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Saturday, September 16, 2006

Homeless In Athens, Part 1A (A)

by AJ

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Part 1 A

For six months I lived homeless in Athens, Georgia (USA). Actually, “homeless” is not an accurate term, as I did have a home- a 1986 Nissan Sentra, which I shared with my dog Athena. Inside I built a bunk bed- a two foot wide plywood platform that stretched from the rear dash to the front dash. This makeshift bunk allowed me to stretch out fully when I slept, though it was far from comfortable. It gave me only three inches of room between my nose and the roof of the car. I slept directly on the plywood and covered myself with a thin sheet. Athena slept on the back seat, below the bunk on a thick dog bed.

Still, I was reasonably comfortable... and certainly better off than most who are thrust into homelessness involuntarily. I chose to be homeless, and could thus prepare for the experience. The Nissan sheltered me from rain, gave me a small degree of privacy, and provided a secure place to keep my possessions.

I had only a simple and extremely practical wardrobe... chosen for its utility more than its fashion. I had an umbrella and a wind breaker. I had a sheet, a pillow, and a fleece blanket for cold Spring nights. For cooking I used a propane stove, a set of backpackers’ pots, one fork, and one spoon. I had a few books and pencils and pens for sketching. I also had a small bag with basic toiletries: toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, razor, toilet paper, and biodegradable liquid soap. I had one towel. In a pinch, most of my possession could be stuffed into a large book bag, and yet I had far more than most who live on the street.

The two most common questions I was asked, when someone learned of my living situation, were: “How do you bathe?” and “How do you use the bathroom?”. Bathing was simple.....in the Spring, when the weather was cold, I made due with sponge baths. Typically I’d find a lockable public bathroom and bring my towel and toiletries in a book bag. Once inside, I unpacked and washed one body part at a time... using a small sponge and the bathroom sink. I moved quickly and could clean my entire body in less than five minutes. Once clean, I towelled off- then cleaned the bathroom to leave no evidence of what I’d been doing. I needed these bathrooms-- and did not want to arouse suspicion or resentment from the owners.... I tried to practice a “low impact” form of homelessness.

When the weather warmed in summer, my options became more pleasant: I bathed in the Oconee River... in a secluded cove at sunset. This was a sublime experience: River flowing quietly... sun painting the sky pink and purple..... overhead, trees swaying to a gentle breeze and in the distance- a heron gliding from one rock to the next. The river water was brisk and invigorating and seemed to provide a deeper cleaning than the chlorinated showers most of us use. Birds sang to me, the river whispered, and the trees danced. I left the river each night not only cleaner, but calmer and happier as well. Bathing outdoors under the open sky was my favorite experience of being homeless.

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