This is Real. That's Not.

We all grow up in our own little bubble. Getting perspective on ourselves and/or our own lives is one of the harder things to do in life.

I've always liked the following movie scene, but it took on new meaning for me after I was homeless:


Most of us go through life...knowing only that one little station to which we were born...
you...have had the rare privilege of escaping your bonds for just a spell...


I was on the street about a year before it dawned on me how upper class my mother's expectations were. It took even longer for me to begin to comprehend how well off my parents had actually been at one time.

While I was growing up, my parents always conveyed this narrative of "We are just plain folks with blue collar jobs." I was a child, so I believed what I was told and it took a stint "on skid row" to get a clue that this wasn't the whole story.

I actively and intentionally used my time on the street as a means to gain insight into things about myself and my own life, especially in areas that weren't working well. Being homeless was a somewhat unique opportunity to get feedback on where my circumstances ended and where "I" began.

Growing up, I kind of thought "Most people are just nice." I had no means to figure out how much was natural charm, how much was me dressing well and the like and how much was people deferring to me because I was one of the highest ranked students in my school and so forth.

Being homeless taught me that, no, most people absolutely are not just nice. It also taught me that I actually can be charming and smooth talking.

It turns out that's a real skill that I have and it has real value. It wasn't simply about me thinking I knew how to ask nicely but really being deferred to by others because of my station in life.

Another interesting thing is that even while homeless people tended to read me as upper class. I was often mistaken for a tourist at first glance.

My casual attire of t-shirts and sweat pants was read to mean that I was on vacation, not sleeping in a tent in a patch of woods as my only housing. People had to see me a few times to realize I had habits like a homeless person and wasn't simply taking a break from more upper class attire.

While homeless, I belonged for a time to a toxic, classist forum called Metafilter. The mods there actively encouraged others to bully me and plenty of people embraced that edict with enthusiasm.

One woman who bullied me on Metafilter with more persistence than the norm was an ER doctor with mommy issues. Another real toxic asshole that stands out in my memory was an American man pursuing his PhD in Europe.

The best of the best of the best, sir!

I eventually concluded that in addition to the people there being generally warped and unhealthy individuals who were all too willing to behave abusively to someone who had nothing, I scared the hell out of them. They didn't want to believe that someone "like them" could end up homeless.

I still read as too upper class. I had too much education. I was too articulate. I was too well traveled. I wasn't an addict or a teen mom.

They wanted to believe that getting a good education and coming from a good home and so forth would guarantee their safety from the horrors of street life. I flew too much in the face of this delusion to be at all acceptable.

Rather than have compassion for "one of their own" who was "down on their luck," they actively harassed me and ultimately banned me. These are people who like to brag about what wonderful people they are.

I recently spoke with a woman from an even more upper class background than mine -- someone who only attended private schools growing up -- and she is currently homeless. She soon was actively insulting me, unwilling to believe that I was really "her equal" in any real sense.

This post is being written because of that conversation. She kept saying things like "I have a graduate degree!" and "I understand numbers and finance!"

She tried to insist that my offer to point her in the direction of gig work was unhelpful as she had some minimum income requirements to pay her student loans etc. Although she had reached out to me, it was as if she believed that I hadn't been through some of the exact same things myself while homeless.

In reality, her story had quite a few details that sounded exactly like mine. I got back into housing a few weeks after I made my last student loan payment.

Being homeless apparently flew in the face of all the stuff she believed about how life was supposed to work. She seemed to believe that an education would protect her. She seemed to believe that being "smart" would protect her. Etc.

If you are homeless and come from an upper class background, I will suggest that repeating all the things you believe about how life is supposed to work will not magically make them true and thereby fix your problems. Being verbally abusive to me because I don't have the kinds of answers you want won't either.

I encourage you to see this as a heavy dose of reality concerning where your mental models are broken. The only cure for what ails you is to start getting over your delusions and start adjusting your mental models to come up with a more accurate understanding of reality.

If you are upper class and not currently homeless, please take this post as one more message from some random internet stranger that, no, you are not magically exempt from the possibility of ending up on the street. If you are American and don't like that fact, taking it out on "the messenger" also won't fix the fact that America does a poor job of providing its citizens with a safety net in comparison to most developed countries.

The title of this post is from an old interview with Elizabeth Taylor. She was talking about what she got out of making her first movie while still a child.

She talked about how powerfully it shaped her mental models of the world to have that experience at a young age and how that positively impacted her life as an adult to have it very clear in her mind from an early age that "This is real. That's not."

While homeless, my hypothesis was that my life was broken at least in part because my mental models were broken. I sought to fix my mental models as a means to fix my life.

I did manage to get myself back into housing on my own efforts without being "rescued" by anyone nor going through some kind of program. I see that as evidence of the accuracy of my hypothesis.

Though I'm sure someone will read this and feel compelled to assert that "Correlation does not prove causation" and then link to some XKCD strip.


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