“You have that look of a homeless person.”


Zephyr-Rose Poe is a queer, disabled, unhoused person who has recently moved cross-country to the Orlando-area. Zephyr has previously written and published two books: A Butterfly’s Wings, a book of poetry centered around feminism, queerness, and mental health, as well as The Adventure of It All, a two-part memoir about traveling around the world in a wheelchair. Zephyr’s pronouns are they/them.

Below we present part two of the story Zephyr-Rose started last week about experiencing homelessness.

“You have that look of a homeless person. You look lost.”

The woman telling me that was also in a wheelchair, in the waiting room of a shelter. We were both there needing beds. I had just come out from speaking with one of the employees. There were only top bunks available, and the shelter refused to move anyone to a top bunk so that I could have a bottom bunk. I had paused in the waiting room, unsure of what to do next. I was officially on the streets for the first time in my life.

Before I had been called in for the intake process, the woman in the other wheelchair and I had a conversation. She had been on the streets for years. She hadn’t eaten in 3 days. All of her clothes and her food stamp card had been stolen. Her leg was broken and in a cast. She’d talked with another guy in line about stabbings and shootings that had happened in that area. He had mentioned that his phone had been stolen multiple times. I was horrified. If I couldn’t get into the shelter, was all my stuff going to be stolen? Was I going to be shot or stabbed?

I was already burdened with the questions of where to sleep when I’m in an electric wheelchair and where am I going to go to the bathroom? I can’t squat. Where am I going to charge my wheelchair? It takes 8-14 hours to fully charge. How am I going to keep my wheelchair dry? It’s not like a car—it can’t get wet or it could stop working.

Then I found out that those questions were going to be answered quickly. I knew I couldn’t stay in the waiting room all day, so I decided to go to the library. At least it was air conditioned and quiet so I could think. I cried all the way to the bus stop. While I waited, I replied to a friend who had messaged me, asking if I’d gotten a bed at the shelter. I heard a loud sound and looked up. There was a man crossing the street toward me, shouting at me. I hurried and shoved my phone in my bra. When he got closer, he told me that he thought I was someone he knew and then he walked away. I’m convinced that he saw my phone and wanted it, but was that fear speaking?

From my conversations with people in the line at the shelter, you can never be too careful and you can never trust another person on the streets. Don’t let anyone see your phone. Don’t let anyone borrow your food stamp card. Don’t hand someone money to go buy you something. Don’t be generous. Those are the lessons I learned that morning.

When I got on the bus, the driver told me that she couldn’t hook my wheelchair up with the duffle bag hanging on the back. I struggled to try to lift the heavy bag up and off of the back of my wheelchair. Everyone, including the driver, just watched. It was humiliating. When I was done, I cried. I’d been on 3 buses that morning and didn’t have an issue. But suddenly, I was a person being picked up across the street from the shelter and I had luggage. I could no longer pass as a tourist. I had the look of a ‘homeless person’.

When I got downtown, I decided against the library. I was half-delirious from the heat and the trauma of becoming truly unhoused. I found a fountain with a concrete ledge to sit on. I moved from my wheelchair to the ledge, so that I could cool off in the shade. I got on my phone to distract myself. I was surrounded by people everywhere I went and my social anxiety and PTSD were threatening a meltdown. I just needed to exist without expectations for a moment.

I was there for less than five minutes before a man in a suit walked up to me and asked if I had any business in the building next to the fountain. I told him no. He told me to leave, because it was private property. Would he have done the same thing if I was dressed better? If I wasn’t bogged down with luggage?

Did I truly have that lost look in my eyes?

I quickly booked the cheapest motel that I could get to in under two hours on the bus. I paid for it out of my very small apartment fund. I got to the room and broke down. The room smelled heavily of cigarettes, the bed was broken, there was black mold on the mattress, and there were possible bullet holes in the door of the building. I sobbed myself to sleep.

The next morning, I woke up and found a baby gecko stuck in a glue trap the motel had placed in the bathroom. I cried while I worked to free it with only a plastic fork and a mayo packet from McDonald’s. I did it! The poor creature lost his tail, though apparently that’s normal in a stressful situation. I took him outside and set him free, hoping he would survive.

Did you know that lizards without a tail struggle with decreased mobility, are unable to communicate well with other lizards, and are often shunned by others of their species? It sounds a lot like those living on the streets, doesn’t it?

They say a lizard that drops its tail should survive just fine, but they are seen as weaker by other lizards. They’re bullied. In the wild, they can very well die. Do you know what prevents all of that? Aside from not putting a lizard in a stressful enough situation that it drops its tail, keeping it in a terrarium until it heals and (depending on species) grows a new tail.

Your donation below will support volunteer teams helping to provide shelter and other services to people like Zephyr in areas experiencing extreme heat.