At first light we quickly exit the tree-cave, hoping a ranger won’t pass and see us. Then we return to Prado and sit hunched on the curb, eagerly awaiting 8:30 and the warmth of an indoor space. A man beside us tells stories about his life, working on a U.S. supply ship during the Gulf War and being taken hostage to a death camp in Kuwait, where he was forced to serve on a firing squad. The account leaves me reeling, unable to comprehend what this man has been through. He receives a monthly pension—possibly enough for rent—but says he prefers the freedom to sleep in his truck and save money for beer and drive-in movies.
Some people might think it's unfair that this man chooses to be homeless, I muse, using social services while spending his own income on alcohol and entertainment. But reflecting on what he’s experienced, I silently wonder: Who can judge? After such trauma, was he capable of proceeding with a “normal” life? I suppose it’s impossible to know what another person is truly capable of. If I lived an exact replica of his life up to this moment, would I make other choices? Perhaps. But there’s no way to know, so in my opinion, no way I can ever judge another.
During breakfast at Prado, a woman tells me about losing her home after her husband died from diabetes. She's denied access to the shelter because of her dog, a source of connection to her late husband and a beloved companion with whom she wouldn’t dream of parting. She’s working her way back toward stable housing, she tells me resolutely, but it’s a slow process. And with serious health issues of her own, long nights in a vehicle are taking their toll.
The day is full of stories, and I'm amazed by the diversity of circumstances that brought people here. It would be impossible to generalize such a varied population.
That evening, Michael and I walk back to the creek. I've been dreading this all day, wishing for some excuse not to sleep out there again. The days at Prado have been alright, but when night falls, I yearn to be back home. I try to imagine how this might feel if I didn't have one.
The half-mile walk along the creek feels surreal: industrial floodlights and the occasional clanging of large equipment, dense shrubbery, shadows populated by people we know nothing about. But I'm determined to get better sleep tonight, so I ignore thoughts of potential danger and drift into unconsciousness. I'm in a zero-degree bag, probably far nicer than what most homeless people have, and in the morning, I notice the grass around our is tree covered in frost.
* * *
That afternoon I attend a meeting downtown, hoping to keep up aspects of my normal life. But I’m still feeling groggy, a bit sore from carrying my backpack, and bloated from the high-sugar and high-salt food at Prado. I try to imagine staying homeless for a while, continuing other activities while unable to adequately nourish and re-charge my own battery.
In the evening, Michael and I catch a bus to the overnight shelter for dinner. The sky has filled with dark clouds, and I overhear someone reporting a 55 percent chance of rain. What should we do? Prado stays open and offers floor-space when there's a greater chance of storms, but not tonight. Two men at our table urge us to get a bed at the shelter, but there's already a long line and we don’t want someone else to lose their bed. When I mention the idea of taking refuge under a bridge, the men grow more concerned. People who stay under bridges are dangerous, they warn. They'll threaten you for drug-money. Whatever you do, don’t ever sleep under a bridge.
I'm confused, because this is different from a picture recently painted by someone who does sleep under a bridge. He described a mutually supportive community of people helping one another, like family. And these two guys don’t sleep under bridges themselves, so perhaps they have their own stereotypes. I don’t know who to believe.
Without a clearer understanding, I'm doubtful about returning to the creek. It’s only been three days, but I’m almost too exhausted to think about this. Every night, these questions resurface. Every night feels like such an ordeal.
On one hand, I’d hate to give up the experiment early. People who are actually homeless can't say, “Well, it might rain tonight and I’m feeling unsafe, so I think I’ll go inside now.” The whole point was to put ourselves in their shoes, but now I'm realizing how hard that really is. I remember the elder woman’s advice at Prado, saying it would take several months to truly understand.
Michael and I deliberate for a while. We consider staying downtown again, hiding in bushes and moving under an awning if it rains, but in the end, we agree to crash at my sister’s apartment near Cal Poly. I'm conflicted, but sheer exhaustion and desire for safety ultimately win out. We only lasted four days and three nights, but I think that’s enough to change my perspective on homelessness forever. Even a glimpse into this reality has taken me far beyond reading an article or hearing someone’s story. I've gotten to feel it, just a tiny bit: the continual sense of uncertainty, the vulnerability of sleeping in public, the lack of private space to unwind.
Spreading our sleeping bags on the floor of the small apartment feels insanely luxurious. What a sweet relief, to be allowed to sleep here without hiding! I feel somewhat guilty taking this route, wishing everyone had such an option. Why us?
I think about those we’ve left behind, out in the night. I am determined not to forget them. I want to probe more deeply into this issue, to devote myself to a vision that every human being has access to a safe, legal place to sleep.
* * *
In the months since our experiment, I’ve maintained that commitment and deepened my involvement with Hope’s Village of SLO, a pending nonprofit creating innovative approaches to homelessness. The group coordinates donations of RVs to homeless veterans, while planning (and seeking a 1- or 2-acre property for) a mini-neighborhood of sustainably designed, 120-square-foot “tiny houses” for drug-and-alcohol-free, long-term residents of SLO County. The village will operate as a small community, offering safe shelter and a sense of home, opportunities for leadership and skill development, and support moving forward in life. After my own brief stint on the streets, I see how powerful this will be for those wishing to improve their lives but lacking a stable home-base from which to begin. Who gets hired without a mailing address, shower, and decent night’s sleep? Who finds the energy for other aspects of self-development, when his/her thoughts are dominated by the basic question of where to spend the night? Having barely dipped my toe into those waters, I’m more excited than ever to create an option like Hope’s Village. I want to help break down the barriers, embrace our common humanity, and work with both housed and homeless members of our community to find ways for all of us to thrive.
Dori Stone is the author of Beyond the Fence: A Journey to the Roots of the Migration Crises. Send comments to Managing Editor Ashley Schwellenbach at firstname.lastname@example.org.