There is not so fine a line between homelessness and vacationing. For one very broad line, the person lacking permanent housing must be absolutely lacking it. In other words, saving up a couple thousand dollars to backpack across Europe is essentially the American middle class birthright to which we tout ourselves as being so resourceful to our friends and especially our parents, who have almost forgotten they did that once also. They like to recollect “dangerous areas” that they “shouldn’t have gone to alone”. But it’s important to realize, Americans with a passport go just about anywhere they want. Brazilians, Iranians, Syrians… not so fast!
Should that American decide to accept the birthright, they will be humbled. Many never do—be it because of poverty-consciousness related financial choices favoring cigarettes, alcohol, and cable television or the opposite affluence exceeding any nostalgia for the hippy practice of backpacking—and so by missing this experience never find themselves humbled by the power and limitations of the backpack.
I have yet to take my birthright because I’m stuck. Stuck on the West Coast: Los Angeles, Santa Cruz, Bay Area, Sacramento, Santa Barbara, Portland and Tucson have become the annual routine to which I am attuned. I am blue collar conditioned. My family taught me to make quick decisions, not lasting ones, and although my Mother did the Europe thing, that was the end of her adventures. My father, like me, has only traveled the country. But for me, I haven’t even made it to NYC yet!
But the matter really on the mind right now is homelessness versus tripping. Obviously “tripping” evokes an image of hallucination and intoxicants. But I speak of psychic illusory through the drug of travel. There is some odd sense of power like you can be anywhere and accomplish anything when you’re on the nebulous road.
Personally, I haven’t been backpacking; rather, I have been the driver. But when my car broke down, leaving me stranded at the Morongo Casino, I shifted gears in the mind, realizing my attachment to stuff and things. The car keeps you bound to those things. The backpack basically liberates you.
To travel without vacationing means you’re cashing in social capital to achieve lodging and purpose. Moreover, you’re offering yourself as a humble servant to whoever is hosting you—or else you’re walking on eggshells to make sure they or their roommates aren’t kicking you out. Homelessness occurs as the bottoming out of this strategy. If I became visibly intoxicated without sharing and made nothing of my time or simply got rank with folks, I’d be kicked out right away.
When you are not well to do enough to keep your home while traveling then you’re almost homeless. But that homelessness is resolved when your social capital is strong enough that it’s impossible to find a place to sleep without just little bit of searching. These days you just need a strong Facebook account to achieve this. It was the same paradigm with Myspace. But when I read Kerouac, I can’t help but think that $10 averted you from homelessness for a week, with late diners or nightclubs keeping you busy on any given night of the week in San Francisco, Denver, or the East Village. I observe that the whole paradigm shifted from relatively affordable to, well, these days, even $100 hardly gets you beyond a single night of lodging, meals, and transportation. Moreover, folks who used to extend a spare bedroom are now bound up to AirBnB.com seeking $50 a night! This “economy of sharing” is not sharing at all.
My only point is that with the given economic gap widening, homelessness is easier to fall in to.
Once I stated to a group of friends that poverty—absolute hunger and homelessness—is a choice so long as you’re American. Obviously, that is arguable and they gasped at my judgment. My reasoning assumes that we’re all capable of rising above our economic conditioning—or at least with patience and cooperation you can enjoy subsidized health, food, and housing—especially in Oregon. I will argue that we’re all capable of rising to the occasion of life’s challenges through the Universe-Given instruments of stress hormones, intellect and spirituality. Where this is not exactly a true assumption is pretty specific.
That specific contradiction lies here: that most folks are going to fuck up many times. If you’re raised in an environment where you aren’t meant to gain forward mobility, where you are exposed to drugs and violence as a necessary means of living, there is a good chance you will always be poor, even when you happen upon some cash money.
To be clear, I measure economic status through several interrelated factors. My personal finances are a great example. In 2012, my taxable income was less than $2,000. In 2013, although my financials haven’t been reconciled to their entirety, I can estimate that through my self-employment as a delivery driver for Portland Mercury, as the Executive Director of a growing non-profit organization, InterArts, plus miscellaneous personal cash income, I earned about $50,000 and spent roughly $40,000 directly on expenses. My gross personal income is closer to the range of $10,000 whereas my net income is half that. At the end of the year, I had a bank balance of $105. However, if you count the value of my existence, including business spending and trade-based subsistence, I enjoyed a truly middle-class life that would cost many folks around $30,000—just a ballpark guess.
This cleverness of living is what makes my poverty worth it. But to be clear, I have taken many personal sacrifices to pull it off. I would much rather have money, let go of SNAP benefits, not rely on Oregon Health Plan, pay off all my debts, own multiple properties and travel by whatever desired means. But so long as I’m not so affluent, my particular skill at developing a high quality of life 10% below the poverty line will be a fine skill to develop, assuming I never strike oil. And moreover, I’m doing more or less what I want to do every day. That is priceless.
So we come back to the point: the line between homelessness and tripping. Here is my take. If you’re traveling and friends are willing to put you up, you’re tripping. If you’re cruising around asking for dollars and crashing wherever you happen to be too strung out or mentally unstable to move, you’re homeless. If you’re cultured, educated, and want to network with people while simultaneously relying on them for housing, you’re tripping. If you’re bouncing from pad to pad because you don’t even know how to find a job anymore, don’t know where you want to live, and could give a fuck in general, you’re homeless.
So if you’re a cute woman in her early twenties saying, “I’m homeless,” you’re probably just exploiting some impressionable people that fantasize about what you’re doing. They’re probably men. To say you’re homeless is actually a gross misrepresentation to exploit people’s sympathy.
If you’re a white male in his early thirties and your career choices have blown back in your face and you need a fast break from the reality you’ve created for yourself, you’re probably Me and tripping. But I have realized that I’m blessed, not hard up. I’m grateful, not cursing my life.
And with that, I say thank you for all of my hosts: everyone that provided the space for me to trip. Remember, the greatest gift you can give is the space it takes for someone to grow.
It is not the best time for me to make this promise, but most of you believe in me. I will make it back. I’ll have floor space for you. None of you enjoyed my middle-class reality when I had that spare room. But it will return and grow stronger; you will enjoy the benefits of my hard work some day.