I used to save everything. Clothes I’d never wear, old schoolwork, books I’d read already. I was a pack rat, and this continued right up until I had to move to college. And then move to Baltimore. Now, as I start my next apartment search in the city, I’ve already begun inspecting my belongings with a critical eye. The idea of hauling everything I own – even to the next neighborhood – makes me cringe.
Because things cost money, we obviously equate possessions with wealth. But clutter doesn’t make me feel wealthy, it makes me feel tired and overwhelmed. My most important possession isn’t my best item of clothing, my favorite photo album, or even my wallet – it’s the fact that I have somewhere safe to keep these things so that I don’t have to keep them on my person every moment of the day. If I wear one dress to work, I don’t worry that the rest of my closet will be empty when I come home. When I take a shower, I don’t worry that anyone will grab my credit card.
Experiencing homelessness not only leaves an individual without shelter, it leaves their things without any place to stay. Certainly, learning to minimize our dependency on “stuff” is an important lesson, but what if that comes down to deciding to carry my winter coat all July, or to hope to come by a new coat next October?
When I read about a Texas couple who went on a 21-day trip across Europe but packed nothing (just passports, no clothes, no dental floss), I was intrigued by the story, but not exactly sure what they were trying to prove. Twenty-one days is a long time without your favorite sweatshirt, but both of these travelers knew their possessions would be waiting for them upon their return home. Living freely is one thing, but it takes a significant level of privilege to leave one’s things behind and trust they will all be there when you’re ready for them.
In Florida, the example of the winter coat might not be as relevant, but if a person carries their belongings with them everyday all over the city, they are probably important to them. That’s why it is so concerning that a new Florida rule will strip homeless people of their possessions if they leave them for 24 hours. After that, the individuals can pay a fee to get them back, or lose them to the Ft. Lauderdale police.
It is true that many people experiencing homelessness have storage units, or have friends and family who can keep their things for them, but even these individuals may have to go several days without access to their belongings, and must choose what to keep on their person. If you had to leave behind your physical house, closet, bookshelves, and photo albums, what might you take with you? Maybe something to remind you of a happier time, or an appliance that represents the hope that you will one day again have your own place. Maybe you’re very practical, and you take clothes to keep yourself warm and soap to keep yourself clean. You probably take your photo ID and some money.
No matter what you have, it probably isn’t something you want lost or ruined. In Hawaii, one man doesn’t care what possessions they are; if they belong to a homeless person, he’s going to destroy them – with a sledgehammer. Tom Brower, a Hawaii state representative, travels his district and destroys the shopping carts people experiencing homelessness use to transport their belongings. He does it, he says, because homeless people “disgust” him. (But apparently people roaming around wielding sledgehammers is not cause for concern.)
While Brower is busy with a sledgehammer, several cities have begun to offer storage units for people without housing. Portland and Washington D.C. are among the latest to provide some refuge for the stuff that is important to its homeless populations. These differing approaches show which cities are committed to good ideas and ending homelessness – and which need to throw away not belongings, but their current policies.