Always look on the bright side of life
I was born on Sunday August 18 1968 in Utrecht, a mid-sized city right in the heart of the Netherlands. I was the last of 8 children in a family where the father had left just 3 months before I was born. Needles to say I was one to many for my mother and thus my first 4 years where years of hunger and neglect until I got “rescued” by child protective services and placed in an orphanage / children’s home where I stayed for about 6 months until I got placed in a foster family.
I got lucky. My foster parents where kind and loving people who treated me as their own son. I got send to a good school, was a member of the boy scouts and a show band. Always enough to eat, toys to play with and after a few years even a little sister entered the picture. she was also from an orphanage although I was only in foster care while she got adopted. Not that my foster parents didn’t want to adopt me, it was just not possible at the time for several reasons.
Life was good for a while although at very young age I made some decisions I probably shouldn’t have made like starting to smoke the Mary Jane when I was 13 (and regular smoking about a year later) and starting to gamble at 15. For a long time I blamed the fact that I was a foster child for this behavior but in retrospect I can say that this was just a good excuse of course.
Then at age 15 I got the urge to find out where I came from, who my parents really where, what my sisters and brothers looked like…. well… I guess the normal questions a foster kid is asking him/herself at a certain point in life. I wish I never had done that. Yes I found my family and dang, was I in for a shocker.
Being raised in a decent Catholic family I was totally unprepared for what I met. An (in my eyes) A-social family, uneducated, rough, a sister married to an ex-husband of my mother. Another sister married to a Muslim (not that I have anything against Muslims ), brothers that where borderline criminal (mind you, this was through the eyes of a “child” that had lived in a protective environment for the previous decade) and somehow I reacted to this in a way that was extreme.
I started to gamble even more, smoke harder stuff, I started to lie about almost everything, dropped out of school and started to wander the streets. My parents (foster.. but I always called them just parents) had no idea what to do with me and they decided that a special housing project where I could learn to handle my own affairs would be the best place for me to send and so they did.
Well… it wasn’t my time to learn to be a responsible independent person yet, all I wanted was to party, have fun and do whatever I dang well pleased and thus the project was a waste of time. Both for me and that project. So after about 6 months they showed me the door and I went homeless for real for the very first time in my life.
Being homeless was awful…..the first days…until I met some street-wise people who were willing to show me the ropes. I quickly learned where to go for food, shelter and money. How to get social benefits in several places at the same time, where to find the shops that had their produce out on the street before opening hours (you had that back then, shops that had fruit, veggies and bread behind the store out in the open for me to take) and so I got a “free pass” to live my life “however I dang well pleased” I really have been extremely lucky… I never got caught and because of that I have a blank slate till this day.
I traveled several years all through the country and Europe. I have seen the sunrise on Spanish beaches, picked grapes and oranges, worked for carnivals and the circus. I slept in fancy hotels when money allowed and in haystacks when it didn’t but in all my years “on the street” I maybe slept 4 weeks really on the streets. For the rest of the time there was always a place to lay my head, be it that haystack, an abandoned factory, a shelter or a shack. And above all… I always kept a positive outlook at the world.
I can tell you stories about going to bed in an old factory with a “junky” laying down next to me just to wake up with a dead person next to me, or about how several bosses kept denying me my pay for work done but that would make this article up to 4 times as long and is better kept for another occasion so let me just say that being on the streets was not all fun and games.
Fast forward to 1990, I went to Arnhem, a Dutch city near the border with Germany. A friend told me there was loads of work and in fact, he was right. I worked for a temp agency at a company that was in the business of making garbage dump sites “environmental friendly” Basically what they did was layering the ground with a sort of thick plastic that stopped the crap from sipping into the ground. Best job I ever had. We had to work from sun up to sun down but because it always was “on location” the company paid for a hotel and every day I got 25 guilders for meals. Since I did this together with that friend, we had 50 guilders and really only needed like 20 a day so in fact our boss paid for our marijuana as well. After 5 days of work we came back in Arnhem, went to our bank to collect the pay we earned the week before and then started to party until it was time to go to work again.
