Refuge from the madness

The smell of urine burning my nostrils as I walked the streets I once slept on just a month earlier.

In a one bedroom apartment in a building that looks like it has been through a mortar attack on the outskirts of Little Havana, I take refuge from the madness that lies outside my front door. Miami is as rough as Los Angeles—a cruel, vicious, and unforgiving place where I don’t entirely fit in. At least on the West Coast, I could blend into the scene.

The first night in my new apartment, I met a Cuban woman living under the stairwell next to my front door. In short order, I hired her to clean up the aftermath of years of neglect from a landlady with dementia.

The building sat unoccupied for years before I arrived. Most of my time the first night was rousing the drunks and druggies from their spots amongst the empty, unfinished apartments and kicking them off the property.

Even though I myself have been homeless and on the streets, I never took refuge by squatting in someone else’s house. I felt no sympathy for them as I escorted them from the property with a promise of police involvement upon their return. Except for the refugee lady, I ran them all off. She hadn’t broken into any of the apartments. She just had her bedroll under the stairs. She also had a horrific raspy cough which worried me.

I offered her my couch in trade for cleaning, and she agreed. She was a blessing, I had no food, or food stamps, for that matter. She willingly proffered her SNAP card and we went to the local supermarket. Other than the peculiar odor of meat about to turn bad and every single sign being in Spanish, I welcomed the nourishment.

Later that first night under a roof I went for a walk directly into Miami’s version of Skid Row. The men and women lined the city sidewalks on layers of scavenged cardboard. The smell of urine burning my nostrils as I walked the streets I once slept on just a month earlier.

You can tell those who have formed street families. They sleep in groups, usually divided by types of drug addiction or race. It’s a human survival instinct whether they realize it or not. The acrid odor from the vapor of crack cocaine wafts from one group of people and the sickly sweet smell of alcohol from another. All are in various clusters along a darkened stretch of street right off of downtown Miami.

It really doesn’t matter what major city you’re in. The dynamic is the same, whether your homelessness is caused by drugs or alcohol or mental illness or just sheer bad luck. You will find the group which is best suited to you. (I speak of the street-dwelling homeless. The most chronic of the homeless.)

I sit on the stairwell outside my apartment and smoke a hand-built cigarette made from the tobacco of cheap cigars rolled into thin graph paper. I know I am still vulnerably housed, just barely surviving, yet I am more at peace than I have been in year.