Maya Noble is a bubbly, intelligent, kind and well-dressed 20-year-old woman. At a glance, many don’t realize that she sleeps on park benches, brushes her teeth in public restrooms and gets some of her meals from a Jimmy-John’s alley dumpster.
There are many different types of homelessness, and some of its forms go unnoticed. Families live out of cars. Single adults and teens live in shelters or hop from one friend’s couch to the next. Each one does not represent the stereotypical homeless person who is dirty, poorly dressed and crouching on a street corner.
Noble lived on the streets of St. Joe, Michigan, for many months. Although she now stays in a shelter, residents are not allowed to stay more than 90 days. She will eventually be back out on the streets or move on to another shelter.
“[Being homeless] is kinda like surviving,” Noble said. There’s a learning curve to it.
The goodness of others
Noble found that being homeless, at least in St. Joe, can really bring out the goodness in people.
In her first weeks on the streets, Noble was concerned that her age and gender might put her in danger at night. She didn’t know how to tell who or what might be dangerous.
“Overall, people were nice. Like I would sometimes wake up with money in my shoes to go get food, or sometimes people would give me their leftovers or hand me cash and whatnot,” she said. “That’s how I survived the first few weeks before learning where to dumpster dive for food.”
The goodness of others is something that Noble adamantly returns to over and over again when she talks about life on the streets. In spite of the blisters, sunburn and dehydration that she suffers from in the summers or the cold in the winters, she always returns to the positives.
Almost everything she has comes from the generosity of other people. The bike store owner gave her a duffle bag and flashlights. The restaurant manager gave her new shoes. The passersby give her money for food. The endless network of people from a local church are dedicated to helping her back on her feet. Noble said she would have never come into contact with them had she not been homeless.
One person she met was a homeless man named Jeff.
“He says, ‘You look like a homeless person,’ and goes back to feeding the birds — he uses Jimmy-John’s bread to feed the birds,” said Noble. “But he turns back to me and goes, ‘You’re not homeless are you?’ I go ‘Yeah’. He goes, ‘Wow, you look really nice for being a homeless person’”
Jeff gave her advice about what dumpsters to find food in and when to search them. He also told her who she should avoid and offered his support in keeping an eye out for dangerous and unfamiliar people.
Many homeless people in the area were familiar with each other. They looked out for one another. When someone new showed up and seemed suspicious, like perhaps involved with drugs or some other illegal activity, they would let each other know. Noble is supported by a number of different homeless men who protect her and are kind to her like Jeff was.
Dumpster diving was key to Noble’s survival on the street, and she has it worked down to a science. Noble knows the hours of restaurants, when the food is thrown out, which workers are friendly, which aren’t, who is okay with her eating and who would not be.
“The Jimmy-John’s was right by where I slept so I would just go there, they close about 9:00, so I would go there like 10:00 to get food,” she stated, nonchalantly.
Jimmy-John’s has a policy, like many other chain restaurants, to throw out all of their food at the end of every work day. “Panera donates their leftovers,” Noble noted.
The truly concerning difficulties, though, don’t come readily to mind for those with homes. Animals are the real problem. Noble said opossums, which “own the streets,” are quite dangerous and will attack you. Raccoons will steal food and clothing and any belongings you might have with you.
“It is terrifying to wake up with a raccoon fight by your head… But the skunks are friendly,” Noble said.
“I was sleeping there wrapped up in my blanket with my stuff next to me. My bookbag gets knocked off my stuff and onto my head, and I feel a shoe coming off my foot. I thought someone was trying to rob me or something. So I get up, like, with my fists ready to fight. I look down and there is a stupid masked trash panda sitting there with my shoe in his mouth… It takes off towards Main Street…
“So I’m yelling at this raccoon at three in the morning apparently loud enough that a police officer who was about to take off for patrol sat there just laughing at me. Apparently he got two other officers to come out and see what was going on. I’m still out there, not realizing that they were watching, yelling at this raccoon, ‘Come back here! I’m gonna skin you! I’m gonna turn you into a cream-soda-peach-cobbler-barbeque-sauce-pulled-pork!’ “The raccoon finally drops my shoe after 20 minutes of this fight, and that’s when I hear the officers dying from laughter.”
Noble also became familiar with the local police officers. When a new homeless person comes into an area, they are often questioned by the police and viewed with suspicion, she said. The police sometimes kick new homeless people out of public areas where they might have found a dry or warm place to sleep.
Eventually, though, the police officers become more familiar with the local homeless people and are more lenient, often offering their help.
Being a homeless woman
Noble has had some problems with other homeless people. Many older men who came over from the neighboring city of Benton Harbor would harass her and offer her a place to get drunk because she appeared to be easy prey. She quickly learned how to deal with such men, though, by loudly telling them off, showing how much trouble she could be.
At another point she’d been keeping her things under a bridge on a series of rainy days that was likely the territory of some boys. They trashed her things and burned her feminine products.
Noble said one of the most difficult and most necessary things to get as a homeless woman are feminine products. These are valued as much as the need for food and water is.
Despite these difficulties, Noble said that in many ways, it is easier to be a homeless woman than a homeless man. People are more trusting of and willing to help a young woman. They are less likely to view a young woman as dangerous so she can get rides from people quite easily. Noble also dresses very well and presents herself as clean and intelligent so that people are far more willing to give her money for food. They perceive her as less of a risk compared to a poorly groomed man who they think might waste the money on drugs or alcohol.
Most of the help she’d received, Noble said, probably wouldn’t have been available to her if she had been a man.
In winter, living gets more difficult. Noble said she intended to live on the streets in the winter, too, but she did not know how to survive the freezing temperatures, find food when the dumpsters froze over and keep clean when the public restrooms were closed for the season.
But shelters come with their own problems. Shelters in Michigan are limited by law in how many people they can house and how long those people can stay.
At Noble’s shelter, people must stay at least 30 days and no longer than 90 days. Pretty much all shelters, Noble said, have a waiting list because they cannot take in many people and funds have been recently cut. In addition, the residents are required to fulfill a laundry-list of chores and expectations to be allowed to stay. Such expectations are generally aimed at motivating the residents to actively work to escape homelessness.
For someone like Noble, who suffers from frequent panic attacks but can’t afford the type of medical care needed to treat such problem, as many homeless people can’t, it can be difficult to meet those requirements. And it can be even more difficult to get a job when most applications for even the simplest of things require a home address and phone number. Noble has yet to even get a phone as the free phone program in her area closed before she got there.
These are only a few of the many roadblocks that come up again and again which make it so difficult to escape poverty, she said.
For the most part, however, Noble is optimistic and views her experience in a positive light.
“I definitely made a lot of friends while being homeless. I definitely would not trade out the homelessness for any other experience.”
Noble’s past situations may speak to why she views homelessness in such a positive light. In any event, she said could not have survived without the kindness of others she met living on the street.