About that tent …
Amy Lynn Reifsnyder
May 27, 2019
For three of the last four summers, I have been identified as ‘homeless’. According to social service agencies, because I was living from my car and tent, I qualify for this label. The first time I was identified as homeless, I was shocked and embarrassed. Yes, I qualified for food benefits. I was also given money to have the oil changed in the car. But the term. I didn’t mind volunteering at local soup kitchens and pantries. I even took pride in being able to help my fellow humans. One of the most sacred things I’ve ever done was wash the feet of an exhausted ‘working woman’ who lived under the local bridge. But me? Homeless? My older brother had been a homeless junkie (who later recovered and became a pastor and counselor for other junkies). My sister worked as a hooker for some years, and was picked up by Seattle police from a city park. (They sent her home via Greyhound Bus’s teen runaway return program; Thank You, Greyhound Bus Company!) I, of course, NEVER wanted to be like THEM! How demoralizing! How demeaning! … How sanctimonious and judgmental I have been.
Being seasonally homeless – camping in between stints as a classroom teacher – has been a gift. Oh, yes, it has been frustrating as hell some days. See Psalm 43: 1-4
“Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause against an ungodly people; from deceitful and unjust men deliver me! For thou are the God in whom I take refuge; why hast thou cast me off? Why go I mourning because of the oppression of the enemy? Oh, send out they light and thy truth; let them lead me to thy holy hill and to thy dwelling! Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy; and I will praise thee with the lyre, O God, my God.”
(Revised Standard Version)
I spent one evening tucked into my tent on a backroad off a backroad shouting this at God, reminding him of his promises of ‘abundant living’. How dare he allow me to be living such an uncertain life, away from all I’ve come to claim as ‘home’ and ‘family’! How dare he allow me to pack up my possessions, store them in someone else’s garage, and go hiking and camping for weeks on end! How dare he allow me to live in harmony with the elk, the owl, and the coyote! …
How dare he give me the desire of my heart? Wasn’t I the one who read the Little House on the Prairie series over and over again because I wanted to live on the trail, in the Big Woods, in a house made of Earth? Wasn’t I the Girl Scout who wanted to camp solo to earn the Order of the Arrow? Wasn’t I the one who disappeared into the woods, with dogs, to celebrate every good thing in my life? To deal with every unpleasant thing in my life? Wasn’t I the one who slept outside on hot muggy nights despite having an air conditioner which cooled the whole house? Heck, it’s even hard to watch a meteor shower if all you’re looking out of is one set of windows.
Yes. Being identified as ‘homeless’ has had its blessings. When my ‘mothers’ died one September, I headed to the woods. On our way I was stopped in the road by a bull elk, who lifted his front left leg, and appeared to bow toward me before he sauntered up the hill and stopped a little higher than eye level, so we could chat. I don’t believe this would have happened if I and the dogs had not spent the summer camping in his turf. To be honored in such a way made me feel reassured, comforted, loved.
But for many thousands of people, being homeless is anything but a blessing. I have had an opportunity to camp in a number of Walmart parking lots. The other folks there are all on the road for one reason or another. One restless night, a fellow ‘parker’ invited me to share his meal of Ramen noodles and anchovies – his ‘last supper’, you know, of ‘bread’ and fish. In Farmington, New Mexico, one of the police officers who patrolled the parking lot recommended a safer location across town. Many of the parkers simply have no other place to go. They may have run out of gas, run out of food, run out of personal energy. Uncertainty can be exhausting.
If you pay attention, it is possible to see the various sub-cultures of people taking advantage of Walmart’s generosity. Travelers in cars and vans often pull in after dark, wake early, use the facilities in the store and are gone before the morning shoppers arrive. At dusk, street people enter Walmart and then spend the night ‘shopping’ so they have a dry, warm place to stay until sunrise. Then, they, too, use the facilities and head out.
The morning I thanked the Walmart associate for the use of the parking lot and bathroom, she replied, “Oh, I was homeless one winter in Utah. I know what it’s like.”
I nodded. Time and again, I have met people who have been or are ‘homeless’, and they are not junkies, hookers, mentally incapacitated. Some are former military. Others are single women who are left alone, sometimes by death, sometimes for other reasons, who didn’t have enough resources to keep the family home, pay the utilities, feed the children. Some are adult children whose family want nothing to do with them because of lifestyle differences, clashes of religious beliefs, abuse.
Homeless also turn up in free camping areas – thus, the summer I spent with the elk. Recently, however, I returned to a campground near to a town with two-dollar access to the swimming pool, whirlpool, and showers in the local aquatic center; free water in the park or at the library; charging ports at the local library; soup kitchens; free hot dogs on Fridays; and food pantries. I am fortunate; I have a car, and am currently living on unemployment money, so I can buy gas, pay for my phone, and buy dog food. The folks who pulled in at sunrise one morning, on the other hand, do not.
When I awoke, I saw a young man pop up, wave, and then drop out of sight. Later, we met. He, his sister and brother, and both parents, were living from their car. Turns out, his mother had had an accident that resulted in her back being broken in three places. She was denied temporary disability. The house they had been living in was condemned due to black mold, and they did not have the resources to move into new housing for a family of five. Mom had found work at a local senior housing facility; she was working as many shifts as possible. Dad was in charge of the kids, ages ten, eight, seven. He was looking for work that complemented his wife’s schedule so the kids would have an adult with them at all times. With his father’s permission, the kids came over to say hello to me and my two dogs. They were courteous, thoughtful, and offered to help with anything I needed help with – such as helping me pot two cactus I had picked up from the roadside. Without asking for anything, it became obvious they were hungry. I had packages of breakfast bars and single servings of apple sauce that were welcome. Their father and mother appreciated what I could share. Not once did they beg.
As the day went by, and we became more acquainted, I learned they had no silverware, no cookware, and no tent. They had not yet grasped the economy of living ‘free’, shall we say. I, on the other hand, have plenty of everything except money. And, I found the most appropriate use for my tent. Apparently, it doesn’t just hold one woman and two dogs. It houses a family of five who understand that it has a broken zipper and will leak when it rains. I think my dogs – Morgen, Duncan, Maeda, Nala, Freckles, Hannah, and Molly – would approve.
Amy Lynn Reifsnyder