When you’re homeless and you’re spending your days in the local park, sleeping off the previous night’s alcoholic binge, or just trying to get some rest, inevitably someone from a local social service organization will come by and attempt to interest you in its services. The truth is, these centers really only track or monitor the homeless; they offer few services designed to change a person’s life. This is especially true if you are living outdoors, eating what you can and when you can, putting all of your energy into survival, and trying to maintain at least some degree of good hygiene.
Believe me, personal hygiene—which so many people take for granted—is not a simple thing for a homeless person. Finding a place to shave, take a shower, or just brush your teeth can take up much of your day. The social service organizations inevitably emphasize personal hygiene, but their facilities are always filthy and overcrowded. It can take hours to get cleaned up. Often, I simply choose to go without, or I do a birdbath sort of cleanup in a public washroom. Even this is difficult; people tend to frown on seeing a homeless person try to wash up in the sink.
Everyone frowns at the sight of a homeless person. And it’s this that really gets to you—the awareness that you are being judged immediately, without consideration for contributing circumstances, by everyone you pass, everyone who sees you in the crosswalks, everyone who pretends not to see you. Even when they turn away, in avoidance or disgust, they are judging you—for your clothes, your lack of hygiene, or the bag of supplies and clothing you carry with you. Very few affordable public storage spaces exist. It becomes easier to simply carry the things you need. Yet this bag, these bags instantly identify you as a homeless person. And it’s always the same look, the one that you know holds the same thought: “There goes another one of those homeless people. Something should be done about them.”
— from a remarkable essay (paywalled) by Theodore Walther on the experience of long-term homelessness