This is the second of four articles I’ll be writing in a series on the subject of the important role that cleanliness plays in living a healthy lifestyle. I know that chances are if you’re reading this, you are not homeless. But I’m writing this article in the hopes that someone with a helping heart like my own, who might know anyone who’s homeless, would read this and use the information to help them.
It’s hard for people to believe but I have been homeless for most of my (short) adult life. Even when in the midst of it all, it was hard for people to believe when they discovered where I “lived” that I was in fact homeless. When I asked them why they were so shocked, they always said the same things; because I was clean and happy.
Back then, I never really thought about just how much of a difference a little soap and water could make in a person’s life.
We all know that being homeless is not what children say they want to be when they grow up but we all know that sometimes, things happen beyond our control. And I know from experience, the struggle it is to hold onto one’s own human dignity when you have nothing and nowhere to go. To retain one’s pride when you have to depend on the kindness of others for basic human needs is almost impossible.
Have you ever gone out in public on a bad day? And I mean the kind of day where your hair is a mess, it’s laundry day, a month since you’ve been laid off, three weeks since your water has been shut off, a week since your dog ran away and a day before your rent is due. Do you remember the looks you were given? Those looks of mixed judgement and pity. The way people wait with bated breath for your departure. Well, that’s how it feels to go anywhere when you’re homeless. And in my experience, the only way I was able to overcome that experience, is to not standout so much. Because, let’s face it, when you’ve got that many people being rude enough to stare at you and you’re already at your lowest, the temptation to pluck the offending eyes out of these people’s skulls can prove too great for some.
The only thing that separated me from the rest of society was that I didn’t have a place to live or bathe. So, I thought that if I looked like I had a place to bathe, people would assume I had a place to live as well and thus the homicide rate can remain unaffected by my actions.
Here are some of the tactics I used for keeping oneself as clean and happy as possible when you have no place to call home:
1) Single restrooms are a great place to wash yourself up throughout the day.
Just remember to lock the door, use the hand soap dispenser and the sink. And you take a bird bath. Use as many paper towels as you need and make sure to get the most important pulse points (underarms, neck, butt crack, crotch area) to reduce body odor (I know it sounds unattractive but let’s be real here) but don’t neglect the rest of the body. With most public restroom soaps are usually antibacterial (and in some cases, antimicrobial), and will reduce your chances of developing certain rashes, ring worm and bed sores. And if you can manage, get a hold of a toothbrush and toothpaste. The way I got mine is by going into a dentist’s office and asking for the free toothbrush they give out and the floss and the travel size tooth pastes they give out. And I was real with it by explaining to them my situation. They had no problem giving me all that I needed.
2) Hand wash your clothes.
Now I understand that sometimes the only clothes you have are the ones on your back. If that’s the case then only apply this to your undergarments. If you can manage to get your hands on a few dollars outside of food money, then you can get a bottle of All brand laundry soap from the dollar store. I personally recommend the Free & Clear variety of it because you don’t have to worry about any dies or perfumes that might irritate your skin or stain your clothes due to not being able to rinse them thoroughly. Now, if you’re fortunate enough to have more than one set of clothes, I recommend alternating them everyday and washing each set when you take them off. This can all be done in the same public restrooms to accomplish this. To dry them, I used to hang them up on tree branches in the woods or on the poles that’re usually in place around the outside air conditioning unit of small businesses (but be sure not to lay them directly on the unit itself as that would cause it not to work and they owners will get upset).
3) Carry a small bottle of hand sanitizer.
They’re about a dollar at most retailers. This will help guard you from getting sick. The ones that my best friend used while he was homeless also came with a rubber cover that could be clipped to the key ring he kept on his belt.
4) Keep spare underwear and wash them regularly.
The three-pack of underwear at Wal-Mart is as cheap as they come. By changing and washing your underwear regularly, you can save yourself from yeast infections (if you’re female) or other nasty rashes that both men and women can get from wearing unwashed underwear.
Those simple steps are more than enough to make the rest of the world recognize that you have pride and self-respect. To see you and see that you are in fact trying to help yourself, that you aren’t choosing to live that way. And chances are, someone with a heart will see that and they will want to help you help yourself even more. That’s how I was able to get two jobs despite having no place to live.
And it’s not even really about how the public sees you. Just think about how good it feels when you’ve been walking around for endless hours, trying to bum change for food, trying to find a place where you can lie down and rest without being hassled by police or other prejudiced people, to be able to wash the grim and sweat of that day’s struggle off your body. To smell of soap rather than sweat and dirt and sometimes other bodily fluids. I know just how hard it is to find kind enough people who would allow you in their home to eat or take a shower. But in the meantime, why let yourself sit in the hole of depression that not having access to basic human rights puts you in? It starts with being empowered enough to say “I will do what I can no matter what. I’m still a human being. I am strong. I will overcome.”
And you simply need to take that same determination to rise up and overcome with you and find shelters and other organizations that gear towards helping those in need. And swallow enough of your pride to allow yourself to ask them for help to help yourself. People tend to respond better to you when you ask for a job rather than a hand out. I can’t count the number of times when I was handed money and clothes when I came to people asking for information on where I can get a job or a place to live. Those people didn’t have what I needed but they gave me what they could because they saw that despite my tattered, well-worn clothes and shoes, that I was not going to let that be all that I am.
It wasn’t until I got into a better situation and found myself on the other side looking at homeless people on the street, that I was able to see why I was able to receive the help I did. I’ve had many of said homeless people ask me for change and I didn’t always give out anything but the ones I did help had clean faces, they stood before me with dignity and strength. When I offered to buy them food when all I had on me was my bank card, they gracefully accepted and followed up with questions about what places are hiring or what shelters I knew about. I’ll call them the self-helpers.
The ones I didn’t help, were rude and looked like they didn’t care about themselves at all. They acted like I owed them something for their being homeless. As if it was my responsibility to make sure they ate that day. One guy actually hollered at me for some change outside of Starshmuck’s. I didn’t quite hear him the first time so I turned, smiled and said “I’m sorry. What was that?” His response?: “Food money. You ever heard of it?” To which I replied, “I’m afraid I haven’t” and got in my car and left. I call those people, assholes. The self-helpers, I would see later on and if their faces weren’t clean, the entire air about them was completely different. They were less apt to talk to me. Their shoulders were hunched. But then when I saw them a third or fourth time, and their faces were clean they resembled the person I met the first day. Whereas, the assholes remained the same no matter how many times I saw them.
This piece was inspired by my days without a place to live and finally getting a library card and getting online and seeing a lot of makeup ads and wishing I could afford to buy some of these products. I’d read magazine articles now and then while in the check out line in stores buying my food for the day and I’d come across makeup and beauty tips. I always thought to myself, “A lot of good these tips would do for me. I don’t even have my own bathroom.”
Most beauty blogs and articles are written with the assumption that every person that reads them, has the ability to follow their advice. We understand that the point of these articles are to sell products and make a profit but for a lot of their readers, these products are far out of reach. This used to make me angry and depressed at the same time when I was homeless. I wondered, “Why doesn’t someone write something that poor folk can relate to?”
Well, here it is. And there’s more to come. I hope this article can help give someone a boost of confidence to help them get through their time of struggle.