In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard writes of an example of a patient who was blind since birth but can now see after cataract surgery. There were significant anomalies in their perceptions of space and time. Someone who was trying to learn how to use his new skill would take off one of his boots and throw it out in front of him across the room. He would then try to guess the distance and take a few steps toward it, trying to grab it but missing entirely.
The new sensations of color and light were dazzling for these people, but at the same time, for many of them, also oppressive—it was the realization of “the tremendous size of the world,” Dillard suggests, “something they had previously conceived of as touchingly manageable.”
My friend Tonia just moved into a supportive housing unit for unhoused folks after 30 years of living on the streets. It is in this apartment that she finds herself feeling more alone and depressed than ever.
She tells me she just doesn’t know what to do now. She keeps finding herself back out on the street and says she prays every day that God would take the “like” out of the crack, heroin, and the hustle. I ask her to say more, and, together, we begin unearthing the role of crack and street-based sex work in Tonia’s life.
When you live on the streets, you experience a social death, a dehumanization that excludes you from engaging the world in almost all the ways that you must witness the general population being a part of. So, a new world must be created and your fellow citizens become the ones among you whom the outside world calls un-human, too. In this world, there is a street economy, a class system, and an ethic or street code that the people in this particular place are sworn to live by, fight by, and die by. For better and worse, everyone is needed and everyone has a part to play.
Because Tonia has long been exiled from the world, this new world is the only world she knows, it is where she has known citizenship. And because life on the streets is so cruel and unpredictable, the only thing that has offered Tonia a sense of orientation is the purposed nature of transactions—buying drugs, exchanging sex—that she must engage in to survive.
Now that Tonia is off the streets, in a different neighborhood with no sense of orientation, no sense of place or purpose, she feels lost.
As we embrace, Tonia tells me that she has not been home for days.
Two days later my phone rings and a loud voice asks me if I know her Client, Tonia? We exchange pleasantries until she abruptly asks me if I know why Tonia has not been home for 5 days. I begin to share what I know of the bumpy road ahead for folks like Tonia: the unlearning and relearning of almost all of life, how non-linear this can all be, and how I believe we can best support Tonia in this transition…
But, her response feels as if it’s scripted, read directly from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs but with a fill-in-the-blank client’s-name-here:
“Tonia has been given a roof over her head.
Tonia has been given a case manager.
Tonia has three meals.
Tonia can go see our in-house doctor if she makes an appointment”
The next day the Seattle Times was delivered to my door. The main headline reads, “When a homeless encampment was cleared, no one went to a shelter. The reasons are complicated”
There is an aspect of health and wholeness that cannot be defined by Maslow or medicine or psychology during transitions like Tonia’s. During these particularly thin moments, the ego-centric definitions of healing/becoming/success knock loudly at her apartment door but at the soul level, they are not alluring. The measurability of our ego-centric healing is but another non-possibility that taunts and teases, haunts, and heightens the divide from the world that she was exiled from in the first place.
It’s kind of like we make her take her boot off, throw it across her apartment, walk to get it, and then watch her miss it altogether. It just doesn’t work anymore.
Tears roll down Tonia’s face. . . new sensations of color and light were dazzling . . .but the possibility embodied in her apartment, she says, is almost more cruel and oppressive than the streets.