Homeless Like Me: Cedar Rapids, Iowa 2009

by Homeless T
CEDAR RAPIDS, IA, USA * 29 AUGUST 2009: Over 24 downward-spiraling months, my life crashed from being a community college professor--with family, home, cars, full fringe benefits, and freedom to do as I wished--down to that of a lone, homeless person. Maybe you saw me walking the streets of downtown Cedar Rapids. I was still wearing a yellow neck-tie (all I had left of my profession), but it was filthy. I had learned to rummage the trash for refundable pop-cans, and scavenge curb-side ashtrays for half-smoked butts to quiet my craving for tobacco.  
Originally published 29 August 2009

I tried to hide my new, scrounging self from professional people bustling the streets of downtown Cedar Rapids. Ridiculously, I still considered them my peers, although the wasted weeks had already turned into months and now years. That worried me. I might never regain a place in the world outside the gutter.

Society had spit me out like a bug flown into its mouth. But I am not a bug. I had to think twice about how long it had been. The only thing I knew for sure was that I'd had no permanent address since August 2007. Now it was late July, 2009, hot as hell, and I was out on the streets.

My job prospects had dimmed. Former employers had given me several months' salary--severance, I suppose--and a separation agreement to sign, to the effect that nobody was at fault for my leaving. No blame was assigned to or by either party. I scarcely noticed one innocent-sounding clause of the agreement that promised I would not apply for work there again.

Ah, free at last. In a flurry of ambition, I sent out applications all over the country, and had several promising phone interviews. One Michigan college administrator said she first had to verify my references, but as far as she could see--I had the job in the bag.

I imagine that reference check was done quite professionally. College deans and human resource administrators are bound by law to limit their questions and answers to information on record. So it may have been smooth sailing until my new potential employer asked the loaded question: would my old college hire me again?

A dean who had never even seen me teach replied, well no, it couldn't in this case--because in our separation agreement, I'd promised not to seek work there again. Apparently, that covenant spoke volumes to other administrators.

My new potential employer was decidedly cooler when I finally managed to reach her by phone. She said they had decided to pass on my application.

That was over a year ago, and I was still out of work. I had come and gone from Cedar Rapids twice, staying first at the Willis Dady Emergency Shelter, and then at the Mission of Hope Residence. My unemployment benefits were exhausted and so was I.

But here I was, back for Round Three in Cedar Rapids, Iowa--still with no prospects for work in the teaching field, and this time with no income whatsoever. I could count on no bailout from friends or family. My disgraceful condition had persisted too long. Helpers were no longer getting a good feeling from helping me. None among them was about to take me in, either. This was it.

I had finally hit the bottom, and become physically ill at its prospect. But as I got off the bus in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the legendary light at the end of the tunnel appeared in my mind. I'd heard the cliche a thousand times, but now I understood what it meant. Control was being returned to me, whether I liked it or not, but anything I could attain would truly belong to me now. I had paid my penance.

The good news was I had come to a city with a lot of heart, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, USA. The bad news was that my destiny had been returned to the care of an imbecile who had lost, squandered, or been robbed of every material thing life had ever given him. That imbecile was me.