I was Homeless and All I Got was This Lousy Blog Post

Disclaimer: this post contains toxic language unsuitable for children and toxic opinions unsuitable for anyone else.

When the melting snow trickles down my lower back I’m terrified it’s urine. How irrational. Urine would at least be warm. Since midnight I’ve been trying to ride that half-awake half-asleep state with the awareness to move if somebody reaches down into the bank entrance to stab me, but not enough awareness for the cold stone imprinting itself into my back to be painful. I’m failing on both counts.

What’s going on? Acumen Fund’s Global Fellows program has open-sourced part of its training materials as a six-week course. Week 4’s challenge: live like those you would claim to serve.

Each year as part of the Global Fellows training in New York, the new class of Acumen Fund fellows is sent out into the city on any given day with no warning armed only with a metro card (good for 2 rides), $5 bill, and their ID. Their mission is to experience the challenges of obtaining basic goods and services with these resource constraints; in the course of the day they stand in soup kitchen lines, visit shelters, and attempt access to medical care.

In Poor Taste

I’m reading the ‘lab prep’ instructions and I’m furious. Last week we heaped scorn upon the demeaning practice of slum tourism. This week to we’re challenged to be tourists amidst the poverty of our home environment. Why? Because apparently you can zip through your local soup kitchen for some empathy like you’re picking up half a dozen fucking eggs on the way home from work.

I cringe at the experience of regular tourism. It embarrasses me. It feels classist and conspicuous and useless. So I simply can’t allow myself to be a tourist to poverty. And yet I’ve just spent four weeks discussing fascinating readings in development economics with a brilliant group of boston+acumen people, making absolutely no dent in the global poverty we’re investigating, without a single pang of conscience. Is my righteous aversion to class tourism entirely a moral predilection? Or does it have something to do with the fact that, this time, participating is going to cost me something?

I don’t even finish the thought before I know I’m going to do it.

The Rules of the Game

Unfortunately, the Acumen Fund isn’t about to confiscate my wallet and phone. With no constraints imposed upon me, I need to create a set of rules to drive me toward the experience I’m seeking. Effectively, my decisions need to be forced - but obviously I’m not going to walk around pretending to be destitute, taking up a bed in a shelter and a seat at a soup kitchen with a false story. An internal set of rules, then - a character to become, but not portray. Because if anybody asks, I’m just doing an assignment. Actually carrying out the subterfuge of pretending to be in desperate need feels … disrespectful.

Let’s keep the simulation close to home. In a parallel universe, JP has a patchy safety net with no family and few friends he can call on, no insurance, no technology, and nothing in the bank. When he shatters his teeth in a bike crash riding through HBS (seriously, corner of Gordon Road with that traffic circle, be careful, folks) and loses his job, he’s out on the street before he knows he’s in trouble. We’re a few months into a Boston winter and there’s a nor’easter rolling into town. I step onto the street with: a coat, a book, and a sea bag; and without: a computer, a fake tooth, or a clue what I’m doing next. Begin simulation.

Running [from] the Simulation

If you couldn’t tell, I’m a pretty arrogant guy. I decry the insurmountable systemic disadvantages that keep families and regions poor, and yet I carry around with me the assumption that the crippling anchor of poverty and unfortunate circumstances of birth wouldn’t hold me back for one second. Is this cognitive dissonance? Not if you think you’re better than everyone else.

Well, now it’s time to put my little nugget of objectivist doublethink to the test. Can Poor JP (PJ for short), deprived of his resources and safety net, claw his way to the lifestyle enjoyed by Rich JP? (Question: are you also depriving yourself of the years of education, professional skill training, and mentorship you’ve enjoyed? No, that’s impossible without access to way more drugs than Poor JP can afford. The best I can do is avoid getting paid to manipulate spreadsheets or make websites - something I’m already quite practiced at.)

I’m hungry. Should probably stop by Pinocchio’s for a slice, but they’re pricey and I’ve only got a couple bucks in my pocket. I could make that money go further at a grocery store but I’ve got nowhere to cook or store food, leaving me with the expensive processed stuff. Problematic. Time to do some homework.

The library computer isn’t fast, but I quickly establish that several Hot Local Singles have a level of interest in Poor JP that’s positively suspicious, for a homeless guy. Eventually I learn that the nearest soup kitchen is downtown. There are some fairly specific time slots, too, and rules for who can get food where. Perhaps the impressively diverse ecosystem of malware riddling this machine has reached some cybernetic critical mass, gained sentience, and started modifying web pages just to screw with me. Somehow this seems more likely than the world really not giving a shit if Poor JP slowly starves to death. To get to the next meal I’m eligible for - it’s in the morning - I’ve got to take a bus and a train, and then I’ll be broke. Apparently Poor JP is going to spend a lot of time walking around in the cold until he gets some money.

