Friday, July 15, 2011

Update From The Road: Sleeping on a Bus Stop Bench

Thursday, July 15, 2011 - On my third night in Madison - and of being homeless - I found out what it's like to sleep on a bench at a bus stop. This was not all bad, actually. Or, I should say, it could have been worse. There was plenty of bad in it. Although I only slept for less than an hour, there was actually an up side to it.

It was not quality sleep, for sure. It was more like fitful dozing, and done only in a sitting position as I leaned against my backpack. The benches on State Street are the type that are made of wooden slats and partitioned into three sections by two metal handles. Each section of the bench is about 40 inches long, making it impossible to lay down. Had it rained, however, I would have stayed dry.

I tried to use the bench as a bed because I missed last night's 10:30 cut off time for admission to the shelter I was sleeping in. I chose the bench at 3:00 this morning, after the partying on State Street died down.

As I wrote above, there's an up side to all of this: I was more comfortable on that bench than I was in a narrow bunk bed at the shelter. Being outside, the air was fresh and clean. In Chicago, I would have been hearing sirens often. I did not hear a siren once, and since I arrived in Madison on Tuesday I have heard fewer sirens than I usually heard in Chicago in an hour.

Now that I think about it, I have not heard a single jet airplane here. I've seen them flying into and out of Dane County Municipal Airport, but they are far away enough that they cannot be heard in this part of town. I've heard no gunshots here. I've heard no screaming. I've seen no pools of blood, vomit or filth on the sidewalks, all of which are common sights in Chicago.

Within the windowless confines of the shelter, I was not afraid but I couldn't help wondering which of my bunk mates might be a psychotic with a short fuse. Most of the homeless guys I've introduced myself to or otherwise had contact with in Madison seem pretty cool. There is here, as in any city, a contingent of homeless men who have mental problems, and I couldn't help wondering which (if any) of my bunk mates might be a psycho killer waiting to explode.

The bus stop bench, in contrast, was frequently passed by a police car or even a cop on foot. It's in a well lit area, and until about 4:00 a.m. there were plenty of non-threatening partiers still heading home that any threat to me would be intimidated by nearby witnesses.

I'm not sure where I'll sleep tonight. It is 5:25 p.m. as I write this and I'm sitting in one of the street's many great coffee houses. Free WiFi is a good thing (I have my laptop with me). But none of the coffee houses are open past 11:00 p.m. The partying goes until well after 2:00 a.m. There are no all-night diners within walking distance of where I have chosen to (temporarily) hang out.

I will try to avoid the shelter as much as I can, and am trying to find a better one that's still very near downtown. I want to stay close to the downtown area because it offers more opportunity to find work. Not only that, but I've hooked into a nice group of homeless people who sell and write for "Street Pulse," a newspaper sold only by them. It's similar to "StreetWise" in Chicago.

I may contribute some writing to the paper but I don't plan to sell it because that would take too much of my time away from looking for "real" employment. The vendors pay 25 cents per copy of the paper from its publisher (a non-profit organization), and sell it for one dollar, keeping the difference. Selling two copies of the paper per hour is "good," I'm told, but that only gets you $1.50 per hour. You would have to average two per hour for ten hours to get $15.00. Sure, that'll buy you some food, but it leaves little for bus fare to get to job interviews and nowhere near enough to rent a room on a weekly or monthly basis.

I would include a photo of the bus stop bench here but my AA batteries died and I seem to have misplaced my little battery charger. I'm reluctant to spend nearly $5.00 for batteries that won't last long in a digital camera.

I did manage to get about two more hours of sleep in a quiet corner of the U.W. Student Memorial Union later in the morning (I'm an alumnus). That was not deep sleep, however, and so I'm very tired right now (at 5:45 p.m.). The combination of being hungry and tired makes it difficult to concentrate for any great length of time.

I'm searching classifieds online in the hope of finding an available sublet or room to rent. I've got a little bit left in my bank account, but every time I use my ATM/debit card I cringe.

There are reasons to remain hopeful, however. I've made contact with friends locally who are trying to help. Nothing is certain, but it's something. Another reason to hope: The job market up here seems a bit better than in Chicago, although this is only my impression based on less than a week of observation and listening to people. More hope comes from that fact that I have skills and abilities that are needed for office support and more. I can still do web work for my Chicago Logo Design & Graphics, too.

All in all, and in light of everything, I'm generally happy to be out of Chicago. There are some good people that I miss terribly, and they know who they are but I won't name them. I take comfort in knowing that they will read this, and am grateful that they've kept in tough through email. Ciao for now.

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