The Unconventional Homeless
by John Arraj

The buses howled and moaned and spewed their evil-smelling diesel fumes. It was dark, and the frost glistened under the orange glow of the nearby halogen street light. I readjusted the sleeping bag for the 10th time and pulled my girlfriend closer to share the last remnants of our body heat. Here and there the first pale fingers of dawn touched the far off hill tops. It would be hours before the warmth of the sun would reach us at this shadowed and desolate bus stop.

The hours dragged on and on.

Once in a while the patrolling security car would circle slowly and cautiously, scrutinizing us and then passing on, like a vulture searching for likely prey. Days passed slowly, the never-ending chain of buses came and went, disgorging their human contents. De-boarding riders would examine us quickly and furtively before looking away. Perhaps afraid that our condition was contagious or that we might beg money from them. Finally, the inevitable happened, we were reported.

The cruiser pulled up in front of us and the uniformed figure swung out from inside the interior. "How are you folks doing?" the authoritative male voice boomed, his hand hovering cautiously close to the mike clipped to the shoulder of his dark uniform.   "Making contact with suspects now over."

He turned his attention back to the huddled figures in front of him.  I studiously ignored him as I pulled the sleeping bag tighter around us to avoid the early morning drafts. "I've had a report that you guys have been here for several days now, with a sleeping bag."My stomach balled into a knot in involuntary response to the upcoming confrontation. After all these years of hard work and dedication is this how we were going to end up? Being rousted from our bus stop by a security guard?

We haven't always been so hard up. I was an Outstanding Scholar graduate of the University of Oregon in 1997. My junior year I was offered a shot at a Rhodes Scholarship to do graduate work at Oxford. My girlfriend graduated a few months behind me with a degree in journalism and was the managing editor of one of the most prestigious student magazines in the country. We had graduated with clear eyes and high hopes, ready, after years of hard work, to take our place among the the ranks of the professional world.

In the months that followed we applied to job after job, and received rejection letter after rejection letter in return. Slowly, our high hopes and youthful optimism began to fade, replaced by the cold hard facts of reality. The Workplace, despite our years of hard work and dedication, was not welcoming us with open arms. There was a sea of candidates for every job opening that we encountered and the odds of successfully obtaining a good position was minuscule. Days turned into weeks and weeks into months, and there was no end in sight. Time and time again our hopes were dashed anew by the latest crop of rejection letters. We clung to one another for comfort and support. We would rent .99 cent movies and snuggle on the couch trying to forget the grim despair of failure.

While I applied to local and federal law enforcement positions I worked as laborer on a construction crew. My foreman was a tall shaggy man with ragged clothes and limited communication abilities. "I hate training people." he had mumbled almost incoherently my first day on the job. Later I would learn he had been homeless for four years before obtaining this position. It didn't matter how early I arrived, or how hard I worked, he saw the world through the foggy glasses of alcoholism and words like "appreciation" and "recognition" were beyond his reach.

My girlfriend faired no better in getting a job. She worked for a temp agency while she applied to newspapers and magazines. She worked all kinds of wonderful jobs, ranging from a chicken processing plant to serving eviction notices. The last in the long line of these dead end jobs was conducting a survey for the local bus line. The job consisted of sitting in the cold and wind at an open bus stop for 8 hours a day, and counting the number of people that got off with a clicker.

I had been laid off from my construction job and had just received my latest rejection letter from an organization with which I had just participated in over a year and a half of tests and interviews, only to be dropped at the very end of the process. I decided that the least I could do was to accompany my girlfriend on this job. To keep her, a small female, safe in the early morning darkness of the deserted bus stop; and also to keep her spirits afloat at a time when our options were disappearing fast and the future's horizon looked bleak.

In the dark and in the cold, we huddled together to keep warm and tried to keep our spirits up by talking and comforting one another. When she got too cold I would insist that she go into the nearby cafeteria to warm up. In her loyalty she would protest, unwilling to leave me despite the pain of her frozen hands and feet. By some twist of fate the second to last day on this job was our 2 year anniversary. I was depressed but tried not to show it when I bought her a solitary rose and kissed her lips; for me it was as if those years had passes by and the tides of success had come and gone leaving us stranded on an endless beach of defeat.

A Response


I read with compassion your account of seeking a job and finally being rousted by the police-state for merely being alive at the wrong place & time. I am a 52 yr old Vietnam vet and had to scratch my way up from nothing, too. I used my GI bill benefits to go to GA State Univ. (BS ' 78 Brdcst Journalism) and it took me 7 long years of night school because I was putting my dear wife & best friend thru nursing school while scrimping/saving up a down payment for a house. We lived in the "slums" of Atlanta for about four years until we happened upon a fixer-upper house in an older neighborhood. From that point onward we learned the true meaning of 'sweat equity' every weekend (plus a lot about plumbing, carpentry, electrical, etc, along the way!)

Anyway, we eventually graduated and got good jobs, but we stayed there, added onto the house when we had our daughter and enjoyed the friendly comeraderie of our community that I have only seen in multicultural "rehab" neighborhoods such as that one. Most of us were into self-sufficiency & bartering to some extent not because of lofty ideals but just plain old lack of cash. We were doubling up on our house payments because we wanted to eventually move to the country, buy a spot of land, and homestead. I was able to quit work this year when we moved after 30 yrs, and my wife is only part-time now.

Yes, we feel like we are starting all over again on our five acres. We found a small double-wide trailer & had it moved here (they are really cheap after they get about 10 yrs old.) I re-plumbed the trailer so we use grey water on our sizeable garden. Our daughter, her husband, and their baby daughter (and me) are building them a cordwood masonry house further back in the woods complete with a compost toilet. I'm working my ass off (literally... I've lost 20 lb since we moved out here... about 15 mi from the Alabama state line) but we have dreamed of this all our lives & we verbally thank our eternal Almighty God each day for his provision and protection and give Him any glory for what we may have achieved.

In closing, I want you to know I did not write this to brag in any way. My only purpose is to encourage you to stand fast and develop an iron will. Set your aim upon your goal and let no man (or woman!) distract you from your target. I hope and pray that your circumstances have improved and you are on your way to self-reliance by now. Stay strong, my friend, and you WILL succeed. Tom in Rockmart, Georgia

PS: All types of jobs from hi-tech to the ones in the service industries are going 'begging' for good people to fill them in the Atlanta area, and there are still many older neighborhoods in surrounding counties with liveable houses in various states of disrepair. You would probably need to look another 10 miles farther out than where we lived, but the folks are generally still as easy-going as ever here in Dixie, and there is an abundance of "earthy" types from which to cultivate a circle of friends. May the best of everything come within your grasp as you travel life's path.