Finding the Creature: Escaping the Homelessness Trap

When I finally woke up, it took me five weeks to get myself out of homelessness.

I had been homeless for a few years. Apparently. But I didn’t really know it. I didn’t know until I did. And it came to me that day. The clarity. I couldn’t not be homeless. It wasn’t a game anymore. It was what was. And I was a goner. Though the day I realized this, I knew I didn’t want to be gone. I didn’t want one more day without place. Beyond any other thing, I wanted home.

But I was deeply homeless. Which was the difficult thing. Waking up meant living the terror. For real, for real. For real.

I took a risk and declined a friend’s offer of immediate housing at this sketchy sober living facility in inner Atlanta. I knew me. I knew my struggle. I knew I had to struggle further to extract myself from homelessness. To do this, I needed some things. I needed these things so that in the event I fell out again, was turned out again, found myself back on the streets again, I could survive. Even being homeless.

A health check. Medication. Food. Some type of shelter. Clothing. Recovery. A phone. Stable housing for the medium to long term. In this order. This exact order. In any other order, everything would fall apart. Again. I knew what I needed and I knew where to start.

I had been to Grady Hospital before. Months (maybe years?) before. How long had I actually been in Atlanta? I didn’t really know. I remembered falling out in front of the library at the West End. Then being taken to the 13th floor at Grady. A place no one could imagine actually exists. The 13th floor? That’s a joke? Maybe my psychosis? No, it’s a real place. A real floor with the most spectacular windows in the whole city.

So the day I finally woke up, I walked back to Grady.

I walked there like a lot of people struggling in Atlanta do. Atlanta is a very odd city. The streets go on forever. One minute you’re in the city, half a block later you’re in some forest. It can be creepy. And lonely. And hard. There’s no cash welfare in Georgia. Especially not for a single male junkie of the undeserving poor kind.

But Georgia does have Grady. During these five weeks, Grady was everything.

The health check and medication were processed at the same time. By different people on different floors. In the same building. Upstairs. Downstairs. There were lots of questions, lots of screens with fields that had to be filled out. Back and forth between the two. You have to see the medical provider. You have to see the ADAP (Alcohol and Drug Assistance Program) counselor. Lots of questions. Everything had to be done in the right order. Out of order and back to zero.

I had fouled up my health care and my medication so many times before. Out of order. Back to zero. Angry. Temperamental. Emotional. Losing my cool. I’m gonna give the next person who tries to help me a piece of my mind. So I would. Which didn’t help. Back to zero.

But not this time. I had woken up. I knew where I was. Zero. For real, for real this time. For real. So I didn’t lose my cool or anything else this time. I answered the questions they asked in the order they were asked. I didn’t share my story, my pain, my confusion, my fear, my anger. I only spoke the words necessary for them to fill out their fields. Upstairs, downstairs. Back and forth. I went.

And this worked. Fields on screens were filled out. Completely. Things were happening because I let them happen. That and I waited. At Grady.

I was hungry. Really, really hungry. So I asked for food. And they got me food: Leftover meals from the deliveries Grady makes to shut-ins. They weren’t so bad. They told me that they always had lots of extras so when I needed it, I could ask for more. Which I did. Daily. For many weeks.

In the afternoon, they told me about this nonprofit that had carved out some office space on the 5th floor which gave on-the-spot emergency lodging vouchers. So I went to the 5th floor.

I was denied, but I kept my cool.

The care coordinator who said “No” seemed earnest about her job, which was to decide who should get the federally funded motel voucher. It wasn’t her money. It wasn’t her organization’s money. Gatekeepers are real, but so are random homeless men who understand how to work the system. Calmly I asked her what the appeal process was. She told me to wait a minute. When she came back, I got my voucher. Eight weeks in a nearby motel. Sketchier than that sober living place, but a five-minute walk to Grady. And it would be a room of my own. I needed that and the freedom to come and go. I had to get some things. In an exact order. The voucher was a miracle for me.

That first night in my own room, I filled a water bottle with my own urine. And then I used. I hadn’t seen a doctor yet, I didn’t have my medication—but I had done all I could do to make these things happen. Now I had to wait. But I didn’t have recovery yet. So I used.

