An Ounce of Prevention

Several months ago, as I was in the process of joining the Synthesis team, Sara interviewed me about my time as a traveler for her series on the homeless. We talked a lot about what it’s like to be immersed in the traveling scene, and how different communities deal with vagrancy—particularly relating to sit/lie ordinances.

As the local debate rages on, culminating in the recent passage of Chico’s temporary sit/lie ordinance and the beginning of private security patrols, the phrase that’s struck me again and again is, “that’s not a solution.” Be it a solution for homelessness, a solution for antisocial behavior, or a solution for ending this debate so we can move on to other topics, everyone wants to see something definitive happen that will send us toward a healthier and happier community.

I was one of the voluntary homeless. I didn’t have a crippling drug or alcohol addiction, I wasn’t schizophrenic and off my meds, I wasn’t destitute and desperate with no place to go. So why did I choose that life? Why would anyone choose to become marginalized? And what solution can there possibly be for the kind of people who don’t want to be sheltered, don’t want jobs, and don’t want to play by the rules that the broader community considers civil?

Looking back on my reasoning at the time, I would’ve told you that I just wanted freedom. I wanted to be whoever I wanted to be, do whatever I wanted to do; spend my day smoking weed and playing drums by the creek, and then suddenly pack up and head to the next town with some people I just met. I would’ve told you it was all a big adventure so I could find myself, observe my constants through varied contexts, discover the answer to the big WHY about everything. Most of all I wanted to be happy, and when I held still for too long, the unhappy crept up like a sinister shadow pouring over my life with bitter darkness.

With the perspective of age, I see so clearly now why that was. By the time I was in highschool, my life had been steadily spiraling out of control. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact origin of that chaos. Possibly when my mom suffered a paralyzing stroke and went into a deep depression. Possibly when my first sexual experience turned ugly and forceful, or when I told my best friend I’d been raped and she accused me of lying to get attention. Possibly when I could no longer believe in the religion I’d been raised in, and suddenly lost not only the sense of boundaries and simplicity that it had provided, but also fell away from my parents and main support system. As time went by I felt more and more disconnected from the people around me and the system I was expected to be a part of. When my school principal called me into his office for multiple absences and told me I was a disruptive influence, that he couldn’t teach me the discipline my parents had failed to teach—and that maybe I’d be better off dropping out—I just quipped, “maybe you’re right,” and walked out the door.

The thing that could’ve made a difference at any point along the way would’ve been intervention from a trained therapist. My family had no idea what I was going through, and there were so many complicating issues to our relationship—not the least of which were raging teenage hormones—I couldn’t possibly have opened up to them and identified or articulated what was going on with me. Our school counselor was equipped to help us figure out what classes we needed to graduate, not a psychologist who could look at an out-of-control girl and see that she needed serious help. And even if he had been, with a campus that size, the odds are good that hundreds of kids were in the same state of need. If we really want a long-term solution to these social issues, guiding young people toward mental health services and support groups has to become a community responsibility.

It would also help to move toward a culture where teenage boys don’t think it’s acceptable sexual behavior to ignore a whimpering girl’s pleas to stop, where teenage girls don’t think they have to keep that trauma a secret for fear of being accused of lying, where young people are allowed to explore their own beliefs without being ostracized as a way to pressure them back into the fold, and where schools are run by educators who care about children on an individual level rather than just the complacency of the herd. Lots of things can be improved, but at the very least we can try to heal young people’s wounds before they fester.

Because that wasn’t the reality for me, I followed my impulses toward the edge of society, tucking myself into a subculture that seemed to be made up primarily of other damaged people looking for a family of their choosing. After years of stumbling along the shoulder of the road, watching myself hit the same emotional obstacles over and over, I had to face the truth about the illusion of freedom in my life. I couldn’t run from my trauma or my isolation. I couldn’t run anywhere but in circles, and it was wearing me down. The people around me were indeed damaged, and that manifests itself in pretty gnarly ways sometimes.

But getting from that life back into mainstream society isn’t quite as simple as getting up off the sidewalk and taking a shower. Luckily, I had some skills that could be developed, and friends and family who would let me stay with them. Even then, I had to decipher my instincts and motivations, face the guilt and anxiety that had driven me, and discover ways I could become proud of my contributions to the world.

For the voluntary homeless, that kind of change toward reintegration with the community will be neither facilitated nor deterred by camps, shelters, handouts, lack of handouts, civil-rights activism, or being shuffled away from an alcove. That’s not to say those things are meaningless, but if we’re looking for solutions to the broader societal problem, we should look at it on a more human level. Useful compassion does not mean rewarding or punishing self-destructive behavior—it means talking to people about why they are where they are in life, where they want to be, and how to get there. The earlier the better.

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Managing Editor for Synthesis Weekly. Amy likes to make clothes, plant flowers, and chase butterflies.


  1. Deseray says:

    This is so eloquently written and very much on-point with my feelings on this subject. I also really could identify with several points you made and also very much appreciated your candidness when talking about your past. You are such a multifaceted and fascinating lady with a true heart of gold.

  2. joe hobson says:

    Thank you for writing from your experienced perspective, one that is so often ignored. Much easier to think of the homeless and nomads as a nuisance rather than consider them human, driven by demons, just like the rest of us.