Just over a year ago, Paul, a pseudonymous 32-year-old in the Midwest, found himself at a crossroads: pay rent and utilities, or pay off his debt. That debt, in fact, had landed him in court, which in turn had led to a third of each of his paychecks being garnished.
And so, he didn’t really have a choice: He’d have to go forego an apartment (and become homeless) in order to fight his way back into the black. Things started looking up, though, when he got a gig at a Fortune 500 company. But unfortunately, Paul was about to learn firsthand how powerless a good job is against the stigma of being homeless.
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Last fall, a company in my area that designs and manufactures CrossFit equipment was hiring temps for the holiday season at a good hourly wage. I had experience doing everything they were looking for, so I filled out the application on LinkedIn and got a call for an interview the next day.
That night, I spent what money I had on a hotel and did laundry so I was able to clean up and look presentable. I went to the interview, took a drug test and was told to come back for orientation. I was so excited — this finally felt like it might be my road out of homelessness.
The first day was pretty easy. I mostly learned how to use barcode scanners and about all the products, machinery and systems. That said, the warehouse was massive and it took a little over a week to learn to navigate, but I got it done. Most companies that work in large-scale distribution are pretty well standardized, so once you work in one, you kind of know how they all operate.
I was stoked about working for a manufacturer that prided itself on not outsourcing. Not to mention, it was one of the higher hourly wages I’ve ever made — enough to pay off some debt and start saving for a vehicle. Even better, the building had a gym and showers so I didn’t have to worry about starting to smell after a couple days.
My city has a lot of resources for the homeless, but I slept at the time — and still do — in a tent. I tried the shelters, but they were more of a nightmare than sleeping in the cold.
I went into work every day with the intention of not pissing off anyone so that I wouldn’t draw unwanted attention.
I kept to myself and arrived well before my shifts to shower and stay reasonably well-groomed.
I never spoke of being homeless because I didn’t want them to think that I’m untrustworthy, or any other negative connotation that could be derived from my telling the truth.
I had to lie on my application about my living situation and residence to get the job, which was wrong, but admitting that you’re homeless is more than enough for many companies to pass on your application — and you can’t afford to wait for a homeless-friendly employer.
Anyway, everything was fine for about a month.
I was collecting paychecks and starting to pay off my debt. I was even moved from stocking to quality assurance, so I was doing well and being cross-trained in multiple jobs. I began thinking about my future with the company. I was happy for the first time in a long time.
But then security noticed my routine of arriving early to shower despite never using the gym. They started telling people that they thought I was homeless, and that rumor became a game of “telephone.”
It got to the point where I was having anxiety attacks about it. I was so worried someone would out me based on how I looked or smelled. Worse yet, on my breaks, I’d roll tobacco because of how cheap it is. People started saying I was smoking weed and reported me to HR.
Luckily, management never took their claims seriously. I even twice offered to take a drug test, but they never took me up on it and just let me work.
My coworkers, however, never laid off. The rumors got worse, and security began following me on my breaks, or pressuring me about where I lived.
My anxiety got to the point where I was suffering multiple panic attacks. I finally went to management, apologized for wasting their time and left.
I was with the company for around three and a half months. I was paid for every hour I worked — plus all the overtime, which I’m grateful for — but it’s the only job I’ve ever had that I’ve been harassed like that. It was bizarre.
HR contacted me some weeks later asking if I was okay. Management didn’t even tell them that I’d verbally quit. In fact, security was telling people that I’d been fired. I don’t know what reasoning they gave, but I can make assumptions.
In retrospect, I wish I would have stuck it out or tried to find a resource to help me manage the anxiety.
I’m still in a tent. But I was in the Army National Guard and learned a bit about being outside for extended periods, so I’m comfortable — I’d go so far as to say I’m happy some days. I’ve even got some interviews coming up.
But I can’t say being harassed by my coworkers about being homeless hasn’t changed my perspective. I don’t believe I can go back to how I once perceived people to be. I’m more guarded than ever and have come to develop a misanthropic outlook.
At this point, I’m almost debt-free, but my goals have changed: Instead of returning to the life I once had, I’m going to start building a more solitary way of living.