OK then, money. Figuring out how I’m going to get a job and find a place to live will be much easier if I don’t have to waste all this time walking around Boston looking for free food. How about the sperm bank? I pass the first hurdle - the library computer tells me that I need to be at least 5’8” - but the subsequent ones look a little dicey. College degree, 12-month regular donation period, and none of them are open now anyway. Blood plasma? Don’t people get paid to donate that? Well, yes - but not in Boston. A few more minutes’ desultory clicking and the library closes. My stomach rumbles.

Once I figure out the temporary money, how am I even going to get a job? Rich JP’s college classmates are half funemployed (it’s like unemployment, but without the poverty), and I’m Rich JP minus much of what made him employable. Are there employment programs around here, or some way for a guy to get a gig? Is it overreaching to expect something like that to exist? Rich JP laughs apologetically when somebody tells him how entitled he is. Poor JP would probably cut a motherfucker. I really do want to work, is it so crazy to ask?

Company

I need to find some homeless folks. When in Rome, right?

‘Hey, man,’ I sidle up to a scruffy-looking old busker, ‘got a light?’ He doesn’t. Let’s call him Chris. Chris has got nothing but time. I hear about the banks, the Jesus, the cops, the mayor. I want to hear about Chris’ family, maybe his friends, but he can’t seem to stay on that topic for more than a few seconds. There’s so obviously a past that he’s dragging behind him and I wonder if anybody gets to see it.

Others do have a light. Some of them even have stories. Everyone has a reason they’re on the streets. I don’t hear much to surprise me - in my informal poll there’s drugs, medical problems, mental problems, not too much education and a fair amount of paranoia about the government and its intentions towards those down on their luck, like my smoking buddies and me.

Piss-Poor

It’s dark and there’s a guy in my corner, five or six feet away. Does he want my stuff? Does he even notice me? He must. I hear a trickle. Oh, he’s peeing himself. Lovely. Must be one of my fellow homeless tonight. No - no, he’s too well-dressed to be a hobo and he’s peeing on the wall five feet from my head. I swear to Jacqueline Novogratz if I get a drop on me I’m going to cut this guy’s dick off. This is how I notice that it’s past midnight.

I had run out of time and ended up here, in the entryway of a bank where I’d seen buskers and homeless spending nights before. It was funny - all the critical thinking skills which used to gain me gold stars and A+’s enabled me to use up the whole evening thinking critically about the problems facing me, without generating anything to a) eat or b) sleep under. So I headed to the one spot I knew for people without places to sleep (that didn’t involve wasting a shelter bed on my fake-poor ass) and pulled my trusty bag over my feet up to my armpits for warmth.

The girls walking back to their dorms or apartments or cars look like aliens. Rich JP would automatically be sizing them up, deciding on an approach, hesitating, second-guessing himself and ultimately doing nothing. But even neurotic passivity contains the possibility of interaction - these girls and I, lurking in my sea bag in the corner with my missing tooth and dirty exterior, don’t even belong to the same species. What could we possibly have to say?

That’s not what I came out here to realize, though.

I drift. Snow drifts. Flakes floating silently past the streetlights glitter brighter than the luminous storefront displays. Products for people who can afford a hundred and twenty dollar baby stroller. People who have absurd, gratuitous, unimaginable amounts of money. Money that would buy me food for a year without taking a dent. What kind of skills are even worth that much money? Once you have enough, what else is there to have? Rich JP knows about supply and demand and incentives and competition, and I do, too, but it all seems so trivial from the sea bag in the corner.

That, too, is not what I’m trying to find.

At some point in my interminable fatigue and hunger and cold it hits me - or, more accurately, I realize that ‘it’ isn’t going to hit me. This is meaningless. Because I’m out here trying to track down an insight, every random bit of noise is looking like signal. The proverbial monkey with a typewriter exists, he’s sitting above my head typing like mad and paper after paper of lorem ipsum is rolling past my eyes, and I’m just desperate, reading it, beseeching the jabberwocky like it’s some Kerouac scroll of mad-scientist poetry, chock-full of meaning if only I could unlock it. But it’s not. Because there is nothing to learn out here. It’s a terrible way to live and I’m glad Rich JP doesn’t have to do it.

The sun rises and I head home with an ache in my back that will last me all day and a chip on my shoulder that I bring directly to the keyboard. My ass is still cold.

Deep Personal Growth

I slept on the streets and I didn’t learn shit. Would it have been unreasonable to expect a lightning bolt of insight to strike me in my corner at three in the morning? Yes. Yes, it’s unreasonable to expect that after a night of urban camping I know what it is to be poor.

I’m no more empathetic than when I began this little experiment. How can anyone look at these poor bastards and not feel empathy? Or women struggling to feed their kids on survival income? And how can anyone not despair when they realize how insurmountable the problem of poverty really is? Maybe it’s easier to keep them at arms’ length with pity than internalize their suffering with empathy.

Here’s what I learned: I make a pretty angry homeless guy, and it’s a good thing I wasn’t out there any longer or I’d be doing jail time for aggravated dismemberment.