Thoughts On Becoming Self-Sufficient and Defeating Personal Homelessness

A friend had recently asked me what it took for me to become self-sufficient and no longer be homeless.

Lets define the word ‘homeless’ first. There were times in my life, in the early 90s, when I found myself sleeping on the Frankford El, in a train station, on a bus, or in an illegal squat. I had a choice to go to a shelter. I did not. Mostly out of fear and ignorance. Today, I wouldn’t hesitate. For me, the state of homelessness is defined by not having a reliable single place to hang your coat, to be with friends, family, to receive mail, and to sleep at night. If you are in this boat – you are homeless.

There were a few reasons for me ending up in this situation. Some of which are outlined in older posts on my blog, others I have not shared and am not comfortable sharing. Maybe someday I will write more. I find it difficult to talk about and do so in bursts.

Here is a quick outline of some steps took for me to earn self-sufficiency:

  • A friend: Someone who will be a good reference. You will need this to find a job. I was blessed with a few great ones. Teachers and counselors would vouch for me too. Being on the honor roll counted for something in high school.
  • A virtual-home: A place to sleep and shower, a place to register on work applications. I wasn’t about to go to a shelter, or have a shelter listed as my residence. I slept on trains and in squats. I “showered” in fast food restaurant bathrooms or in showers without hot water (the absolute worst – I hate cold water). You will need someone to say you live at an address for work applications and to get phone messages. Again it was friends to the rescue. By lieing and saying I was living at their address, even though I wasn’t, I appeared “normal” to employeers.
  • Skills: Almost anything helps. 7-11 in a bad neighborhood was my ticket. They required little in the way of skills, and were willing to train. That helped for my next job.
  • Something to eat: A job at 7-11 midnight shift. Guess where my primary source of food came from?
  • Saving for your place: A huge obstacle to overcome. At near minimum wage it can take months to save for an apartment. Again, for me, it was friends to the rescue. Someone vouched for me to a landlord, and I made a deal to spread out paying my security deposit amongst several rent payments.
  • Transportation: Without it you will never hold or find a job. One of my priorities each month was to buy a SEPTA transpass. This was very important. You needed transportation to look for a job and hold one. You needed transportation to maintain contact with your friends. Sometimes you needed a transpass just to find a place to sleep. This was a higher priority then food. You can always “find” food. You gotta *buy* transportation.
  • Clean Clothes: You may have few clothes – but keep them clean no matter what. Shoddy clothes make it harder for people to trust you as responsible.
  • Realizing the road is incremental: You need to take things one step at a time. If you can only get an apartment, and not afford utilities, that is better then not having an apartment. Having the apartment will help you find a job that will pay enough for utilities. This is really difficult. I know a lot of people who get overwhelmed by expecting their goal to be achieved in one step. My experience tells me that’s a fairy tale. Things happen incrementally. Sometimes with the smallest of steps.
  • Use the Internet: While the Internet didn’t help me end my homelessness, it did help me work my way to a middle class career and has been a tool in maintaining it. Friends I met online helped get my resume to where I needed it seen, and countless web site and forum helped me learn the basics of computer programming. These days it is your doorway to many resources, including connecting with others working through the same issues you are facing. This last matter is most important. Knowing you are not alone and connecting helps face the day to day. This is emphasized in my next point.
  • People matter: I don’t think I would have had any progress without mentors, friends, and faith. When I speak of faith, I don’t speak of faith in the stereotypical sense. When I say faith… I mean faith that things can get better and that I *do* have a role in my outcome. I have freewill. As it says in ‘Seven Habits’, between stimulus and response I have the freedom to choose. That counts for something. When I say friends and mentors – well I would not be here today if it wasn’t for them. From Richelle, who has always believed in me, to my mothers at Sears (Mary, Joan, Paula), to various bosses along the way who became mentors and friends, Debbie, Sarah, Joe, Pat, Rajiv, to my brother Steve and my brother Dante, to Richelle’s parents whom I eventually won over. To all those who took a chance on me I owe so much thanks.
  • Try and be a ‘good person’ – don’t be an asshole: I do not believe that life is fair. Instant karma is bullshit. Bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people every day. So trying to ‘be good’ for some kind of reward is fruitless (at least in this world). What I *do* believe is that if you try to always do the right thing, if you work at being a good person everyday (you will fail sometimes, just *try* every day) – well you might find yourself with friends and family where you didn’t think you had any. In “All I Really Need to Know I Learned In Kindergarten” it says “When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.”. That says it all really.

There are times when I feel like I am about to lose it all and end up back where I started. Sometimes, I look at a bench and want to curl up into a ball and sleep. There are times when I look at those I associate with, work with, hang out with, and feel… alien. These feelings are irrational, and thank goodness I can recognize them as such. It’s been over 15 years now – a half a life a way.

Most time I feel like the most blessed man on Earth, with a job and family that I need to pinch myself to believe I have. I am very, very blessed and thankful.

2009 is coming to a close. It’s been a big decade. Lots of ups, lots of change, lots of terrible horror. My history informs me that there can be light in the darkness, and hope can triumph over over the cold. So contrary to what you may think, I would not trade my experience for anything. It gives me valuable perspective. When I let it – it fuels my optimism. But its hard for those with tragedies so great and for many ongoing. My thoughts are with those who are fighting on and for those unable to fight.

Update: I’ve posted a followup to this detailing why this road is getting harder.

5 thoughts on “Thoughts On Becoming Self-Sufficient and Defeating Personal Homelessness

  1. Your story is so inspiring, and at the same time, incredibly real and realistic. Your honesty and candor make you and your situation relatable. I wonder if it would be ok with you if I shared your blog, this entry in particular, with coworkers who work with people who are HIV+ and homeless or at risk for homelessness? I think your story and your steps could make a real difference for some of our folks. You can email me if you don’t want to respond here. I found you via Howard Hall.


  2. Hi, thanks Shannon. I don’t feel like my story is all that inspirational – there are those who have overcome so much more – today’s Inquirer story of Stephanie Bermudez is really powerful for example – its amazing. But it would be an honor if the post could help someone somewhere. Thank you very much.


  3. Hey Karl,
    It is wonderful to hear your story. I never knew of the personal struggles you went through. Anyway, I did have a question – what did you think of Pursuit of Happiness? Your story reminded me of that book and movie a lot. Hope all is well and have a great 2010. Oh and by the way for the record – you are a great person not just a good one.

  4. Hi Todd, thanks man. I love the book, and the movie was great, but the movie fell a little short.

    Where the book makes clear that Chris Gardner made some bad decisions along the way, the movie makes him look like a victim of circumstance.

    I made some terrible decisions back then (still do sometimes !). Some of which… well, like Chris Gardner I was presented with multiple chances. Some people never get them. Or are not aware of them when they are there.

    Where the book makes clear that he worked very, very hard at his climb, the movie made it seem more a case of having innate talent that needed the right person to recognize it.

    I don’t believe I am all that smart. I’m probably even a bit on the slow side – I was in resource room until 6th grade. Yet I am a programmer. And I think that’s due to applying myself and getting opportunities to. Not due to talent.

    I wish the movie could present the kind of nuance the book did.

  5. The really big thing is he has given so much back – he’s someone I deeply respect.

    I tell ya what – I grew up without what I would consider real life role models and heroes. He’s one. And I get to actually work with or associate with a few in real life now. Philly has so many unbelievable people. Many of which have taken tragedy and turned it into something positive. Others that just do it out of passion.

    Check out this great story:

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