It’s a sunny afternoon in late January, and my friend Michael and I are standing outside the Prado Day Center in San Luis Obispo, waiting for lunch. Unlike most people here, we actually have comfortable beds and well-stocked cupboards waiting for us back home... but tonight, we won’t be there. Hoping to better understand the day-to-day reality of being homeless in SLO County, we’ve decided to stay on the street for a week and learn from the people for whom this is everyday life.
Our backpacks hold an extra set of clothes, sleeping bags and pads, flashlights, and notebooks for journaling our experience. We’ve brought no credit cards, checkbooks, or cash: if we need money, we’ll try sitting on the curb with a cardboard sign. If it gets cold, we’ll sift through the Prado donation pile in hopes of an extra jacket or blanket.
Despite these sparse provisions, we’re clearly in a different boat than our truly homeless neighbors. Michael brought his cell phone, and both friends and family are eager to bail us out if we need help. All these things—phone, bikes, sleeping pads, the hospitality of friends—are luxuries that most people on the streets of SLO don’t have. So even in a sincere attempt to experience a taste of homelessness, it’s hard to escape or deny our privilege. But we want to give this a try anyway, to see what we can learn.
The lunch line begins to move. A woman serving casserole notices our large backpacks and asks if Michael and I are on a cross-country trip. “No,” I reply, “we live here.” “Oh!” she exclaims, and we smile at each other awkwardly for a second before the line moves forward. Another woman, serving drinks in small styrofoam cups, beams brightly and speaks in a sugar-sweet tone that I’m curious if she uses all the time or just with homeless people. I’m acutely aware that as a “client,” something feels different in the way the staff and volunteers relate to me, compared to when I’ve been a shelter volunteer myself. I wonder if perhaps most of us speak differently, even in subtle or subconscious ways, to the homeless …
During lunch, I ask a couple guys at our table about good places to sleep without getting disturbed by the police. Michael and I are not planning to stay in the overnight shelter, because we’ve heard that many people are turned away for lack of space, and we don’t want to take up extra beds. Besides, we’re hoping to learn about the lives of those without access to the shelters, who must spend their nights in vehicles or outdoors. (With only 200 shelter beds county-wide and more than 4,000 people without homes, this describes a large and growing segment of the homeless population.)
The two guys tell us about the creek near Prado, where we’re unlikely to be disturbed if we keep a low profile at night and remove our belongings during the day. At a neighboring table, we overhear a young couple describing how they and their preschool-age children were expelled from the overnight shelter for seven days, beginning today, for allegedly failing to keep a watchful eye on their kids. The family has nowhere to go tonight, and they’re trying to scrape together another $15 for a motel room. Tomorrow they’ll head up to Atascadero in hopes of getting a space in the shelter there, but are worried about being able to keep their kids in the Headstart program in San Luis.
After talking with them for a few minutes, I head inside to check out a women’s support group led by Cal Poly therapists-in-training here at Prado each week. Today the only people in attendance are myself and a 68-year-old woman who’s been at the shelter for several months. She’s a retired social worker who was stably housed her entire life and never dreamed this could happen to her. I listen as she tearfully describes the emotional strain of homelessness, how much she’s learned from it, and how she plans to become an advocate for the homeless once she has her own place again. I eventually share my own reasons for being at Prado, and am glad to receive a supportive response. The older woman offers tips for being at the shelter and staying safe on the street, warning me how frequently homeless women are raped. She says I’ll be fine with Michael, but never to sleep outside alone. One week is far too short, she insists, to really understand what this is like. You’d have to stay homeless for several months to really understand. That’s when it really starts to wear you down: the physical constraints and lack of privacy, the boredom and sense of hopelessness, the growing weariness of this same environment day after day. A week is like a vacation, she says. It’s nothing.
But our first night on the streets definitely doesn’t feel like a vacation. At sunset we go walking along the creek by Prado, looking for a spot in the bushes. I have mixed feelings about sleeping out here alone, just the two of us, instead of with a group of people watching each other’s backs (as I’ve heard is common). As the evening light grows dimmer, I find myself feeling more and more uneasy. At least downtown there would be lights and people around, the perceived security of other human beings within earshot.
Dori Stone is the author of Beyond the Fence: A Journey to the Roots of the Migration Crisis. Send comments via Managing Editor Ashley Schwellenbach at firstname.lastname@example.org.