This is our last week in our series on Hard to House. We hope that you have learned a little as we have shared some of the barriers our guests encounter when it comes to housing.
K is a fixture in the community. He has been around a very long time and he has a daily routine that runs like clockwork- in fact I can often tell about what time it is depending on where I encounter him in town. For many years, he was a complete mystery to me. I knew that he camped on the outskirts of town and that everyone called him something different. Peanut Butter man, Survivor Man, Walking Stick guy. He is a bit of an urban legend- there are so many rumors about who he is and why he has made the choices he has- but very little is actually known about him. When I worked at Holy Grounds, I got to know him a little better, knowing what he liked for breakfast (Cheerios with orange juice), that he would wear a pair of jeans or tennis shoes until there wasn’t enough fabric or sole left to repair and then he would ask for another pair, as close to the original as possible. And that he loved living outside, on his own. While on a clean up mission with the homeless liaison officer, I got a glimpse of his elaborate home in the woods and was impressed with his detailed set up. It was truly his home.
Through fits and starts over the last many years, I have built a bit of report with K. I remember how shocked I was when he came into the shelter the first time. He arrived covered head to toe in snow, we were rotating then and it was in the middle of a polar vortex. It truly wasn’t safe for him to stay outside and he knew it. He trusted us enough to come out of the elements. He stayed with us for 3-4 nights until the worst of it had passed, then he returned to his campsite. Each season since, we will usually see him for a few nights at a time when mother nature is especially brutal. We tell staff that if he shows up, we let him in- no matter how full we are. He will come in and enjoy the hot food and the soft bed, but just as quickly as he shows up, he will go again.
K would be very easy to house. He definitely has a history of long term homelessness. He doesn’t have a criminal record, he doesn’t use drugs or alcohol. In fact, if he were willing, we could probably have him housed within a month. But that is the catch- he isn’t willing. There are very few people that I encounter in this work that choose to live outside, in fact only two come to mind. But in both cases, these men love their way of life. There is something about the freedom, the independence, the solitude. I struggle with this. Both of the men I am thinking of are older (75 plus). Both show signs of aging bodies. I think about how much simpler their lives could be if they had a home. But then I remind myself that they do in fact have a home and that they are choosing the lifestyle they lead. They are hard to house only because their definition of ‘house’ is very different from mine. I am sure that there are some mental health reasons why K chooses to live outside. But you know what? He is happy. He has told me many times how the simplicity of his life makes him happy. Who am I to judge.
There may come a time when circumstances change and K will need to seek a different kind of living arrangement. If that time comes, I know that he will come to us and together we will be able to help him find his next home. But more than likely- he will just keep on living his way, until one day we notice that we haven’t seen him for a bit, and we will realize that he has passed. We will probably feel guilty for not trying harder- for not getting him into standard housing. Hopefully we will also remember that it was his choice to live the way he did and that part of treating people with dignity and respect is honoring their choices- even the ones that make them hard to house. -Pr. Erica