During the many times I was homeless, I never got sick. Not anything. Not a cold, certainly not a flu. Nothing.
When I got into housing, I’d get sick within weeks. I have had some amazing diseases, including a case of pneumonia that almost killed me, a mouth disease that prevented me from eating for two weeks (I dropped 20 pounds) and a lovely skin disease I like to call “that time I molted.” I also lost weight from that, just because I couldn’t enjoy eating while my skin peeled off.
My doctors at the time of the last two couldn’t definitively diagnose either one.
The magical thought being: My body knew when I was homeless and figured, “Now is not the time. We need to get through this homeless thing first; we can get sick later when we’re all safe indoors.” (We speak of ourselves in the plural, constantly. It’s a family thing.)
Looking back on it all, I’m wondering if there might have been other factors at work.
One factor being that I never once stayed in a shelter. It wasn’t that I didn’t know about shelters, it was that I knew too much. I knew that they were crowded, and I eventually worked at one as a janitor and got to see just how crowded they could be. (In the shelter where I worked, mats were 6 to 8 inches apart.)
I saw three problems with being packed in like that. One, I have PTSD, and I don’t need that much close company. Two, too many opportunities for theft, and I didn’t need any more losses in my life. Three, the only places likely to spread disease faster are grade schools, cruise ships and emergency rooms.
So, I slept in a car or outdoors on grass, under a tarp — whatever I had to do to avoid being warehoused.
Another factor in not coming down with communicable diseases was that, even when I was awake and out and about, I wasn’t a really sociable person. I was non-sociable toward other people, and it was mutual. People shunned me. If there’s no communing, what’s to worry about communicability?
I didn’t even panhandle so I never had to handle people’s filthy money.
“So, what are you trying to say, Wes?” What I’m trying to say, in case you haven’t followed my drift so far, is — if you all want to avoid coming down with a dose of coronavirus, you all should start sleeping outdoors, learn how to become a social pariah and never panhandle.
It’s not that hard to become homeless, if you really want to be. Tell your employer that you can’t come to work any longer because the other employees in your department have cooties; your employer has cooties. Don’t pay your rent. Sell everything you own. Apply for food stamps before your money runs out.
To be a social pariah, practice, practice, practice. Sit in a corner at a coffee shop and growl whenever someone tries to join you at your table. If they sit down anyway, inform them that the chair they picked has a resident demon. Describe the demon in detail. What’s it wearing? What’s its sign? Where does it sleep at night? What’s its favorite food? The more discomfiting the answers, the better. Go nuts with it.
One of the great things about being homeless is people expect you to be “out there.” It’s liberating.
Of course, it can backfire. I once had a man sit next to me in a coffee shop when I was not in the mood to be social and I tried to convince him that I might be too weird for him, and he totally crushed my game by telling me he was the rightful king of England, and I should call him “His Majesty, Leonard the First, of the House of Wilson.”
But those setbacks are few and far between. If you keep practicing, you should not only be able to ensure that no one sits next to you, but even get yourself booted from the coffee shop and forced to wander the alleys all day. No coronavirus there, so long as you don’t lick the walls.
There are people who think that homeless people are going to start passing the coronavirus on to all the non-homeless.
If you aren’t homeless, think about all the contact you have with homeless people, and then compare that to your daily contacts with cashiers, baristas and carpool buddies.
And, try being antisocial. It could save your life.
Dr. Wes Browning is a one time math professor who has experienced homelessness several times. He supplied the art for the first cover of Real Change in November of 1994 and has been involved with the organization ever since. This is his weekly column, Adventures in Irony, a dry verbal romp of the absurd. He can be reached at drwes (at) realchangenews (dot) org
Read more in the Mar. 11-17, 2020 issue.