A few days after Christmas, my older brother moved into a new apartment in downtown Corvallis, a bucolic college town in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Even after living there for half a year, Andrew was a little reluctant to have me visit. He was falling behind in a role-playing computer game he commits to for months at a time, he said. He didn’t think he would be able to tidy the place up. I didn’t care, I assured him.
The intercom system didn’t work, so I slipped in as someone else left his building and texted him to come get me. In the hallway, he passed the woman who lives in the next apartment over. “How’s it going, neighbor?” he said with a friendly lilt. It’s nice having neighbors, Andrew said. You see them in the hallways.
Andrew opened the door and we walked into the first walled domicile my brother has occupied in 25 years.
Since he was a teenager, Andrew has been homeless. Mostly he has lived in a tent, in a hidden camp shrouded by blackberry bushes, whether the temperature is zero degrees or 100. He stacked mattresses atop pallets to keep rats from nesting in them and ate at soup kitchens. Sometimes we lived in the same city, a few miles away from each other, me in an apartment and him in the undergrowth.
Andrew has at times described his life as a choice, a rejection of a system that’s rigged. But it’s also true that he’s just never been able to manage by himself in the world, thanks largely to manic or depressive bouts that rob him of a good night’s sleep and the focus required to get through college, or to stay on top of an application for disability or housing benefits. He’s never had a girlfriend or a driver’s license, never left the United States. Now he had an apartment. I wondered what might change.
We were raised in Berkeley, California, by hippy parents who stumbled into marrying each other and having children. They did their best, but they could be erratic: permissive one day, punitive the next. I always believed my brother threw in the towel at trying to figure out the rules, retreating into a life behind a computer screen. He started smoking pot at 12 and was bullied in high school. Nobody saw him then as disabled or mentally ill. I saw him as just a kid who smoked too much weed and seemed to refuse to get his life together.
My parents tried many times to prop Andrew up again, only to see him slump. At 18, he dropped out of Berkeley high school. My dad had a strict rule that Andrew couldn’t live with him unless he was enrolled in school or working. My mom was softer, but ultimately they both refused to put him up indefinitely, or without signs of progress. They let him live in a tent in each of their yards for a few weeks at a time. He slept on friends’ couches, and then in a park up the street from my dad’s house.
We were mostly adversaries as kids, except in the rare moments we teamed up against our freewheeling parents. He taught me how to ride a bicycle, and he bought me my first album, Thriller. By the time he dropped out of high school, though, I judged Andrew for the kind of person he had apparently decided to become: lazy, a computer nerd, a stoner.
But one summer, Andrew wound up in Anacortes, a rural town jutting into the water north of Seattle, staying in what he described as a “little sort of lean-to build on a hill in some wilderness”. When the rains came, my dad showed up to get Andrew out of there. He found his son passively sitting in the rain, soaking wet. The image of him my dad described, of a person so dejected he wouldn’t seek shelter, has always stuck with me. It was the first time I can remember my judgment of him melting into empathy.
When I thought about Andrew living outside, what I felt was anxiety. I would often attribute my success as a journalist to a fear of failure, and of winding up in the same situation as Andrew. I worked hard because there was no safety net. If I ran out of money, I might be able to ride some couches for a few weeks, even a few months. But unless I found and held gainful employment, there was no one to bail me out or keep me afloat.
After years of trying to keep his reality out of my head, because it scared and saddened me, I finally decided I had to know more, and in 2009 I paid him a visit. On the outskirts of Corvallis, he led me to a camp in a clearing between some railroad tracks and a state highway. There was a small hill of trash next to a roomy tent containing his mattresses and nothing else. Like many homeless people, he didn’t dare leave anything of value at camp, which meant carrying everything he owned on his back. In consequence, he owned very little.
As we walked into the city, other homeless people who knew my brother and loved him called out from across the street: “Ace!” He told me he’d become a regular at karaoke, and begged me to go sing with him sometime. He didn’t panhandle, because nothing he needed to survive really required cash. He took me to the Grocery Outlet where he spends his food stamps and to the library where he spent many of the daytime hours, either reading books or surfing the internet.
He had lost everything he owned at least a dozen times, I learned that day. Once, another homeless man stole his backpack, and when Andrew confronted him, the man retaliated by burning his entire camp to the ground.
We tried to work out what differentiated the two of us, why one brother might “make it” while another winds up homeless. Neither of us came up with a great answer, except that he seems to be less afraid of consequences than I am. I might worry about losing my job because then I couldn’t pay rent. He doesn’t really plan very far ahead at all.
After a two-year wait for subsidized housing, Andrew finally received word that he could move into his new apartment, in a renovated hotel in Corvallis. For my mother especially, this was an enormous relief – she no longer has to worry about getting a grim call from the Benton County sheriff.
It took my brother four trips on the bus to get all of his possessions from his camp to his new home. He left behind his two six-man tents, one he used for storage and the other for sleeping. After half a lifetime of homelessness, he’s not so quick to relinquish a spot that feels safe. “I’m keeping it,” he says. “For backup.”
On the way to Corvallis, I wondered how a person who’d never really had his own apartment would furnish one.It was nearly 100 degrees outside when I arrived, but in the apartment, the temperature was perfect, thanks to a ductless heat pump that hangs just below the living room ceiling. It is a basic, carpeted one-bedroom place with a cramped kitchen, the windows facing the heart of downtown and the Willamette river.
In the bedroom, there’s a bare mattress on a frame. There are no sheets on the bed because he prefers his sleeping bag. “I’m just used to sleeping bags, I guess,” he says.
He spends most of his time on the couch in the living room, with one of the only other pieces of furniture – a computer desk – pulled up to it, such that the desk sits awkwardly in the center of the living room.
The kitchen cabinets are crammed with bags of bulk food he buys with food stamps or from food banks. Most of the dishes came from our mother. The most expensive appliance he owns is a French press, which cost $14 at Goodwill.
For me, learning that Andrew’s 25 years of homelessness were coming to such a sudden end felt profound, even surreal. But when I asked Andrew about how his life was different now, his answers at first struck me as glib.
The best part of apartment living, he said, was being able to cook. He now prepares his own breakfasts, lunches and dinners; mostly burritos, some pasta with pesto.
“Have you seen these fucking tortillas they have at WinCo?” Andrew asked me, holding up a package of the largest package of tortillas I have ever seen. “They’re massive.”
“It’s been great to eat ice cream,” he added. “Before, if I got a pint, I couldn’t eat more than half, and then the rest would melt.”
Andrew has always found joy in things like this, things I find trivial. That’s partly why I have a hard time relating to him.
It didn’t occur to me until weeks afterwards that Andrew is focused on simple pleasures because to him, they aren’t simple. For people who live in homes, having a meal is as easy as going to the refrigerator. For someone like Andrew, not having a refrigerator meant being unable to store anything that might spoil. If he managed to cook something, he had nowhere to keep leftovers. Being able to get clean when you want to, or using a sanitary, private toilet – these are not things Andrew takes for granted.
In the long term, I’d love to see Andrew find some kind of a calling. But for now, after so many years on the streets, he won’t be sleeping outside in an Oregon winter, and the things that might seem small are to be savored.
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