For Todd Mauldin, one mock night of homelessness was enough to put things—family, addiction, life—into perspective.
Every time I’m homeless, which has been once a year for the last five years, the hardest part about sleeping in a cardboard box in a park is the random screaming that cuts through the late-night and early-morning darkness. The screams awaken me like a nightmare come to life, and I’m reminded of how damp and uncomfortable it is, in my crappy, taped-together cardboard shelter, and how thin my sleeping bag seems, and how bad my back hurts, and how exposed homeless people are who have to live like this all the time. My thoughts turn to my kids, especially my youngest son, who I notice has slithered out of his sleeping bag, wadded up into a little ball on the damp grass near my feet. Then I remember the security guards that we have watching over us, and the real homeless who aren’t so lucky. I grab my son, drag him back into his bag and hold him close as strangers scream in the darkness and sirens wail in the distance.
I thank God I’m just pretending to be homeless, along with 300 to 500 or so other people who gather every year in the late summer or early fall in Reno, Nevada (and other cities all across America), to participate in Cardboard Box City, a fundraiser for an outfit called Family Promise, which helps out homeless families with children in local communities. Attendees find people to sponsor their boxes (I think mine was a water-heater box this year, and we raised about $100 in donations from friends and Hellbusters fans), and then stay out all night in one. It’s sort of like a dance- or jogathon, except instead of dancing or running, you sleep in a cardboard box in a park. I’ve attended and played music at all the CBC events in Reno since 2005, and have managed to stay all night except in 2008 when it snowed and rained and I wimped out.
My oldest son, Devon, came with me to our first Reno CBC in 2005 when he was 12, and has attended every year since along with me, so the whole thing is pretty sorted out for him. But this year was my youngest son’s first CBC. Jackson is 8 and a half—old enough to take on the challenge but young enough so it’s still a lot to take in. He decorated our box with dry erase markers, dubbing the shelter “Fort Awesome” and drawing goofy pictures on the outside of it. I wrote a line from one of our songs on the side too. We had the meal they were handing out, bread and soup. Jackson’s not old enough to miss texting (they make us check our cell phones when we come in) or tv or video games. He treated it like an adventure.
Which usually I do, too. Even though CBC is designed to have a somber tone, with a vigil walk for the many homeless in our community who die due to violence or other reasons, it’s also kind of fun. There’s music and kids running around, and activities. Of course, it’s also a gig and I love to play. I’ve always enjoyed myself, because I love being with people who are trying to help people. But for some reason, this time, when it got dark and everybody else fell asleep, the feeling was different.
I think it had to do with my youngest son being there for the first time, in the box with me. When somebody across the river started screaming and it startled me from my sleep, and I saw him down there snuggled in a ball on the damp grass inside our box, I felt totally vulnerable. I learned through the descent into, and recovery from alcoholism, that “There but for the grace of God go I” isn’t just a platitude. There’s so little that actually separates people. There’s very little that separates me from the homeless we were raising funds for. I can’t say I’d never be homeless. All it would take is a few bad breaks. Bad choices. Or bad luck.
And if I was, and I had to find a way to keep my sons and me alive, what would I do? What could I do? I knew there would be coffee and donuts in the morning, but after that … what? They’d be kicking us out of the park at 7 a.m. Where would I go? How would I get clean, and get a job? If anything happened to me, what would happen to my boys? And if something happened to my sons, could I get the help I’d need?
Thoughts like that flew threw my head all night between bouts of fitful sleep.
The day did indeed dawn, however, and we crept out of our shelters and hovered around the coffee-and-doughnut table. We folded up our boxes neatly and picked up garbage and tried to leave no trace. We were out of the park by 7 a.m., and home by 7:30, just like every year before. And like every year before, my teenager was unaffected by sleeping on the ground, powered by the nuclear furnace of youthful teenage vigor, and my youngest was now a veteran, a little bleary, but still enthusiastic about the day ahead. I was my usual zombie-like wreck, with a sore back that even coffee and a return to my own home didn’t help.
I couldn’t shake the feeling I had in the box at night. What I was struggling with, I came to realize, was with the gift they had given us.
There was a thankfulness over the money we had raised for Family Promise. It was, of course, important to them and to the homeless families they help with the funds. That concept of helping others is easy for me to understand—raise money and give it away to charity, as a gift.
But even more than that, CBC gave us the context to see things differently; it doesn’t take much imagination to see how bad it could get when you’re in a cardboard box with your child, in a park, in the middle of the night. The vulnerability, the fear, the helplessness, and the difficulty in finding hope. It gave me the ability to point out things for my boys that I think they should learn: that whatever the circumstances, whatever the details, people are people, and people are precious … and there’s precious little that separates we who have some things from people who have almost nothing. And that the complex lessons of growing up may hinge on one’s ability to open up and be vulnerable to new experiences and perspectives. I can say without equivocation: spending a night in a cardboard box in a park with your child can change your perception forever … even as it changes the alignment of your spine. The older I get, the harder on my body it gets, and that’s one of the lessons, too. Wisdom doesn’t come without suffering a bit, and, as the great philosopher and stoner folk legend Todd Snider once sang, “nobody suffers like the poor people suffer.”
Still, I wondered why the boys didn’t seem to be as pensive as I was in the morning. It may be because they don’t know how much they have to lose. Yet.
—Image Shawn Perez/Photobucket