Fort Worth

First person: Homelessness exhausting, humiliating and humbling

Falling asleep at the Presbyterian Night Shelter is not easy.

The sharp glare of fluorescent lights lingers from the hallway and glances off rows of cot-style bunk beds packed onto the concrete floor. Soft sounds of snoring mingle with the rousing of someone waking up to use the bathroom and the bang of an occasional door closing.

Invariably, the steady hum of the homeless shelter is interrupted by shouting.

Those new to the shelter — like me — wake up startled, only to find that the woman who is crying out is not hurt or in trouble but is agitated by some fictional foe. As she quiets down, the shelter’s other occupants murmur a mutual sigh of relief as they settle back onto their mattresses.

That moment — lying on a plain white sheet provided by the shelter, using a towel loaned to me by a homeless woman as a pillow, hugging my backpack safely to my chest and realizing that sleep was frustratingly out of reach — was when I recognized the exhaustion and humiliation that come with homelessness.

Interactive: Where the homeless come from

To at least partly understand the problem, I spent two nights and three days in Fort Worth’s homeless district. Even though my descent into homelessness was carefully planned — family volunteered to watch my dog; my brother loaned me a backpack that wasn’t pink; and I locked up my apartment and all its contents when I left for East Lancaster Avenue — the stigma of homelessness felt all too real.

Driving down East Lancaster Avenue certainly paints a stark picture of the homeless problem in Fort Worth, where sidewalks are filled with those who have nowhere else to go, nothing else to do.

But when you’re walking that same path beside the people calling those streets home, a community — complete with hopes, fears, laughter, tears and stories — comes to life.

For those few days, I was welcomed into that community.

The people I met were just that — people — and included a former professor, a former professional basketball player, victims of violence, manual laborers who had developed disabilities or lost their jobs in the recession, a Star-Telegram delivery driver, suffering addicts who couldn’t escape drug and alcohol, and teenagers fresh from the foster-care system.

Advice flowed freely from the longtime homeless: Don’t leave your belongings unattended; put vinegar in your hair to avoid lice; don’t walk around at night; the friars have the best coffee and will refill your water bottle; wipe down your bunk bed with alcohol to avoid bedbugs; and don’t get involved with fights.

Map: Fort Worth’s homeless district

I saw a new world emerge just a few blocks from Fort Worth’s busy downtown, one filled with people desperately searching for self-respect and dignity, a place where, at its core, it’s every man for himself.

As abruptly as I had entered, I left.

But as I waited for the gates of my apartment complex to open, I realized my comfortable life in southwest Fort Worth is just a few short steps removed from East Lancaster.

The possibility is so near to all of us — just one bad decision, one recession, one debilitating illness or disability away — that homelessness should humble us all.

Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram