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I Was Homeless. Now I'm Getting A Ph.D. Here’s What I Learned About Life On The Streets.

"Everything started to crumble. I lost my job, my looks, my money ... and I was forced to start living in my car."

Most people, even some locals, don’t know it, but there’s a river in Los Angeles. It starts in the San Fernando Valley, cuts through downtown, and, 50 miles later, ends in Long Beach. The reason people don’t know about it is because it’s almost always dry and goes without notice. It looks like just another cement ditch and kids use it as a playground or as a canvas for graffiti. 

Some adults use the riverbed as well, but for a very different reason: It’s their home because they have nowhere else to go. In fact, there are an estimated 60,000 homeless people in Los Angeles and the actual number is likely much higher.  

Many unsheltered individuals and families were uprooted or even killed in an unthinkably devastating storm in December 2018 when the LA River flooded, though the local news failed to report on how the storm affected the homeless. 

I remember driving by a stretch of the riverbed the day after the storm and seeing dozens of floating tents, camp stoves, shopping baskets and shoes ― there must have been hundreds of orphaned shoes. It might have been the first time the “vagrant problem,” as popular disc jockeys began calling it, became truly apparent to many Los Angeles residents, but it wasn’t new to me. Seeing all those images of broken lives created a second flood ― of memories. 

A homeless camp along the Los Angeles River.
A homeless camp along the Los Angeles River.

People usually don’t plan on becoming homeless. I certainly didn’t.

I grew up in a middle-class family ― my dad was a salesman who sold everything from beer to office supplies and my mom was a payroll clerk ― in a suburb of Los Angeles. Our school district was in the top 10 in the county and our town was named one of the safest in California.

Until I was in my teens, I had never seen a “bum,” “hobo,” “transient,” “derelict,” “beggar,” “tramp,” “wino,” “vagabond” or “drifter” (pick your derogatory label) or really anyone who was considerably different from me. That’s how impenetrable my childhood bubble was.

After my parents’ divorce when I was 12, my life was relatively uneventful throughout my teen years. I seemed to be headed toward the typical path expected of a girl like me: graduation from high school and college at a state university followed by a job that would provide security but no real excitement. And maybe I’d get married and have a couple of children along the way.

Instead, I dropped out of school at 17, left home, and ended up on the Las Vegas doorstep of a man I had met just once in a Fremont Street casino. I arrived with no diploma, no job experience, no money and no clue how I was going to get any of these things, or survive on my own.

A few weeks after my sudden arrival in Las Vegas, I begged my way into a position as a dishwasher in a casino restaurant — the only job I could get given my age and lack of experience ― and soon after that, I managed to land my first gig as a showgirl after stumbling into an audition by chance. It was the first of several showgirl gigs I had during my years in Vegas, including a role as Cleopatra at Caesars Palace. 

But it wasn’t all fun and games. The man I had moved to Las Vegas to be with was horribly abusive and I began to drink heavily. I knew that addiction runs in my family, and the abuse I suffered in that relationship triggered my own battle with alcoholism. What I didn’t know until much later in life is that I also suffer from clinical depression and panic disorder ― I was diagnosed in my 30s ― and these conditions led me to drink even more.

Everything started to crumble. I lost my job, my looks, my money, and, before long, my ex, though that wasn’t a bad thing. But him leaving did mean that the rent wasn’t getting paid and one night, after coming home from a long night of partying, I found an eviction notice on the door. I packed everything I could and drove to a Budget Suites on the Strip. I didn’t have enough money to stay there for very long, and a few weeks later, I was forced to start living in my car.

*****

People often ask why someone doesn’t “just call” a relative, friend, former co-worker, scanty acquaintance ― anyone ― when they first find themselves without a roof. But it’s usually not as simple as that. 

After I left home, my family and I stopped speaking to each other. By the time I found myself camped out in a parking lot near Fremont Street ― where it all began, ironically ― we hadn’t spoken in years. The thought of calling them at that point, when we had fought so bitterly over my move to Vegas in the first place, was too much to bear.

I had begun to pick through hotel and casino dumpsters for food and other provisions, including discarded liquor bottles that might still have a swig or two left inside of them. I kept imagining the pain and shock on my dad’s face if he saw his only daughter in this condition and I wondered if he would blame himself.

My face, hair and clothes were starting to become grimy, and I had begun to pick through hotel and casino dumpsters for food and other provisions, including discarded liquor bottles that might still have a swig or two left inside of them. I kept imagining the pain and shock on my dad’s face if he saw his only daughter in this condition and I wondered if he would blame himself.

I did try to find work ― I remember interviewing for a graveyard hostess job at Binion’s Horseshoe and being immediately sent out the door when they saw (smelled?) me. This was happening at a time when job listings were moving from the newspaper to the internet, and finding open positions on my own was practically impossible, let alone trying to make myself look presentable and figuring out how to get there ― I still had a car, but no money for gas. It’s also difficult to secure work without a permanent address or a phone number ― just one more Catch-22 that keeps people on the streets. 

Mostly, I survived on the charity of tourists and locals who saw me wandering Fremont Street. Often they commented on how rare it was to see a “pretty and sane girl” in a “place like that.”

I also survived thanks to my fellow unsheltered friends, who gave me food, spare change, even discarded books and magazines because they knew I liked to read. They also helped shield me from harassment, violence and sexual assault. I felt protected, safe and looked after by them ― it truly was like a surrogate family.

In some ways, I felt that not telling my actual family about how I was living was a way of protecting them. And, of course, much of it was rooted in my pride. I often wonder how pride has contributed to other people’s struggles with homelessness.

*****

One of the first classes I took as a doctoral student was called, if you can believe it, “On the Banks of the LA River.” Talk about life coming full circle.  

I study literature now, so, of course, we were looking at the river from a very different angle than that of the apocalyptic 2018 rainstorm ― we examined it through the eyes of writers like Raymond Chandler, Nathanael West, James Cain and Joan Didion. 

Academia has been, like a lot of other journeys in my life, unplanned and unexpected. I never thought I would finish junior college, let alone pursue a Ph.D. I never thought I would become anything much, let alone a professor. Then again, I never thought I’d become homeless, let alone write publicly about it.

My history of homelessness is something I’ve kept secret from almost everyone in my life, until now. Part of my silence has been because of shame and embarrassment, and the other part of it is that I’m not sure people would believe me ― I don’t look like someone who once called her car home. There is really only one group I’ve ever felt completely comfortable sharing my story with: fellow homeless people. 

*****

A few months after that mammoth storm, a colleague of mine who studies homelessness wanted to visit an encampment along the LA River. She shared her fear of approaching and talking to the homeless people there. I offered to tag along and help. I wanted to show her that this population is nothing to be afraid of, and that, while studying the problem and its causes ― rising housing prices, stagnant wages, overcrowding, little to no access to health care ― is essential, we need to remember that the homeless are real people.

What’s more, it’s crucial that we understand and discuss how mental illness affects and challenges the homeless. It’s been estimated that up to 45% of that population has some form of mental illness and that 25% of these individuals are severely mentally ill, which obviously complicates finding these individuals, providing outreach to them, and moving and keeping them off the streets. 

The media tends to see homeless people as all the same ― as though everyone who’s living on the streets has the same origin story, the same challenges and the same ill-fated destiny. This approach often ends up stripping these people of their humanity. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Instead, what if we thought about who these people were before they were homeless? What if we reminded ourselves that they were once ― and still are in many cases ― someone’s child, father, mother, sister, brother, friend? What if we thought about who they are now on the streets and who they could be after homelessness? 

What if we thought about who these people were before they were homeless? What if we reminded ourselves that they were once ― and still are in many cases ― someone’s child, father, mother, sister, brother, friend? What if we thought about who they are now on the streets and who they could be after homelessness?

The homeless are often portrayed as drunk, high, unmotivated, crazy, scary. If they’re not being ignored or dismissed, they’re often being mocked or criticized. But what if we saw them as who they really are: parents who work full time but still can’t afford a place to live or people who have severe mental health or addiction issues but can’t afford treatment or the physically ill who can’t afford proper health care so they’re forced to self-medicate in whatever way they can?

*****

I was lucky. After almost a year without a home, I finally put my pride aside and called some friends I still had in Vegas, and they helped move me into a motel. I was so embarrassed when they came to get me, I could barely look at them. How could you have let this happen? their faces seemed to be asking. 

The truth is, many homeless people ask themselves the same question hundreds of times a day, if they’re cognizant of what they’re going through. So many of them, unlike me, have no one to turn to ― their family and friends have either disowned them or they have no family or friends ― and government and nonprofit organizations can’t find them or can’t truly help move them in a direction of getting off the streets permanently. 

Soon after I moved into the motel, I called my mother. She came and picked me up in the middle of the night, and brought me home to California. I’m fortunate I had a place to go and parents who helped me start again. They still don’t know the full extent of what I went through during my time on the streets ― I think it will probably reveal itself slowly, over time. 

After spending a year in treatment for my alcohol addiction, I went back to school. I can’t say I never looked back, because I did, all the time. I can see why some people keep returning to the streets ― not because they want to, but because the task of rising from the ashes and integrating themselves back into “the real world” can seem insurmountable.

*****

Starting from zero is challenging, but it’s not impossible. I still marvel at the small conveniences like easy access to food and water and a phone, being able to take a hot shower every day, and having money to buy basic things that have changed my life, and I’m grateful for all of them.

Though I’m off the streets, I still find myself thinking constantly about the time I spent on them and of all of the people who are out there trying to survive. There are so many questions I ask myself about what I went through and what allowed me to get out: If you lived in a car, did it really count? Did you really have it as bad as those who are living in tents or gutters or on park benches? If you had someone you could call and ask for help, were you truly homeless, or were you choosing to be? And once you get out, should you bury the experience, or should you use it to help others? 

I don’t have the answers to all of these questions but I think I’ve finally found my answer to that last one. I hope this essay can be the start of something that might make a difference.

Kristen Brownell earned her MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of California at Riverside. She’s currently working on her Ph.D. in English literature at the Claremont Colleges, where she also teaches writing to international students. She recently completed a memoir, “Lost Vegas,” about the years she spent as a Las Vegas showgirl. Her favorite thing to do in her spare time is catch an epic “Golden Girls” marathon. 

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