Homeless By Choice

By Sophie Felder
On December 26, 2011

A Cardozo student we'll call "David" sat down with The Observer to discuss the unique decision that took him out of his comfort zone and onto the streets of Manhattan in an effort to experience challenge in life.

OB: We really appreciate you being able to talk to us.

D: For sure

OB: Because it was something very interesting, when we found out we were all like "hmm, why is he doing that?" and I think that's the first question that people hear, when they find out that someone is homeless by decision.

D: So first of all I just wanted to start off by saying on November 1 I moved into my old apartment because it started to get cold and I realized I may be tough but not capable of withstanding freezing temperatures for the whole winter.

There are a bunch of reasons. So I've kinda [sic] been planning this since this spring….I experienced the ultimate problem of mine, which is not having any problems. I know a lot of people with that same issue. People that [sic] are experiencing serious things in their lives like a disease or financial problems or things like that, people will say, "How could you be so ridiculous, how could you say not having any problems is a problem?" But the fact of the matter is, is that my life, it's really easy.

OB: Were you in Cardozo already?

D: So I'm in my second year at Cardozo and I already had an internship of my dream job. And I already had it set up for the summer and, like, my running was doing well, I didn't have romantic problems, and no financial problems, and my apartment was great, and the weather was great, and just everything was so good; yet I wasn't satisfied, my life just felt meaningless because I didn't have really any challenges so you know, just thinking back on humanity and mankind, I've realized that it has always been difficult for humans to survive until recently with technology and everything.

So I don't think that early man, Neanderthals and people a thousand years ago ever struggled with this feeling of boredness [sic] because they didn't have any problems. I kind of wanted to model my life after that a little bit and make my survival more difficult, so I could just give myself a problem. With that said, it's a problem that I can control and stop it whenever I want…and it's a problem that's difficult but not impossible to achieve.

OB: So how exactly does this work?

D: The way that it's working out is I have a gym membership, NY Health and Racquet club, and there's one right around the corner from Cardozo and that's my home base. The organization is probably the hard part about this. So I have four lockers and NY Health and Racquet club has showers and I shave there. It has shampoo and soap and all that stuff.

OB: Do they know you're there?

D: They don't know that I'm homeless, but they know that I'm there all the time and they kinda [sic] have a running joke – "Oh David, is this, like, your third time working out today?" You know most people go to the gym, they go to work out, I go to organize my stuff and leave stuff there, coming and going from school, or my internship, or running. They always see me and joke. They don't even make me scan my card anymore because I go in there so often. Nobody there knows that I'm actually living out of that gym.

So I have one locker for running clothes and laundry, one for dress shirts, one for dress pants and one for miscellaneous things. And also each locker has a spot for shoes at the top so that's really good.

I had to really reduce the amount of stuff that I had. I had to get rid of everything that's nonessential. I only have, like, five dress shirts, five dress pants, some running clothes that are necessary and then obviously sweatshirts and stuff. Other than clothes I don't really have a lot of stuff, just stuff for shaving and brushing my teeth and books. I have a school locker too, so that helps.

I also have access to my school. Its open until midnight and then opens again at 8 a.m. so I nap there a lot. There's this one room in the library that has couches and I nap there during the day when I have breaks in between classes. At night I try and stay in there as late as possible so I can get the maximum amount of warmth. So I'll leave there at midnight and go find a spot and then NY Health and Racquet club opens at six. So I really only have six hours outside, so its not unbearable.

So I guess you might ask how I find a spot?

OB: Yes, I was going to ask how those six hours are spent?

D: I have a "go-bag." You know how during Hurricane Irene Mayor Bloomberg wanted everyone to have a go-bag? So I have a bag, which consists of the things you need to survive. I bring that with me every night and I always make sure I have it before I go to sleep. It has my blanket, three sweatshirts, sweatpants, two pairs of nice long socks it has a toothbrush and mouthwash – I'll show you – [shows the mouthwash]

So I make sure that I always have that with me.

The way that I find a spot is, the later it is the easier it is to find a spot. Less [sic] people are out and it's darker and quieter. I look for a dark nook. The first requirement is that it's out of the way, I don't want to be in anyone's way when I'm sleeping. The second thing that's nice but not necessary is that its dark. Obviously I prefer dark because it's easier to sleep and I don't like people being able to see my face. I don't know, just in case someone knows me. I like having a cover overhead, and also having a corner, so I can put my head on the corner. I put my stuff on the inside of me so that no one can take my stuff or else they'll wake me up.

Some parks in Manhattan close and just in the six weeks that I've been doing this I've learned which parks are closed and which ones are open. There's one park in the Heights that's really good. It's on 175th and Fort Washington. They are nice safe spots, I feel out of the way.

One of the reasons I did this was for the freedom. I can sleep at my job or internship, wherever I can find a spot. I'm not obligated to finish the day in one place, I'm not chained down, and I can really sleep anywhere. I can find a spot on almost any city block, there's always a spot somewhere. I've made a couple of mistakes with spots. I think I've only really picked two bad ones.

OB: So what are the bad ones?

D: My first mistake was one night, I was close to Cardozo and I got a spot, a little delivery nook that servicemen use for a building and early in the morning at like 5 a.m., a deliveryman had to wake me up. That was a bad spot because I was in someone's way and this past Saturday night, that was a bad spot because it was too busy, like I heard one couple and they were like, "Oh that's just depressing," when they saw me.

