Quarantine Thoughts: Sheltering-in-Place Without a Place

For many locals experiencing homelessness, social isolation was already the norm.

It’s dawn, 28 days since the COVID-19 shutdown orders were issued in the Bay Area. Or maybe it’s day 29? I lose track. Time has assumed an altogether different shape and feel. We seem to have a lot of it on our hands these days, yet how much we have left is unsure.

At the moment, new daylight is just starting to scatter the darkness of night. It appears as if the sun will rise for another day. That’s good.

Ian Curtis of Joy Division screams through my headphones: “Isolation, isolation, isolation.” KALX always seems to know the right song to play, even when the broadcast has been pre-recorded due to the shelter-in-place order. How did they know?

I walk the streets of Berkeley — through the nice neighborhood near the UC campus, close to where I was born and grew up. Emptied of students and full of discarded rubber gloves, my hometown is still and spooky. Birds and squirrels have the run of the place. All the din and hustle of human enterprise has been replaced by the silent, albeit happy, hieroglyphs left on the ground by kids who have chalked up the sidewalk with courageous words of hope, written in pastel colors.

“We have never been so far apart and so close together!” “Go Berkeley! Go World,” “Love is Love,” “WE GOT THIS!” and “Namaste.” Children know the wisdom of joy at play.

As the sun rises, I cross paths with a few masked joggers and dog-walkers. We all do a polite dance around each other, creating a safe distance and smiling with our eyes over our masks.

Here we are, doing our best not to breathe the same air as each other as we aim to outsmart this virus. We know better than to wage war on it — that would be crazy. It’s better that we retreat to our own private corners, wash our hands and wait this one out.

But what about those of us, who, like me, don’t have a private corner?

A selfie of the author, Lawrence Lincoln.

For me and thousands of others who rough it on the streets of the Bay Area, social distancing seems old hat. We are used to people averting their gaze and giving us a wide berth when we pass them on the street. We have already lost our jobs and have lived for some time with little or no money. We have become all too familiar with losing loved ones suddenly — from sickness, or the violence that attends poverty. Still, we never get used to it.

I have a great deal of empathy for people, who, in the face of this pandemic, are confronting the kind of fears that we in the homeless community know all too well.

To the newly minted homeless person emerging in the wake of this crisis — and I fear there could be many — I say this: you are not alone.

We are all going through some version of the same thing. Reach out. Ask for help. This experience is traumatic and trauma leaves a mark. We are blessed in the Bay Area to have a wealth of support groups, mental health professionals, advocacy organizations, food pantries, housing navigators, spiritual communities and work-experience initiatives that are here to help. Seek them out.

It’s also important to practice both physical and mental self-care. Do not beat yourself up — the circumstances are already hard enough. You are the only vehicle at your disposal capable of transporting yourself from this difficult place to your happy place. Maintain your vehicle and stay the course.

My great grandfather, who also grew up in the Bay Area, lived through the 1906 earthquake, World War I, and “the Spanish Flu.” He went on to raise a family through The Great Depression and World War II. He was the embodiment of strength in the face of adversity. He showed me and generations of my family how to endure through thick and thin and to find joy in the simple wonder of being alive.

A photo of Lawrence Lincoln’s great grandfather, Charles R. Berkhart and his son, on Neptune Beach in Alameda, circa 1920s, not long after the Great Influenza Pandemic and before the Great Depression. (Photo courtesy of Lawrence Lincoln).

We will make it through this, my great grandfather is proof positive of that. And things will change. Maybe that is the point. Maybe change is necessary in a world where healthcare workers lack health insurance, where we can make enough scratchers to wallpaper infinity but can’t produce enough masks to protect the doctors and nurses who are willing to risk their lives to save ours. Where so many people are just one paycheck away from homelessness, which I can assure you, is as dangerous to a healthy society as COVID-19 could ever be.

The writing’s on the sidewalk: “Namaste.” The word was once explained to me by a Hindustani Sadhu who, incidentally, kept no home as a matter of spiritual conviction: “The Divine in me recognizes the Divine in you.”

Perhaps we should all follow that sign and walk that way. Surely, that is the way home.

Quarantine Thoughts is an ongoing personal essay series focused on how the coronavirus, social distancing mandates and the economic fallout of COVID-19 is impacting locals. Read more essays here.

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