“Homelessness is an image problem” is a message I’ve received often. I’ve been encouraged to spend what little money I have to improve this image by investing in clothing, makeup and more to establish I am just like everyone else. The expectation is that I can generate acceptance, change opinions about homelessness or otherwise promote positive change for myself and others who are homeless with the right PR and appearance.
My immediate needs and circumstances require I budget differently. As a result, people have stepped in, out of kindness, to buy me clothes, makeup, perfume and more, which they believe will help me overcome the image problems associated with homelessness. But in my experience, this came with the new assumption on the part of others that I was for sale. I was seen as a prostitute, or ready for prostitution, and recieved other negative sexual attention and pressure that made my life worse.
Furthermore, I might have looked better, but I was dressed for the office, the workplace, indoor environments, not outdoors.
As a result, I sought free clothing from distribution sites. There were so many people, no matter how many times I went. I only managed to get a little of what I needed. Most of the clothes appropriate for homelessness were grabbed up quickly and the great majority of clothes were also for “the office.”
It is a matter of survival that I have the right clothing, shoes and gear appropriate for the weather and conditions, with enough money to supply my basic needs, from food not provided by community meals, to laundry, a cup of coffee, unexpected needs and more. Overlooking survival needs, basic needs, and essentials for others’ expectations, in my experience, isn’t enough to satisfy others, and can be dangerous. I’ve learned what people think I need and what I actually need while surviving homelessness are very different.
Investing in “image” and “appearance” is less important than the gear and means I need to survive. This is further complicated by lack of restrooms, showering facilities and safe and adequate shelter spaces that provide real, concrete steps for people on an individual case by case basis to break down and resolve the obstacles and barriers leading to the ultimate goal and solution: housing.
Lori Smith is an artist and vendor with Street Sense Media.