Kitty Zen: My Experience with Homelessness November 18, 2016 09:32

From November 12th-20th, Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week will take place. This week is meant to bring awareness to people across the country who face hunger and homelessness each day. The facts are staggering: 578,000 Americans are homeless on a typical night, 49 million are at risk of suffering from hunger, and 1 in 5 children live in poverty, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. For many of these people, being without a home can be heart-wrenching. But for some, art allows them to find a home within themselves

When I first became “Homeless”, it took me a long time to realize. Like most people, I thought of soup kitchens and bag ladies upon hearing that word.

My experience with homelessness started as a teenager.

There was a house fire in my family’s home. We never really bounced back from that. I would move around from (temporary) place to place, from hotels to friends houses, a summer rental to a camp ground, wondering when life would start to go back to what I remembered as “normal” again.

As I ended up on my own, the realities of what I was going through finally started to set in. It’s been a journey since then. Having survived a number of difficult and often dangerous situations along the way. Especially dangerous for a young person, still very much in the process of growing up.

Boston based artist Kitty Zen

Boston based artist Kitty Zen

I have looked at my self and my life with self loathing in the past, feeling crushed under the weight of social stigmas like being a “bum” or a “failure”. I have since realized the true scope of the crisis that is housing instability, and that my experience is one that is closely shared by many.

“Homeless” should never be considered to describe a person, as if it is a personality trait. Homeless is a housing status, an experience a person is enduring and with hope, surviving.

When you’re living without a safe or stable home, with no guarantee of having basic needs met, your brain operates entirely differently. You are constantly engaged in a fight or flight mentality. It adds a different level of stress to life that people should never have to become accustomed to, but one that is necessary for survival.

Simple things we take for granted like access to food or bathing become much more difficult and significant challenges in daily life. Having a complete lack of peace or privacy can make you quickly become frustrated and depressed. Being looked down on, or worse, looked through and ignored, hurts even more. This experience is universal; every one of my fellow “housing challenged” individuals have identified they would rather be told to leave or insulted than treated as if they don’t exist.

"Nebula" by Kitty Zen

A day time drop-in center for young adults I frequented when staying on the streets provided me an enormous eye opener one day. It came to me in the form of a writing prompt, asking, “What would you want people to know about homelessness and how to help solve it?” And it made me ask myself that question for the very first time.

My self hatred began to crumble under understanding, and a blossoming dream of helping to create a future in which younger generations of young people will have the help and resource they need to keep them on a clearer and safer path, and a chance to thrive.

Becoming engaged as a peer advocate has been both very empowering and humbling for me.

Having others to actually talk to about what I was going through changed my perspective greatly. It helped me to become much more aware of the bigger picture, and the unstable realities so many others also face.

Although my own story is unique, I’m not nearly the only one going through this. Seeing the way other communities have responded, especially those with the bold and so far successful plan of “housing first” helped inspire me to become engaged in a bigger way. The sad but true reality is that most of America’s working class is only one strike of bad financial luck away from facing housing instability themselves.

This cannot be realistically judged as an individual’s personal failure, but as a crisis we need to come together with compassion to help solve.

Through finding out about new issues, community concerns and needs in my work in advocacy, I found more opportunities and reasons to engage in advocacy. Often on the fly, giving an unprepared speech to an unsuspecting audience of councilors. community activists, students, others. For most people talking about personal experiences can be really difficult, painful, and draining. Sharing these things with strangers is not something fun or comfortable to do, and for me as a very naturally shy and anxious person,very difficult. By sticking it out, I began to grow, finding both my voice and myself. Ability for self expression on this level had only otherwise in my life been available through the arts.

But even more serendipitous/hope inspiring/amazing is that my work in advocacy also led me to being introduced to ArtLifting. Being able to share my voice and my vision with the world as both an effective tool of the trade and force for positive change was life altering. All this together has brought me what I can say for the first time in a very long time, a true sense of hope.

Participation and meaningful say in ones own life and decision making is crucial to being a human being, not just a homeless human being.

Make sure the people you are trying to help are engaged and welcome in the conversation. Something one of my colleagues often says is “There should be nothing about us, without us.” By changing the way we talk about the issues, and by doing so in a realistic way, it changes the way we think about how to come up with solutions for them, and helps to create solutions that truly work.

What I have seen time and time again is that being able to bring lived personal experiences to the conversation helps invaluably to show the world that not all homeless people can be contained to a stereotype.

And that for people who are here to help, to listen to our voices, or are simply passing by, that being able to engage with an open mind and heart is just as important.

By Kitty Zen

To read more about Kitty or view her art, click here