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Monday, September 18, 2006

Homeless In Athens, Part 1B (A)

by AJ

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Part 1 B

The bathroom situation was not nearly so sublime. Mostly I managed with public bathrooms... restaurants, stores, and libraries took care of my needs. When necessary, I ducked behind a tree or into an alley. Again, I was more fortunate than many of Athens’ homeless population. Generally, I had a clean cut appearance and never had trouble using public bathrooms. Many homeless people, especially those who have been living in hard conditions for a long time, have become ragged in appearance and suffer a great deal more discrimination than I. They are refused access to bathrooms in restaurants or businesses and must often resort to the outdoors. Using the outdoors carries risk, as it is illegal. So a homeless person faces police harassment and a ticket for satisfying a basic bodily function.

Most homeless people will tell you that sleep, more than food or clothing or elimination, is their most difficult challenge. They are chronically sleep-deprived.... subject to terrible conditions at night--- biting insects, harassment from drunks, police checks, rain, noise, and extremely uncomfortable “beds”. I faired better than most, but rarely got a good nights sleep. My bunk was narrow, only two feet wide, and the plywood was hard (though certainly an improvement over the cement sidewalks that some use).

At night I covered the windows of the Nissan with burlap curtains for privacy. Mosquitoes plagued me relentlessly.... I’d lie awake in the windless heat and listen to them buzzing in my ears. I rolled and turned and swatted at my arms and legs.... unsure if I was feeling bites or imagining them. At times I sealed myself under a blanket to avoid the bugs....but this cut off air circulation... and I was soon sweating and panting and miserable- and still could not sleep. Every night this was my choice, between unbearable heat or biting bugs.

When I finally drifted off to sleep I was often woken up by drunks.... usually around 2:00am when the bars emptied. They never noticed or bothered me directly... but their shouts and fights and broken bottles jarred me from sleep- and I had great difficulty drifting off again. For the first few months, my own paranoia made it worse. I was terrified of being “discovered”....of being harassed or assaulted by violent drunken hordes. Such were my fears- but they never materialized. My threats were far more domestic: sleep deprivation was by far my worst enemy. In six months, I did not have a single good night’s sleep.

Often I’d curse my car, the heat, the bugs, and the drunks.... yet I was grateful too. My cramped home was far better than what many homeless people have. Many lack any sort of roof and must try to survive on benches or sidewalks. The sidewalk is a killer. The cement sucks the heat from your body even on the hottest of nights. You find yourself simultaneously chilled (from below) and heated (from the air above). You awake from the sidewalk aching and sore.... as if you’d suffered a light beating.

In the car I had privacy. I was never directly harassed or disturbed. But on sidewalks and benches there is none. Passing drunks yell at you- or throw things at you. Police wake you and tell you to move on. Store owners insult you. Rarely can you get more than a couple hours of rest..... fitful and wary. More than they are hungry or sad or cold,.... most homeless people are bone-tired.

Despite deep fatigue, everyday I woke up soon after sunrise- the sun turned my car into a solar oven. Groggy and sore, I rolled out of the bunk, took down the curtains, and drove to a park. Athena and I would walk for an hour or so, to stretch our bodies and work out the aches... and then I’d find a soft spot under a tree and take a nap. These naps helped a great deal. They were far more restful than my bug infested nights.

Somewhat rested, I’d feed Athena and cook my breakfast in the parking lot ( a package of instant oats). I’d then make my way to the library to check email and work on my blog (www.effortlessacquisition.blogspot.com). There is, in fact, a large community of homeless bloggers... who use free access to library computers to record their experiences on the streets of America. The most famous of these is “The Homeless Guy”, a man who has been chronically homeless for twenty years. The Homeless Guy suffers from severe clinical depression. He has, at times, had jobs and housing, but loses them when the worst of the depression kicks in. Most of the time he lives in shelters or on the street. He uses his blog to tell his story, and to advocate for dignified treatment of all homeless people (www.thehomelessguy.blogspot.com). The diversity, and the quality, of these “homeless blogs” is astounding and certainly challenges the stereotype of lazy and inarticulate beggars.

After a few hours at the library I would return downtown. For the price of coffee I rented a seat outside Blue Sky Coffee Shop-- where I’d sit for long hours. I watched the businessmen hustle and the students scurry off to class. There I’d sit..... reading, scribbling, sketching. And it was there that I gained a bigger window into Athens’ homeless life.....for I was often joined by others who’d scrounge a cup of coffee and join me. This is how I met Mike....

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