As a teenager, when the pressure started to weigh of having to support myself one day, I would consume myself with what I thought were bigger questions. I wanted answers to these questions before I could start to make any plans for independent living, or any other methods of survival or community contribution. What was the meaning behind all of this? How would I juggle making the money and paying the bills for all the things? What were all the things I would need? What did I want to do in my life?
I had determined that there were basic needs each human required for basic survival. Food, water, meaning, shelter.
I was lucky enough to be born in a place that had clean drinking water flowing for free out of the taps, so that need was easily met. And as for food I determined I needed to know how to produce my own foods. This seemed attainable and each year since then I have tried to make sure I practice the skills of growing and eating food from the garden. As well, I was discovering dumpster diving, the art of rifling through trash to sort through what other people or stores consider garbage but in fact is still perfectly edible food. It was incredible learning that it is completely possible to sustain an underclass of society on otherwise wasted dumpstered foods. I was looking for the loop-holes and found lots.
After finding my physical being was nourished I set out to discover how to nourish my soul. Reading up on topics of interest, and involving myself in workshops, community, and experiencing life satisfied my yurning for a meaningful dignified existence.
Then there was shelter. That got more complicated because unless you wanted to squat or had someone else footing the bills for you, you would have to come up with money to pay for a shelter. Paying for shelter. It began to occur to me that this was a very strange idea and I discovered that this concept had cultural diversity throughout the world. I had determined that shelter was usually controlled by a political economic system, except where people had found loopholes, and, of course, I chose to focus on the loopholes.
One option was pitching a tent on a lot in the bushes. I actually tried this out with a friend when I had started attending community college. We found a lot near my family’s house and hid a tent behind some bushes. There! We had now found a loophole in paying money for shelter and slept out there a few nights. Look at all the money we would save by sleeping wherever we pitched a tent, and all the time saved in not having to work for money. We would still go back to eat and shower and watch tv at my family’s house though, so it turned out the tent wasn’t quite the easy free life imagined.
This concept of not paying for shelter was also called squatting. Squatting was another loophole, and I found out there were some European countries with actual squatters rights. People would take over abandoned buildings and turn them into functional homes. This sounded amazing to me. Mostly it was the excitement of enabling people the self determination to create their own housing, but the fact that it was free was of course the major draw as well. I even found a website called squat dot net that listed active political squats and their events, and detailed if they were seeking new habitants or if they could handle guests. I learned that in Canada squatting a building had to be done in complete camouflage, so as not to be discovered at all, because there were no rights to protect squatters where I lived. People were arrested for trespassing on private property here, and asked to move along on public property. This sparked my interest in homelessness. It really became something that troubled me.
I had the opportunity to go to Europe, visit and stay in some squats and they seemed like pretty decent places, but also places that required a lot of hard work. They were also only accessible to a small alternative section of the population it seemed like. There were plenty of homeless people still sleeping out.
I found a book called ‘Cotters and Squatters, The Hidden History Of Housing’ by Colin Ward, about Britain’s housing history. Through reading that I found out that in Britain there was a time when for a family to own a home, the rule was that if over night they could erect a structure, it would be considered theirs by right. Though fascinating, it was the only book I could find documenting squatting as more than a fringe movement.
I wrote research papers on the culture of poverty, and traveled in social circles that romanticized poverty. I dabbled in off grid living, traveled poor by stealing rides on freight trains across America, hitch-hiking, camping, and found myself in a homeless shelter a few times while passing through a town. I read bibliographies on working poor hero’s, was working poor myself, and I was well aware of the fine line between choosing poverty loopholes, and falling through mental health, physical health, and social cracks into poverty.
The question has become: Why do I feel like I am among a mere small percentage of the world’s population that has stopped to wonder if we should be trying so hard to pay to live in a shelter, when there are so many more efficient methods of providing ourselves roofs and walls. When I am with my co-workers who talk of the houses they want to buy, I sometimes ask them why they are playing the silly housing market game. How do they justify to themselves owning big empty houses when there are so many sleeping outside in the cold who would prefer not to. How do the people who choose to live outside maintain dignity in poverty.
I recently read Victor Frankl’s book called ‘Man’s Search For Meaning’, and was pleased to find it answered one of my original teenage angst questions, what was the meaning of all of this? Frankl writes;
‘What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expect from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly. Our question must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fo-fill the tasks which it constantly set for each individual’.
It occurred to me after reading this that I was perhaps asking the wrong questions and feeling guilty about the wrong things. I could work to serve and this would bring me meaning. I could work to provide safe, clean and warm shelter for myself and the people around me, and this would also bring me meaning. I could focus on being loving, and this would free me from the guilt of participating in a political economic system I did not agree with but cannot ignore. I did not need loopholes to survive and thrive, and could feel freedom in being a productive member of society instead of trying to live for free off of society.
‘Freedom, however , is not the last word. Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness.’-Victor Frenkl.
- I am currently laid off my electrical job and have decided to take on casual shifts at a local homeless shelter, so this subject is very much in the forefront of my thoughts. Its a relevant topic for everyone, regardless of profession.