(yes they deserve a plug from me, You have a company in Holland in need of Technical Textile.. click the logo and check out their business)
Of course since this was a temp job it ended after a few months and since I am not a saver I ended up with nothing and on the streets again. Lucky for me I had gotten some connections in one of the coffee shops in Arnhem and they offered me a car that had no engine anymore to sleep in and after a few days they even got me a small room which I paid for by doing chores in the shop and around the house in the beginning and after I got social services I paid a small rent. Idiot that I am I fekked that up by being a bit….greedy… when it came to selling the greens (which was one of the things I had to do in the shop of course) and I had to flee (literally, don’t mess with drug dealers) Arnhem and went back to Utrecht
By now we have progressed to 1994 and we had a particular cold winter in the Netherlands and nowhere near enough sleeping places for the homeless. So me and a couple of friends decided to take things in our own hands and we squatted a place and turned it into a shelter. We did an excellent job I must say, we even made it on the mainstream news programs and since we where smart enough to do it in the Xmas season the city government didn’t dare to kick us out. It went very well, we had around 50 guests every night, we provided meals, had a sick bay and after a few weeks we made it into an official foundation with me as one of the founding members and member of “the board”. We even won two prices for volunteer organizations within our first year. I have worked there for a good 2 or 3 years until I met my current wife. I will address the shelter story more in-depth in following blog as well.
The light in my eyes, love of my live and thorn in my side my wife
When I met my wife, I had just returned from a well-earned vacation to Israel and had just started running night shifts in the shelter again. One evening a girl who was a guest with us got a “love letter” from somebody and I heard Lijda (yep.. that’s her name) sighing..”I never get love letters” . Since night shifts are kind of boring and I had nothing useful to do I figured, you know what I write you a “love letter”
In this letter I explained to her the reason I wrote it but at the end I added that although it was not my first intention.. I would not mind exploring the possibility of us getting together. Well, she didn’t mind that either and we decided to try to see. Little could I know that less than 3 months later I would go down on my knees and asked her to marry me and she would respond with yes.
Now, I stepped into the shelter project with the idea that it would bring me an easy way to have a bed and breakfast while at the same time helping some other homeless friends as well. Never it was my intention to use it as means to get of the streets indefinitely, heck..I liked that freedom and was fully planning to one day go back and re-start my traveling But you know? I follow the principle that a woman does not need to be on the streets if she is with me. The fact that I don’t mind doesn’t mean that she has to feel the same and so we decided that it was time to find a permanent solution.
Now you must understand that being homeless is like an addiction and in a way has it’s own “twelve step program”. It can be 6 or 14 steps as well but the same first step as with any addiction. “acknowledge you have a problem that you can not solve without proper help” which trails of course step 2 “seek professional help” There is nothing more difficult for an addict then to acknowledge his problem and to seek help. Most of us have a healthy distrust and dislike for “social workers”, especially those “hugger types” (in Dutch we call them goat wool sock types because they seem to wear them a lot), those people who went to social studies thinking they can change the world while they never actually met the people they going to help, think we are all piteous, can’t think for our own and are helpless in general. They often work according to “what they learned from the books” thinking they do good while actually not having a clue at all.
We found an organization that was willing to help us with our financial startup and with a little help from the N.O.I.Z (the night shelter) we where able to rent an apartment in one of the suburbs of Utrecht. This worked all very well and after 3 years of being engaged we decided to get married. Our wedding was great, we had a nice wedding dress for my wife (red) and I had a beautiful cream tuxedo (which was actually about 2 sizes to big and tightened with a safety-pin on the back side), a nice wedding cake, a great diner and a lot of guests both homeless and family. AND they mingled together very well I must say. I will never forget how my mother was dancing with “ome Kees” (Uncle Kees) one of the most well-known among the homeless and street paper sellers in town. A woman of good upbringing dancing with a hobo…. it was awesome Unfortunately I don’t have any wedding pictures left, you will learn why.
After a few years in our new home, the organization that helped us with our finances cut us loose, we had to do it ourselves. Something I had never done before and something they didn’t learn me either. Of course this went haywire… within a few months I had a debt for rent, electricity and water and to make matters worse Lijda started to get problems with walking. These health problems got worse by the day and although the doctors searched and looked, nothing could be found. However it still got worse and worse and after about 6 months Lijda ended up in a wheelchair because even a few steps became a huge problem for her.
It soon went downhill from there and after a little while we got shut off from water and electricity. Now luckily I got a little wiser then I was before and I asked for help from a neighborhood Centre and although it was not really what they normally did they went out of their way to make sure my wife got a place in a sick bay of the Salvation army (you can’t leave a disabled wife in a house without heat, water and electricity, that’s just plain wrong) meanwhile I stayed in the house…..until they kicked me out due to the rent not being paid in time and I was homeless again.
I stayed a while in one of the shelters in Utrecht (I couldn’t go to “my own” shelter, pride got in the way ) meanwhile working with the Salvation Army to “fix” the problem. They where able to find a place for my wife with the promise that as soon as it was possible I would get a place there as well which happened about 2 months later.
While all of this was going on, my “brother from another mother” who was also a former homeless, had started “stichting straat advocaat Utrecht (Street lawyer foundation Utrecht) which had as purpose to help those homeless that had trouble with city and social services, where booted from shelters for something silly, help with income and more of those things that are completely normal for “housed” people. Since I was knowledgeable with computers I joined his organization to do some network and system admin duty’s soon followed by joining one of the projects of the foundation called “Amoras”
Amoras was bro’s initiative (actually, the N.O.I.Z was also his idea, unfortunately things happened which caused him not to be present in the founding period. The complete N.O.I.Z story and Amoras story probably will be told in another blog)
During a food festival cooking some lamb, that’s me seen on the back
Same festival, Bro showing his ribs
Amoras was all about enabling the homeless and poor to have at least a few hot meals each week. We cooked 3 times a week for about 100 people, everybody regardless of where he/she came from was welcome and the costs for them where 0. Although it wasn’t “Gordon Ramsey” food we provided good nutritious and yummy food which was well received by our guests. Basically bro was the chef since he had been send to cooking school when he was in the army, I was his sous chef and then we had 2 or 3 friends that helped us chopping veggies and doing mise en place (for those not knowing this phrase, it’s french and has nothing to do with mise or places it means making things ready). Meanwhile in the “dining room” we had some friends handing out the food , coffee and tea. We have done this for about 3 years until the city council stopped the sponsoring in favor of a Christian group that promised to invest (but never did)
Meanwhile me and my wife where living at this organization where we had our own rooms, Lijda got help with her “new” disability and we got renewed help with getting out of the financial problems. We have lived there for a good 4 years while getting back on our feet. I must say I had some good times there but I was happy when after a few years they came to us telling they had an apartment for us where we could live indefinitely. It had an elevator specially for wheelchairs, a nice balcony and best of all, it was situated right on the border of one of the biggest canals in the country. right on the edge of town but still close to everything we could need like a shopping mall, hospital and public transport.
That high-rise right on the water front is where I live and following picture is the view I have when standing on my balcony
And so we are completing this “short” version of my life. My wife and I are nearing our 15th marriage anniversary, we have become debt free and basically enjoy live. We have kind of given up on finding out what is wrong with my wife (although a recent conversation with Shaun from http://prayingforoneday.wordpress.com/ has given us some new ideas to pursuit), we have a cat, friends and are slowly getting out of this homeless surroundings. Lesson learned I have still kept my financial aid person to help me make sure all bills and we still have food when the month is nearing it’s end. But for the rest we are on our own and doing well.
Like I said, being homeless is like an addiction and the bad part of getting clean is the following: If you have been an addict for (say) 5 years, your road to recovery takes at least 10 years. If you have been homeless for 5 years the same is true…. me and my wife have been homeless for over 15 years so logic tells us our recovery could take up to 30 years, we are not in the safe zone just yet. However… to get back to the title of this blog… Always look on the bright side of life. We have gone through hell and back, we have grown and learned. We have become older, wiser, more responsible and above all more in touch with ourselves. In the end it all comes down to choices. How do you choose to live your life and how to make it better. Even when in deep doo doo you have the choice to do something about it but maybe you need to swallow some pride and ask for help. This counts for many situations, not only for those homeless and/or addicted. Together we stand strong and with a positive outlook on life the help will be found.
Some of the things mentioned in this blog will be elaborated more in future blogs, maybe I will even tell some of the things that didn’t make it to this blog. Some events and/or persons I have left out due to the fact that privacy is a good thing and me posting things others can recognize and fit on to certain persons is something I like to avoid.
I thank you for reading this and hope to see you again for another blog, lots of love also from my wife to all that read this
Mavadelo aka Martin