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Commentary : A Home Isn’t the Only Thing in Life That County’s Homeless Need

<i> Jere Witter is a free-lance writer in Huntington Beach and works for the Orange County Legal Aid Society. </i>

My house is not exactly a home. It is an air-conditioned stucco box typical of Orange County apartment complexes. But at least I write this from the shelter of a ceiling and four walls. That is a convenience between 8,000 and 10,000 people in the county don’t have.

My errands for the Legal Aid Society have put me in contact with nearly a thousand of our homeless neighbors in the last three years, and some of them are kind enough to count me as their friend. In general--and there are always exceptions--they are not transients, not homeless by choice, not drunks, nor crazy, and surely not lazy. Being homeless is the hardest work there is.

Lose shelter and you lose privileges you consider as normal as breathing, and you have to scramble to make life livable without them. Using the word “you” isn’t too fanciful unless you are so well-insulated against economic shock that you can’t imagine the sobering accompaniments of homelessness.

All of a sudden:

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You can’t close your door on the outside world.

Can’t have privacy.

Can’t take off your clothes.

Can’t have a pet. Can’t have a house plant.

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Can’t look out a window.

Can’t shower or shave.

Can’t sleep in sheets.

Can’t make love.

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Can’t have children. If you do, you can’t keep them if authorities find out about them.

Can’t have a cold or hot drink.

Can’t buy a half-gallon of ice cream.

Can’t accept any food that needs cooking or refrigeration.

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Can’t choose your friends.

Can’t get credit. Can’t cash a personal check.

Can’t give a permanent address.

Can’t receive phone calls, and so:

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You probably can’t get a job, and you probably can’t get General Relief.

County Welfare--even in a spasm of generosity--is reluctant to send checks to a freeway culvert, the river bottom or a bench in the park.

Prospective employers want to know where to contact you, and are unlikely to be impressed if you show up for an interview unshaved and unbarbered. You have to be Kirk Gibson to look like a hobo and get decent work.

If you’ve kept your car, you can live in that for a while. But if you’ve ever lived in a car, you know how fast it--and you--can depreciate.

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No car, and you find the county has expanded to the size of Nevada. You enjoy the hearty exercise of walking everywhere. What used to be a 20-minute drive is now a three-hour walk. I’ve known people to walk from Anaheim to Costa Mesa and back to get a free bag of groceries, from Seal Beach to Santa Ana on the chance of a night’s shelter. A bicycle gets stolen; a bus costs money. One man in at the Santa Ana Civic Center taught himself to roller skate at age 55, but the skates were seized with the rest of his belongings by Santa Ana park workers and thrown out as trash.

While striding your way to glowing health, you will carry your wardrobe and bedding with you so they won’t be stolen or confiscated. You must carry enough to protect you against an overnight change in weather. You will sleep fully clothed, with excess belongings as your pillow, and you will hide any valuables next to your skin. These will include money, driver license, birth certificate. A new birth certificate costs $7, and a new driver license $10. It has always been hard to get even day labor with a picture ID, and the Immigration Reform Act makes it impossible.

You will probably find yourself living a surprisingly moral life. You will fast learn that the most ordinary human activities, legal if done in private, are crimes if committed outdoors. Most homeless people I know can’t afford to smoke or drink--much less to support a drug habit. When dinner for tonight is bologna and white bread, you tend to pass up the more sophisticated recreational options. You pass them up or you add death by starvation to the comforting nightly possibility of having your throat cut.

You discover (through a state-of-the-art communications system called “the Grapevine”) what curfews are imposed, and where. Inland you may wander by day and sleep at night; on the beaches you sleep in the daytime and scrounge at night.

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You learn which cops are most hostile and what departments are less so; attain the philosophy that comes from being “despised and rejected of men”; get used to being told to “Go back where you came from,” which is puzzling to one homeless lady I know who has lived 40 years in Orange County.

You acquire meekness, which the Bible lists as a virtue, and adopt the repentant attitude that society thinks is proper among homeless folk.

Or, you say the hell with it and attempt to live as normal a life as you can. One friend of mine, with a baronial income of $87 a month, rents a post office box (where he receives as much junk mail as anyone) and spends his days in the periodical room of the Santa Ana Library. He may well be the best-informed man in Orange County.

Another unsheltered sport--instead of sitting off someplace contemplating his disability--takes the bus out to Los Alamitos two or three times a week and bets the $2 Exacta. When I last talked to him, he was $13 ahead.

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