Choices for Homeless Survival: Jail or the Streets

A first-person account of how struggling to survive on the streets subjects people to social exclusion and can often lead to jail.

I have been homeless for at least 15 years. During that time I have been a prisoner in more county jails than I care to remember. My crimes were shoplifting, bad checks, disorderly conduct, and trespassing. I quit drinking in 1983 and I don’t do street drugs, so this is in my favor when I am arrested.

In this essay, I use myself as an example to illustrate the difficult situations a homeless man must overcome to simply survive, while at the same time risk going to jail. Your patience and understanding, dear reader, while reading this essay would be greatly appreciated.

A homeless man’s survival is based on “maybes.” Maybe he’ll find a bed space in a shelter that evening. Maybe he’ll be able to walk or procure a bus token to locate a food pantry or church on that particular day. Maybe they won’t turn him away because he doesn’t have a permanent address, or he’s out of state, or his I.D. doesn’t have a picture on it.

A homeless man’s living conditions are fractured; he does not have a safe, secure, or private abode to collect his wits or to assimilate the information imparted to him by well-meaning professionals. To the contrary, his life is constantly lived on a fault line, always on the jump-start, his only constant commonality the unforeseen. The word “maybe” becomes indelible in his mind.

There are some in society who would say, “Tsk, tsk, why doesn’t he just get a job?”

In response to that remark I must say that, over many years of homelessness, I have experienced and observed many sober, drug free, clean shaven, and acceptably attired men of all ages leave a shelter early every morning to seek work—often for weeks on end—and yet, I have never seen or heard of any one of them finding employment.

In my attempts to obtain shelter, food, clothing, and maybe a little dignity along the way, sometimes survival became a matter of expediency. After too many “maybes,” too many “turn-downs,” too many societal name-callings, I reached a point—a nexus point—as have many men in similar circumstances when “enough was enough” and took matters into my own hands. Whether it is legal or illegal becomes a moot point.

Sooner or later this type of mindset will put a homeless man like myself in jail. Whether it be for shoplifting food, or writing a bad check for something better than the sneakers with holes you’re wearing, or trespassing in an abandoned house to get out of the cold wind, you’re not succumbing to let society beat you down, you’re fighting back for your own dignity and survival.

Though you may wind up in jail, with its own brand of degradation, you’re still the master of your own fate. Through your suffering and bewilderment you may find yourself delving deeper into your own psyche, becoming intrinsically aware of the deepest of human emotions: compassion. In its truest sense, compassion pervades the human spirits of the authorities who oversee you, your fellow inmates, and yourself, even in this, your direst of circumstances.

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Roger Wade
Last Updated: 04/19/2016