I showed up the following Tuesday for my appointments. A check up with a medical provider. More medication paperwork. Waiting for tests. And a check-in with the non-profit on the 5th floor. I brought my water bottle. And while waiting to be seen, I knocked it over . . . in their lobby. In front of everyone. I cleaned it up myself. Shameful and shameless. “We don’t test for drug use. We’re housing first,” The earnest coordinator told me. “Just check in with us once a week. The voucher can’t be extended.”

I wasn’t that hungry but they gave me meals. I was just waiting. So I kept using. In my room. And I kept showing up at Grady.

And then came my meds. I had been at the motel for two weeks. Back and forth I went between my room and Grady, every day—even when I had no appointment. Most days I didn’t. But they always gave me meals even though I wasn’t hungry.

Then things got weird. For real, for real. For real. In my last week of using, it was like M. Night Shyamalan was scripting my psychosis. There was even a nun who glided past me in the lobby at Grady’s infectious disease building. A real nun because I asked someone if she was real or just a phantom. She was real. She was a Missionary of Charity. Eight months before this episode I had somehow found a copy of Christopher Hitchens’s vile biography of Mother Theresa. Hitchens was dead. I was not. How wondrous.

I didn’t use that day. Instead, I walked to Galano Club off of Piedmont Park. I cried a lot. A lot, a lot. And the fellows there gave me lots of cigarettes. They gave me small amounts of cash so that I could wash the one outfit I had. Washing machines in sketchy motels don’t take vouchers and Georgia doesn’t have cash welfare.

Galano. Grady. Home. Because I wasn’t using I had more free time. So I figured out where I had to go to apply for food stamps. I managed to finagle a transit card from Grady and took public transit to the food stamp place. It wasn’t that hard, which was nice because I wasn’t capable of doing much that was hard. And outside the food stamp place there was a tent that belonged to a company that gave away ObamaPhones.

Thank God for the ObamaPhone. It’s how I stayed connected to the people I met at Galano during the next few weeks. I cried a lot on my ObamaPhone.

Thank God, too, the ObamaPhone was such a sucky smartphone. The internet didn’t really work on it. So I couldn’t use it to use. Only to talk to my new friends from Galano.

And more weeks passed. My work at Grady was nearing its end. So was my voucher. We found this place for me in Cobb. In the before time, the idea of spending a whole year of my life in treatment would be . . . absurd. But after I woke up, what a boon it was. A year in place.

Grady gave me a place to land while I pulled myself out of the stupor of homelessness. So I could return to society amongst the real people. Ordinary people. Real, ordinary people who pay taxes. As I do now.

We have torn down most of these places in the past 50 years. They were considered illiberal, unfashionable, authoritarian, and expensive. So now the few places like Grady that do exist are overwhelmed. Everyone in Atlanta knows about Grady because Grady is one of the few places everybody can go to. When we struggle and keep struggling we need these institutions, these places, more now than any other time in our history. Simply, we need more beds for people everywhere in the spectrum of need. Short term, medium term, and even beds for people who might never be able to function in normal society again. We wasted trillions building Green Zones in far off lands while closing most of the Help Zones we already had in our country. It’s well past time to rebuild our institutions for people in crisis.

On February 21, 2017, in the third week of my sobriety, five weeks into an eight-week voucher at Savannah Suites in downtown Atlanta, I left town. In my time, I got what I needed. From Grady. From Galano. From the city. In the right order.

I had struggled and failed and fallen and hustled and used every single ability I had to make “this time” different. And it has been.

At the end of “The Loss of the Creature,” Walker Percy writes: “But unless he also struggles for himself, unless he knows that there is a struggle, he is going to be just what the planners think he is.” No one lived my struggle but me. No one but me could make my way out of homelessness. What the people in the offices, the planners, could do is give me place. A place like Grady. For real.

About David Ragsdale

David S. Ragsdale is a 2001 graduate of Claremont McKenna where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa with honors in Classics & PPE. He received his MPP in 2010 from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore with work at Sciences Po, where his Public Analysis Exercise compared pricing transparency in Singapore’s rental market (private v. public). More vitally, in 2018 he received his Certificate of Completion from the Extension in Marietta, a year-long residential treatment program for homeless addicts. David has been published in the Los Angeles Times & The Taipei Times.

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