I just finished a book featuring a cast of gypsy characters in the British Isles. There is something romantically appealing about gypsies. The stubborn pride in their homeless status, for one. Their lack of interest in being rooted or having a bricks and mortar home, the roaming culture – insular, invisible, on the edges. And there is also something tragic and dark about gypsies – their history, how they are treated, the things they are driven to, why they live as they do.
Because, essentially, they are not tied to any kind of home place, nationality, country, state. They have carved out a way to survive, a way to maintain pride and identity, in a fraught world. And it got me thinking about all the homeless in the world. Millions and millions of people, awash on the seas of war and politics and strife, surviving to the next day. Or, like the gypsies, people who have staked their identity on the very condition of homelessness.
There are others, like the gypsies, who for different reasons find themselves with a culture but no nation. Many Armenians, for example. Kurds, Hmong, the hundreds of tribes within the African continent, thrown into nations at the whim of colonizers.
Always there are the homeless who have been exiled or terrorized by war, by genocide, by religious campaigns . . . never more than now. The hundreds of thousands of refugees seeking places, streaming from Somalia, from Syria, from Libya, from Iraq and Afghanistan. Imagine the heartbreak, the angst, the tortured discussions – to leave home, to head, carrying what you can, into the unknown. To clamber onto uncertain boats, to walk through the night, to leave children and spouses behind, to endure crowded camps, because home had become untenable.
And I think of the homeless I see, and that I know exist, all around me. Families living in cars because rent has become too dear. People camped along a creek on the edge of town, or sheltering under a highway overpass, or making camp in a thicket of woods where no one goes. I see them. Not long ago, walking our dog, I came across a man sleeping under the skirts of a conifer tree in the park across the street. Good spot, I thought. Outside, under a tree, but absolutely protected from the weather by the canopy of branches. I noticed that he had an electric skillet and had found an outlet near what is a skating rink in the winter. Smart, I thought. And I imagined myself, occupied with the urgency to find a place each night – a place with privacy, with protection, warm enough, away enough. An electrical outlet would be an unexpected gift, a treasure to hoard and enjoy, because, somehow, you also know it wouldn’t last.
I see the homeless at the public library, where they find warmth, reading material, shelter from the weather, a bathroom. There was an unshaven man I saw for a time on my walks around town. Every time I saw him he was buried in a paperback book. Always reading. Once I asked what he was reading. He could barely find his voice. He was so used to being invisible. “Just a mystery,” he finally whispered. And there’s the guy who rides a bicycle around town and watches birds. He has even found occasional work with some local environmental outfits, documenting species and habitat. When I see him, we invariably get into a conversation about sandhill crane hatchlings, or the nest of a Cooper’s hawk behind the library, or the sharp-shinned hawk he’s been watching in some conifers across from the bench he likes to sit on. Where he sleeps, I have no idea. And all of them, eventually, disappear, move on, find other places, get sick, die, or, perhaps, find a home.
Sometimes it seems like freedom, being homeless. And it is. As well as lonely hardship, exposure, illness, early death. Whatever it is, it is a common state, now. A state worth pondering.