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The other side of the mirror: My life hungry, on the streets

The SNAP Challenge, where a person eats for one week on the equivalent of what they would receive in food stamps is quite chic these days.  Journalists, politicians and community activists have taken the challenge–both to highlight the plight of the hungry or to point out that with proper budgeting–it is indeed possible to not die of starvation on $4.00 a day.

Typically the challenge is to live on the equivalent of SNAP benefits for one week but I extended myself to a month. The USDA eligibility calculator told me without my current income I would qualify for between $3.68 and $4.00 per day, so that’s where I set my level. I am also responsible for feeding my pug, Beauregard, so he got to eat out of my daily allowance as well. One can of dog food from the dollar store could last two days, leaving me $3.50 per day.

Although traditional resources like my pantry or freezer were off limits during this experiment, I still possess a middle-class mindset. I’m used to working toward getting ahead, solving my immediate problems rather than be afraid of them and maximizing my resources to achieve my goals.

The first week I found myself restless and irritated, my appetite ravenous. By week two my appetite was still present but it was starting to ebb. My thoughts of food were fewer and further between, and the hollow feeling in my stomach was taking over.

I was officially hungry.

No longer was I only looking forward to the end date of this experiment, for my mindset was changing. I was getting used to being hungry. Food held little allure for me anymore, and the concept of eating for pleasure was unimportant. Food became sustenance, survival.

By week three I was into a pretty good stride. Beau was fed, I was able to have an egg, a piece of toast and one piece of turkey bacon for breakfast, and my meager dinners took the edge off at least enough to allow me to sleep.
At that point I looked at feeding myself differently; I no longer felt I was doing without. Hunger was my new normal and I had accepted it. Through the emptiness I was pleased. My experiment was successful so far, but it was only just beginning.

The time had come to leave my charmed life in the suburbs for a life on the streets.

“What does one need to take with them if they suddenly don’t have a home?” I thought to myself as I prepared to leave my house. Not food, for I still allowed myself $3.50 a day. I had to have something to wear to work, because my boss knew nothing of what I was doing and I had to be able to keep myself warm, dry and as clean as possible.

I didn’t sleep at all that first night, the metallic taste of adrenalin coating my tongue. Where do I go? What do I do? What if the police come? My knee shook constantly and I flinched at the smallest disturbance.

Almost immediately I was confronted with the silence. The cold, stony silence of complete isolation. Walking helped to settle my mind at least somewhat and plus, I needed to find a place to sleep. I finally settled on the south side of the river next to a retaining wall that offered a little bit of shelter and at least a little privacy. The dirt was hard and cold, but at least it was dry.

It’s astounding the ignominies one has to suffer while living on the streets. The sacrifices, the little white lies, the indignities erode at one’s pride remarkably fast. When you actually have nothing and everyone thinks you have something, keeping up appearances is debilitating.

Brushing my teeth at work was easy; nobody would look twice if they walked in. Using paper towels and hand soap to clean myself in place of a shower took my mind to a whole new level. I will never forget standing in front of the sink in the Reno Town Mall downstairs restroom frantically trying to clean myself as quickly as possible so I could get to work and not get caught.

I didn’t recognize the person staring back at me from this side of the mirror. My sparkle was gone. I looked gaunt, tired. My resolve was starting to bend, and I could see that in my much darker eyes.

It’s been said that things are only weird or uncomfortable the first time. I had my three-minute paper towel scrubs down to a science, but I had failed to pack clean underwear. Three days into the workweek, I smelled and I knew it. I was faced with a choice. I had $5.37 in my pocket and I hadn’t eaten for 12 hours. I stood in the restroom, looking at the wad of dirty bills in my hand and elected to go buy clean underwear.

I didn’t eat for 36 hours.

I learned a lot about people living by the river, as I became more and more invisible.  Life was going on all around me, and I wasn’t part of it. People laughing, walking through the park, engrossed in their own shallow lives.

One night a nice couple offered their leftovers, which I accepted. People would occasionally offer money, but to most I didn’t exist. Others were almost hostile. It was as if they wanted to make me feel poor. They were better than I was, and they made sure I knew it. The condescension, the contempt penetrated to my core.

Thank god for $1.50 beers at the casino. At least sitting at the bar I was a human again. I was inside away from the cold, the silence and the stark reality of living in Wingfield Park. The bartenders were friendly, and I was only asked to leave once. Hey, it’s not my fault for dozing off! Back to the park I went.

It’s hard to have hope when you’re cold, hungry and alone.

One man thought it funny to toss a few coins at me, one of them hitting me in the face and then watch over his shoulder as I crawled around picking them up. Eighty cents. Eighty lousy, humiliating cents.

The remnants of my shattered pride kept me mostly isolated, but I did meet people in the park, bribing them with cigarettes and an assurance that I was just passing through. This was their turf and the dangers I faced were very real.

That metallic taste was back in my mouth again. They didn’t trust me. I didn’t trust them. Better to just keep moving.

A friend once told me that every life has a story, and the residents of Wingfield Park were more than happy to volunteer theirs.  Everyone I met had what I termed a “next month” story.  Next month I’m going back home. Next month she’s going to let me move back in. Next month, my new life starts and I won’t have to sleep in the park anymore.

Can you spare some change, mister? I’m cold and hungry.

Why lie, I could sure use a beer.

If my story has inspired you, please visit www.rsgm.org to learn how you can help feed the hungry. For more information about our local homeless shelter, visit www.voa-nv.org.

About Sean Cary

Sean Cary

Political commentator, radio host and media professional by day…asleep by night.

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