through craig’s eyes
Imagine yourself as a boy with a sharp mind, keen powers of observation, and an outgoing nature. Add that you’re the oldest of three siblings, raised without much supervision on European and U.S. Army bases, running wild and getting away with some dubious shenanigans.
What kind of adult would you become? Resourceful? Certainly. Restless? Yes. A guy with a head full of plans and a habit of challenging the status quo? You got it. And, once upon a time, a person living homeless in Seattle.
Meet Craig. He graduated from AFC’s Emergency Shelter program recently and lives in permanent housing in Anacortes. But there was a period of several months not long ago when Craig did not have a place to call home. He invites us to learn from his experiences.
A Brief Look Back
If you guess that it might have been tricky for young Craig to find his way in new places, you’re right. One time, he showed up for a first day at an elementary school in a crushed velvet blazer and wine-colored leather shoes. That’s what kids had worn on German Army bases, “But in Alabama, everyone looked at me like I was from Mars,” Craig remembers. “I didn’t get the memo about civilian life.”
Craig didn’t readily follow the rules most people did, and he didn’t learn about accountability. If he got in trouble, well, the family would eventually relocate again.
As an adult, Craig roamed by choice. He took college courses and served in the National Guard, then had 72 jobs in 35 years. He worked as a pipefitter, welder, entrepreneur, street cleaner, and in plenty of other roles in more than half a dozen states. Most often he left the assignments due to the urge to try something new.
Coming to Washington
Craig came to Washington with a friend but the relationship didn’t last. On his own, knowing no one, he met people living on the streets in Seattle. He couldn’t believe they could lay claim to public areas and find food and other necessities to get by. “Y’all are getting away with this?” he asked.
Craig worked some and drew benefits he qualified for. He lived in a tiny place downtown for a time, and in housing for veterans in Lake City. Discontent with subpar living situations – including people taking advantage of others – coupled with a comfort level with people living homeless finally resulted in Craig finding himself homeless too.
On the streets, Craig’s itch to make the best of things and tinker with the status quo roared to life. “I didn’t agree with the homeless accepting suffering.” He hunkered down with several women in a circle of tents facing inward. “Women gravitated to me because I was a gentleman. They felt safe, and I felt connected.” That didn’t sit well with some in the community who concluded Craig must be a pimp.
Craig met a woman who organized meals street dwellers call “the pigeon feed” (for the crumbs on the ground afterward). He let her know that people living homeless would value donated bicycles. She found ways to provide them, and Craig and others fixed them up. Soon, they were earning money operating an informal bicycle repair business. Craig had simply wanted to do something constructive, but the income became a problem. Some thought Craig was a drug dealer cutting into the established trade.
Word came through the street network that Craig’s safety was in danger. He heard vague things like, “Alabama, you’re taking up too much space.” Finally, an acquaintance told him, “They want your money, then you can go. You should leave ASAP.” Craig left Seattle with almost nothing, found his way to a program in Bellingham, then came to AFC.
Lessons from the Street
Craig wants people to know that it’s difficult to understand what it’s like to live on the streets unless you’ve been there. That’s why attempts at providing help can be ineffective.
Here are some observations he shares:
Citizens notice homeless people with substance abuse and mental health issues, and engaging in the sex trade. Rather than assuming those behaviors are always drivers of homelessness, Craig suggests people consider that they can be mechanisms for enduring the life. “Alcohol is like human antifreeze,” he says.
People living homeless may view an offer of assistance in an unexpected way. For instance, a hotel voucher may seem like a wonderful gift, but Craig has seen many refused. “In a few days I just gotta go back and start over,” one man told him.
Simple mistakes can derail efforts to help. One clothing giveaway did not provide anything useful for women in large sizes, Craig recalls. He explains that women living homeless often gain weight due to a poor diet, as a strategy for fending off attention, and other reasons.
While some people on the streets see nothing wrong with their circumstances, others do want help. But sometimes there’s a formidable barrier in place. For example, Craig says, “The street is the worst place to try to kick drugs.”
There’s an invisible hierarchy and system of rules operating in street society. Failure to understand this can result in a variety of outcomes – none of them good.
Above all, Craig mourns the loss of human potential when people live on the streets. Those he met are strong, he says, “But they need to be able to use that strength in a better way.”
Now that Craig is on a good path, he works to help people living homeless. He wants to be an example that success is possible, and he offers himself as a source of information to anyone who cares to listen. He has remained friends with many in the homeless community and he reaches out often.
For those who have not experienced life on the streets, Craig recommends resisting the urge to see the community as a homogenous unit. Every person is unique, and to help in a meaningful way means to understand each individual‘s strengths and challenges. Craig hopes many are up to the task. “Every homeless person is someone‘s father, mother, brother, sister, aunt, uncle, or child. They are our lost family.“