I really don’t talk about this one much, because it’s a story of a darker past. So, as fair note, beyond the cut, I talk a little about the time I spent unhoused in my twenties, along with the loss of family.
Content warnings: Cancer, Death, Homelessness, Depression, Anger, Mentions of substance abuse.
In 2000, I lost the man that I called my dad for eighteen years to fast moving cancer. He had four kinds of cancer, according to the doctors, and it was considered terminal at that point because he had refused treatment. He didn’t believe his care team at the time until the final diagnosis, having been given six months to a year to live.
My emotional index, compared to the normal person, is aligned differently, and mom just understood that, somehow. The expected reaction would be grief, mourning, loss, an immediate or near immediate spiral into depression.
My reaction, on the other hand, was searing, white hot anger. How DARE the universe take away someone that had so much work in on crafting and shaping me into a decent enough human being? Who or what allowed this? WHY do I have to tolerate this? What the hell am I supposed to do now that I can’t go to him and ask him questions?
That anger leaked out late in the evening on the night he died, and I know I threw his oxygen tank at a wall. I found out he had passed away from mom, who approached it in a gentle manner. She called me at work, and asked me, “Dew-loo, what time do you get off work tonight?”
“For you, mom? If you need me for anything at all, I can get off at any time.“
She told me that she needed me to come home, it was about Dad.
I inferred the meaning of the sentence, told her to give me 20 minutes, called my boss, and told him what was going on. Her delivery was very calming, so while I knew he had died, the directional shock hadn’t had enough of a hook to pull at that hour.
It was just me and mom, then. My aunt moved in with us, because she was worried about mom and how she would react, and how she would care for herself.
We lived in a tiny, run-down old house that was barely designed for three, but suddenly, we had six people living there, and sometimes eight people. I hated it. This removed so much of my privacy as an only child, even though I was now legally an adult.
It’s not even that I hadn’t tried to move out — I had moved out earlier that year to go live with a friend, but got into drugs and alcohol. I figured out quickly that I didn’t want that. I wanted out of that and quickly, so I did move back home to get clean and sober again.
I’d like to take a moment to interrupt and mention that 38-year-old me looks back at 18-year-old me and just wants to simultaneously slap younger me upside the head, and also shake hands for recognizing there was a problem and getting the hell out of Dodge.
I left a college I was in before dad’s death, because I couldn’t figure out how to compress 24 hours of need to allow for time to sleep: working a full time job, doing full time school, and then coming home to keep an eye on dad so mom could at least get some easier sleep? Mom figured out I was burning the candle at both ends and then melting it in the middle at the same time, and told me I needed to pick something to let go of.
My loyalty lied with family at that time, and having money to pay some part of the bills was a priority. So I let go of school.
Drifting along for a while, I hopped from retail job to retail job, food service to grocery, along with relationship to relationship, too blind to really see what I was doing to myself.
2006 was the year that came back to combo punch me in the gut.
Mom had been in and out of the hospital with a number of health complications. Prior to these, I had informed the family that if mom passes away, please do not call me at work to tell me. I knew no-one else in the family would be able to communicate this correctly, and it would hurt.
I still have not forgiven the one family member who deliberately hurt me with this information. I was working at a grocery store, and get a call on the store phone. “Thanks for calling our grocery store, this is Xial, how may I direct your call?”
“Xial! Your momma dyin’!”
“Yo’ momma dyin‘!!”
“Yo’ momma is dead!”
I woke up on the floor a few minutes later, having blacked out.
My boss was about to fire me on the spot because of how loud I said shit, and someone had taken offense to the language.
DUDE. MY MOM JUST DIED. DO YOU THINK I CARE RIGHT NOW.
The anger was surfacing rapidly, and I had cycled over to the No Verbal Filter setting. I’m behind the CS desk, ugly crying because the last stable pillar I had was gone, and I hadn’t even hugged her that damned morning.
One of my coworkers who had been behind the desk when I blacked out had taken the phone, and could confirm to my boss that yes, I just got slapped in the face with a fast moving titanium rod of information, and that yes, I had indeed just lost my mother.
They sent me home, offered me to take a few days of bereavement, but that doesn’t work for me.
Again, I’m now on the anger rail, so once I got past the initial cloudburst a day later, I’m just chomping to go back to work because I needed the distraction until the funeral.
Black families tend to get the funeral stuff done on weekends, so that everyone can attend the services, so sometimes there’s a couple of weeks between death and the homegoing services.
But, we did bury her, and 2006 decided it wasn’t done punching me as hard as it could. I was then made responsible for paying half of mom’s share of the place we had moved into, on top of what I was already paying. I was the one who opposed the move, because I couldn’t afford it.
Now I extra couldn’t afford it. I was thankful that people were giving back then and willing to help me out when I needed it, and combined with a contest I had won through one of the advertising companies that paid me a grand, I was sort of afloat for a handful of months.
I had gone back so hard to work that I ended up hurting my back. I had also started trying to get my license to sell life insurance in my state, because it was better money than retail hell, to be sure.
2006 tagged 2007 into the ring, and ’07 hit me with a solid uppercut at the end of January. My aunt made it clear that either I pay the $1000+ per month, or I can get out of the house. She wasn’t going to support a NEET (that term wasn’t in the American lexicon then, and what she actually said wasn’t flattering). I had shown her my pay stubs, where I was having wages garnished over an old medical bill: whether I worked 24 or 40 hours, my paychecks were within $1.50 of each other. She didn’t care, she wanted me to pay money I didn’t have.
So in February 2007, we packed up my shit, moved most of it into a storage unit that she paid a couple of months of, and dropped me off at the Salvation Army shelter in downtown.
Thus began my two year stint of being unhoused.
Let me tell you: bunking with over 100 men was a very strange, surreal experience for me as an only child. I rarely had to sleep in the same room as others, growing up, so the snoring, farting, grunting, and other noises were… unsettling.
We had a lights-out time, because they started turning us out onto the streets at six in the morning with all of our possessions. You couldn’t leave them in the shelter.
I hit the ground, running flat out to try to get out of this situation. I needed food, I needed employment, and I needed a place to stay that wasn’t this shelter, even though I was thankful that they only charged $10 a night, and would at least provide you with one meal.
I found out about a place that would help ascertain what kind of work you might qualify for and help you get a job, and so I took the city bus up to that place. Inside of two weeks, I had not only landed an interview, but a job, working in my first call center ever. The staff at the shelter saw I wasn’t about that lazy layabout bull, and would let me leave my bag of possessions at the front desk, so I could go to work, and would let me return after the 4:00 PM check-in, with a guaranteed bunk.
I had been in the shelter about 38 days at that point, and the limit was 45 days in a 180 day period. One of the staffers there came to me one day and said, “Hey, Xial. I know you’ve been working hard trying to get back on your feet. We just had a bunk open up in the transitional housing program. Would you be interested in that?”
I didn’t even know they had a transitional housing program, much less what it was, and said as such. He tells me it’s a program for men that are working, trying to improve their situation and lot. It gives them more privacy, as the dorms only hold 10 men per hall and one of the halls only holds 4, for a total of 44 people in the program. He goes on to tell me he was impressed at how hard I hustled to get out and find work, never really looked for handouts, and had a good feeling that I could use the hand.
Yes, I would be interested in this program, where is the line for me to sign?
Humor aside, I was taken upstairs in the elevator that I had been told was off-limits when I first got there (and now I know why), shown the upstairs quarters, and got to meet with the program director.
To this day, I won’t forget George and Alex, because these were faces I would see with regularity.
While still “homeless” in the sense that I was not renting an apartment or house, I had a place to at least call ‘home’ for the time being.