“I want to take a long bath and watch television in my underwear.”
I met Sam (not his real name) many years ago.
Today, as the clock ticks down ‘til the moment he signs his lease, he reflects on what it will be like in his apartment after an extended period of homelessness. His checklist of things to do and tasks to complete will grow soon enough. For now, he’s obsessed with the simple fantasy of soaking in the (his!) bathtub and watching television.
We celebrate his good news, and we both laugh about the proper clothing attire (or lack thereof) needed to watch repeated episodes of “M.A.S.H.” Yet also he conveys something more insightful, if not tragic, in his short list of things to do, and I seem unable to perceive this revelation amidst my desire to celebrate with him.
Why not celebrate? He will no longer have to choose between staying in an emergency shelter with hundreds of other people or
“camping” or sleeping outdoors. However, I am missing an insight into his life that needed understanding and respect.
Why do some individuals resort to “rough living,” “camping,” or whatever we may call the experience of existing in a place not meant for human habitation? It is not healthy or safe, and it’s socially problematic for a multitude of reasons. But why would someone jeopardize their lives by doing so?
Sam’s revelation about his first night in his apartment is a clue.
We probably underestimate our desire and need for privacy. Privacy permits relaxation with the opportunity to let down the mental and physical guards that are constantly on alert in a world of uncertainty and harm. To have privacy is to be safe.
Access to privacy is a prerequisite for a sense of well-being and peace. In essence, privacy allows me to be my “true self.” For those like Sam — whose entire existence is lived in the public eye — he is known only as a “homeless person.” He can be no one else. Without privacy, he essentially loses both his identity and personhood.
Kristen Anderberg, a writer and activist who experienced homelessness both in her teens and adulthood, writes that she “found the constant exposure to people to be more dangerous to my mental and physical health than the exposure to cold, rain, etc. when I was homeless.”*
To illustrate that experience, she shares a reoccurring nightmare about doors. “I will rent an apartment, move in, then realize the front door has a 10-inch gap under it, between the floor and its bottom, making it easy to enter under the door, even when it’s locked. Or I move into an apartment, and the front door falls off when I shut it.”
Doors grant us access. They stand in the breaches against whatever may intrude, even the prying eyes of others. They provide a sense of safety and the valuable experience of privacy.
Anderberg reminds us that “locking doors are a privilege. If you don’t have physical locking doors, you will make mental locking doors, as exemplified by the ‘bag lady’ who appears oblivious to those around her in public. Mental locking doors are a form of sanity, not insanity. [P]eople cannot safely open locked mental doors until there are safe physical doors to replace them.”
I now understand Sam’s desire for the long soak and freedom to watch television in his underwear. He missed the privacy that most of us take for granted. Many years later, Sam will still have his home, he’ll have enjoyed numerous long soaks, and he will have watched every episode of M.A.S.H many times — probably in his underwear!
It goes without saying. We are not helping someone who’s experiencing homelessness until housing is part of the equation.
Bruce Spangler is the chief executive officer of Volunteer Ministry Center, a nonprofit agency located in Knoxville. VMC is a social agency dedicated to ending and preventing homelessness at www.vmcinc.org.
Published on August 26, 2022.