"The Homeless" by Steffen Pollock

Category: Third Culture Kids

HomelessWhen I was a small child I had a family of hermit crabs that I kept in a rectangular terrarium on the windowsill of my room. On sleepy afternoons, I would take them out for walks, give them moisture baths, and watch them for hours at a time. I was quite fond of them, and they fascinated me. However, besides being surprisingly fast, cannibalistic, and enthusiastic climbers, hermit crabs do something incredible: they grow. As a result, when they begin to feel pinched in their shells, they depart on a bold undertaking. Painstakingly, they crawl out of their mobile dwellings, uncoil their tender bodies, and mince across the sand, legless abdomens in tow. Suddenly, they see it: the perfect shell, a graceful, smooth spiral which calls to their every instinct. A replacement had been found, and with a few adjustments, they are comfortably inside its protective walls.  Whether they like it or not, they must ritually uproot until they are fully grown, disallowing any form of permanent residency. The closest semblance of enduring sanctuary was the sand in the glass box on my windowsill. It would be accurate to say that these crustaceans are homeless, but not for the reasons one would think.

Homelessness is a falsity. When speaking of the “homeless”, the intended implication is the houseless. After all, you don’t always need to live in a dirty cardboard box or sleep on a park bench to find home gradually and insidiously slipping through your fingers. Yet, these are the people we refer to as the homeless. This year, three and a half million men, women, and children in the United States alone will become the victims of debt, domestic violence, or degenerative mental conditions that will force them to seek temporary shelter elsewhere. 94% will be single and alone during this time. It is a common misconception that these individuals choose to live this way. The infinitesimal percentage that do are either what the government terms “hiders” (those that keep prolonged residence in semi-permanent shelters like tents, caves, and boxcars), or nomadic peoples like the Iroquois of Northeastern America, the Gauchos of Argentina, the plains dwellers of Mongolia, or the  Roma Gypsy of Eastern Europe.

I envy the nomads. While I make every effort to maintain my grip on whatever form of home I can fabricate, they embrace their conspicuous lack of ties and affiliations. Their way of life is transient, and their horizons move. They bring home with them, eschewing a sedentary existence in exchange for a greater freedom. Can their situation be the considered akin to the dismal one of the man on the street corner? By law, certainly.

The McKinney Act of 1987 (the only legislative response to homelessness ever passed by Congress) defines homelessness as follows, in Title 42, Chapter 119, Subchapter I, Section 11302:
In general, the term “homeless” or “homeless individual or homeless person” [1] includes—

(1) an individual who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence; and

(2) an individual who has a primary nighttime residence that is—

  1.  a supervised publicly or privately operated shelter designed to provide temporary living accommodations (including welfare hotels, congregate shelters, and transitional housing for the mentally ill);
  2. an institution that provides a temporary residence for individuals intended to be institutionalized; or
  3. a public or private place not designed for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings.


I have tasted homelessness.
In the summer of my sixteenth year of life, I experienced two full months of life as a nomad. In that sixty-two day span, I did not spend the night in any one location for longer than eighty-five hours, or close to four days, which equals an approximate total of twenty-five locations. Moreover, not only was I in a state of perpetual motion, but our apartment had been sold and we had no concrete arrangements for the future.

The closest representation of a place I belonged was the chunky red hiking backpack that had been with me since the beginning of my odyssey. It was my hermit’s shell, my Gypsy tent, my travois, my yurt, whichever you please. This I brought along with me; it reminded me of where I was from and where I was going. Even to this day, when I grasp it by the straps and hoist it up unto my back, it feels comfortable, and reassures me. It is concrete, and it is real. Not only is it a possession of mine, but in a sense I belong to it as well; it anchors me to wherever I am, preventing me from floating away and becoming someone else. Regardless of this, sometimes out of the corner of my eye I glimpse a flash of taunting crimson, and cringe. Whatever else it holds, it represents a life of being torn between many places that I cannot be, and for this I hate it. More than this, it unfailingly reminds me of those sixty-odd days, days of struggling with the crush of constant change and the grinding tension of the unfamiliar. Days of bracing myself every morning, weary-boned, against an ever growing disquiet born of misplaced hopes and a dissolutioned mind. I sensed another breaking of ties, a shift and schism between the person I wanted to be, and the person I was. I would come to realize that being unable to find identity in a house or even a country had caused me to desperately seek belonging elsewhere; in people, things, and myself. Yet this was easier thought than done.

The precious people I have known are scattered to the four corners of the globe. Some seem to be vaguely attached to a previous self, while others are the direct cause of daily pain, an anguish and longing for reunion. The precious objects I have owned are hidden away in basements and cupboards, a bread crumb trail revealing bits and pieces of me, giving away secrets but mostly saying nothing. As for seeking identity in myself, I am hardly an adequate source of belonging.

This limbo was what homelessness meant. Bereft of balance, I was suddenly unsure if I belonged anywhere or with anyone at all, and only certain that if there was such a place then it was not here, wherever that may have been. It was similar to the queasiness you might feel deep in your intestines if you were tight-rope walking high above the world, cut free from the assurance of the earth, with only the knowledge of the rope and the other side to keep you from falling to oblivion.

Please do not misunderstand me; I would not trade my life for anything. Those who never leave home, never pack up their things, never have to say goodbye are permanently blinded to a side of life that can be as sweet as it is bitter. It is all too easy to allow identity to become entrenched and essentially inseparable from possessions, acquaintances, and four story multi-million dollar homes. These people, enslaved to what they have made, continue to become smaller, until eventually they cease to exist altogether. The tragedy lies in the gilded cage, not in those who have no cage at all. Maybe McKinney’s “permanent, fixed, and adequate” lives lead us to believe that what we have is the best there is, after all. Maybe hermit crabs and gypsies are happier than the rest of us. It would not surprise me.

During those two blissful, horrendous months of being a summer refugee, lost was my sense of purpose, and therefore lost was my realization of home. But I have learned better, as I have unearthed things I knew from the beginning, but did not truly know till now, which are these: treasures must never be my home, for the thief steals, the rust burns, and moths destroy. Neither cities nor towns, neither mountains nor deserts shall be my home, for the world is a broken place. People cannot be my home, for they are no more than human; finite, quick with treachery, fickle in time, imperfect in love. I will not be my home, for I know myself too well to entrust my soul to destructive hands. As I sit and brood, I recall that this world is not my home. I remember words I have read, of fire and ice, justice and finality, and I smile. For though I may search for a thousand lifetimes, my home will remain elsewhere- and elsewhere will remain to be my home.

By Third Culture Kid Steffen Pollock.
Essay published with author's permission. Photo used with permission.


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