Are we going to pack up our stuff? Where are we going to go? She assured me that the stuff was being taken care of, and we’ll stay at a friend’s for now. Actually, the only things that my mother had gotten in our car before she met us at the school were the cat, our clothes, and toiletries. We went to a few other government buildings. I knew we were supposed to be getting assistance, but we mostly got more paperwork for my mother to fill out. I just wanted to go home, but I didn’t have that anymore. I wondered why my mother would let me go to school if she knew this was happening that day. I wondered how long until we’d move into another place. By the time we were done going to offices and then churches and then shopping for boxes and bags, we finally headed to our (former) home, and it was raining. And that is where I saw all of our belongings, or what was left of them. People descended on most of it like vultures. I no longer had a Sega Genesis or a Game Gear. I didn’t have a comic book collection. All of my books were waterlogged and unreadable. My music collection went from 75 to the 4 Tupac cassettes I had in my book bag. For some reason, the people throwing out our stuff broke my drafting table in half and emptied my art portfolio, and then the rain took care of the rest. I wouldn’t draw for 4 years after that.
During the next few months I only told one person at school that we were homeless. Maybe the teachers knew; I have no idea. We stayed at a church friend’s house until we wore out our welcome. Then we stayed in an extended stay hotel which I don’t know how we could afford it. I just focused on my school, because I didn’t have anything else to look forward to. I was still trying to make my last year of high school memorable. Meanwhile, my mother met someone named Gloria who said she knew how to game the system and get us bumped up in the Section 8 list. We just had to give her a few hundred dollars. We moved in with Gloria for a few weeks “under the table,” as she wasn’t supposed to have anyone else in the house besides her. I was doing okay in school, applying to colleges, and trying to awkwardly talk to girls. I even asked someone to prom. I tutored our Section 8 house host’s daughter for her GED. I got accepted into a few colleges. I thought things were normalizing. Things seemed to look up, until one very audible phone call Gloria had. She said that officials knew she was hosting us, and we had to leave that day. She would also need a few hundred dollars to keep the coming house inspector quiet. So we went back to the extended stay hotel until the coast was “clear.” It was never clear, though. I went to prom from that hotel; picked up by the only friend who knew our situation. Two weeks later, he picked me up for graduation. A month later, we got “evicted” from the hotel. This time, we lost the cat to a shelter, but at least the hotel manager was “gracious” enough to give back our stuff once we borrowed money to pay the hotel bill. Needless to say, Gloria never came through, but at least she got about $4,000 from us before she disappeared from our lives.
That summer my mother went to live in a shelter for women. I couldn’t live there since I was a 17-year old male. I crashed at my friend’s place. I just needed to be there a few weeks, because I had been accepted to Morgan State University on a full ride with housing, and I got into a pre-college program for STEM honor students. My 18 months consisted of me either living in a dorm room or staying at a friend’s house when the semester was over. My mother was being moved from shelter to shelter in the meantime. I never knew her phone number and had to wait for her to call me (this was pre-cheap cell phone). At the end of my second semester of school, I scrambled to find a summer program that provided housing. Most people thought I was being studious. I really just needed a free place to live. Over the summer of 1996, the County finally moved my mother into more “stable” housing: another hotel. It too was only temporary. They just didn’t have space in a shelter for her. At least it was subsidized.
Finally, at the end of 1996, Section 8 housing came through. I was still in school, but I at last had the peace of mind to know that I wouldn’t have to try to crash another friend’s holiday break, that I could go to a place I’d call home. It was a small place, but we didn’t have much stuff anyway. We got cats again. I spent most of my time either at school or staying for weeks at a friend’s house; usually the same friend who I told was homeless in the first place. We were still very much poor, which led to a lot of problems from arrests to suicide attempts, but at least for my last two years of college, I had a “permanent” address.
I am not sure I have a point to all this. Only that you can never tell by someone’s looks what their economic status is. You have no inkling who is poor/houseless, and their supposedly nice shoes or clothes are not an indication of a grift if they ask for help. We shame and question them any time they try to eke out any joy from their lives. We shame people for using programs that are designed to help the poor, claiming that they are lazy and just not working hard enough when poor people usually work 2 to 3 jobs to get by. Then we shame them more if they can’t raise their children the way we think they should. Then we gut the programs that they used to just barely get by, impoverishing them even more. I wanted to write about my experience (which I think is mild compared to others’ experiences) back in December, when Monroe County Sheriff’s Officers in a coffee shop were laughing and sharing pictures of a homeless encampment under a bridge that they had just cleared out by force. The next day, local slumlord evicted a mother of 4, a week before Christmas. People said it was the mother’s fault for signing a lease with a slumlord, when low income families don’t usually have the time or leisure to vet every landlord they encounter. Housing should not take years to attain. It should be a right enshrined in the Constitution. We have the money to spend on punishing the houseless for trying to live with what they can, so we have enough money to give them basic, healthy housing.
About Chris Thompson
(he/his/him) Chris Thompson is an engineer, writer, comedian, and activist who made Rochester, New York his home in 2008. In addition to his role as Contributor for 540Blog he currently writes and regularly posts on his own on Instagram and Twitter at @ChronsOfNon. Chris is also a regular contributor for Rochester City Newspaper. His blog is www.chroniclesofnonesense.com.