 I really do look the part, with all my sweatshirts and blankets, there's just no difference between me and other homeless guys. But one of my favorite parts about this whole thing is in the morning, and slowly being able to strip off the layers one by one and before you know it, I'm completely normal, all my clothes are in my bag, I flip my hair up and just walk down the street. Especially at my internship, no one knows that I'm doing this, mostly only close friends know. So I really like to think to myself, "I'm homeless."

OB: Do you ever want to tell people?

D: I don't really want to tell people. For the most part, they're shocked. It takes a lot of explaining before anyone realizes that it's not the most ridiculous thing in the world. When people first hear about it, they're like, "That's so dangerous, you're insane." Sure there may be some element of danger and questionable judgment, but I really don't think it's that big of a deal. I'm just afraid that someone will make a rash judgment and I don't want it to affect their opinion of me.

To be honest, when the weather is nice, it's amazing. It really is just great. I go to sleep and its great and wake up feeling so good. It's the same feeling when you don't want to leave your covers, its enjoyable. But obviously, when it gets cold, probably from 4 a.m. to 6 a.m. are the toughest because it's the longest since the sun has been out and you haven't moved for that long you're kinda [sic] getting cold. So I'll have to get up and jog in place to warm my body.

OB: Can I ask if you've met any other homeless people?

D: Absolutely not, that's my first rule. I stay as far away as possible from other homeless people and maybe it sounds terrible but one of the rationales behind it – people think I'm doing it to get to know the homeless and get to know there culture. And that's not true. Maybe I'm getting to know their experience, but by introducing myself and trying to meet them would just be asking for bad things to happen. They'll be like, "Oh there's this yuppie guy and he has money," or, "He's a normal person with nice clothes and he's trying to be homeless." I don't want people to really know that I'm out there, don't want to be a target. So I just stay as far away as I can. I don't want to take their spots; I don't want to mess with them. It really kind of scares me, to be honest, as bad as that sounds

OB: That's interesting that you're doing it, but you find the other people scary…

D: Right it scares me because I think if I took their spot or they saw me in normal clothes and then put on my homeless clothes they might get upset or try to rob me. I dunno [sic]. A lot of people say, including my mom, "David, this is dangerous and stupid, don't do it." That's one of the precautions that I take. Not to put myself at risk.

OB: Have your opinions or feelings to the homeless changed at all because of this?

D: I think one of the things I definitely believe, is if your average homeless person spent 30-40 dollars a month on a gym membership, they could shave and shower, keep warm for most of the day, maybe stay fit and like they'd have a good opportunity to look at jobs, and maybe another 20 dollars month to store stuff. I'm just surprised that people don't do this more often.

OB: You mentioned your mother saying it's dangerous, were there other comments you had to field?

D: My mom is the one that really kills me, the main argument against doing this, is my mom, because I love my mom and I feel like I'm taking years off her life because she always calls me and tells me that she can't sleep at night and she's always worrying like, "My own son! Homeless! I can't believe it!" But I did try and spend a long time telling her what I was going for with this and the experience and the adventure and exploring the city, and the logic. It saves time. You know, all the little ways we waste time in our homes, watching TV or cleaning. I feel like there's a substantial amount of time I'm saving by not having a place.

OB: So what do you do instead?

D: I spend a lot of time in Barnes and Noble, a lot of time in Whole Foods reading newspapers and eating. Those are my two favorite things to do.

One of the other reasons why I don't equate easiness of life, with quality of life, I think that a little bit of difficulty and a little but of challenge is a good thing and this might not be the challenge that most people think of when they think of giving themselves a challenge, but to me it's a good way to get in touch with my ancestors and being interested in survival.

 

OB: I want to know if you'd recommend this for other people?

D: One thing that I definitely see doing being a "homelessness consultant." There are so many people that are getting foreclosed on and have nowhere to go. The fact of the matter is, I would say that maybe 100 dollars a month invest in gym and lockers and equipment, it can be done. I wouldn't recommend it for someone it wasn't a necessity for [sic]. But for someone going through hard times, it can be done and you can be a normal person just because you do it. Just because you sleep outside for six hours a night doesn't mean that for the rest of the day you can't be shaved showered, in clothes, acting normal and doing normal things.

 

OB: I want to bring up the stigmas related to being homeless; I think that's what people are scared of – being homeless. So have you ever had a stigma like that? Has it changed [since your experience], do you see it changing in other people?

D: I think we might start to see a change in the definition of homelessness. As the unemployment rate rises and foreclosures are happening. People on the streets aren't the people you'd suspect to be there, they are completely normal people who one day, they're living in a house with a job and the next say they are homeless. I don't think there will continue to be this stigma because more people will be doing it. It might not be the worst option for many people because if you do it meticulously and safely, it can be done and it's not the worst thing, so maybe the stigma will go away.

But I'm proud of it. The reason I don't tell everybody is because I'm at this point in my life where I still have to go through the job application process. I think I have my job figured out but I don't want to screw myself over with that so I don't want too many people to find out and question my judgment, people might judge it without knowing the full details. But if I had that job already, I'd be screaming it from the rooftops, I'm not embarrassed, I'm proud to share it.

 


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