With a Bachelor's & a Backpack

My Grandfather had a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering. He taught classes, was involved in the state legislature and founded a business. My Dad has an M.B.A. I always felt my parents had great expectations for me. At times, my dreams were greater than their expectations. But, throughout most of my adult life they would probably just have liked to see me straighten up and fly right. I have hit rock bottom several times in my life, and over time my family have learned to quit catching me.

Brian Schmarje video linkThe first time I had a taste of a homeless shelter was when I was 18. I got an apartment with a buddy of mine from the Our Primary Purpose treatment center in Des Moines. Because of the energy of the place being a happening, the poorly structured apartment began to buckle. After the heater, the stove and the window in the apartment broke, I ended up at the Door of Faith. The Door of Faith was only seven dollars a week and I couldn’t afford that at the time. From there I went to the Bethel Mission, a less desirable shelter that reeked of urine and vomit. I spent a week in jail on purpose to avoid being in the cold. After that, mom and dad took me in.

My parents gave me six days to get out of the house after me and my buddy hitchhiked to Chicago to see the Grateful Dead. This was around 1985. I ended up in a halfway house in Waterloo. I was massively depressed and they didn’t know what to go with me so they suggested I go to the Mental Health Institute (MHI) in Independence, a mental hospital run by the Iowa Department of Human Services. I was put on strong antidepressants.

Since I was all happy because of the antidepressants, the first thing I did after I got out of the MHI was buy some psychedelic mushrooms from someone at the dorms on the campus of University of Northern Iowa. I was out of it for a couple weeks and needed to be committed. I then spent two years in either state mental hospitals or the Muscatine County home.

After a tedious process of having my release date pushed farther into the future because of some infraction of the rules, I was released from the county home. I didn’t want to go to college at first, but it seemed like the thing to do. Everyone else was working on a degree in something. I started out in journalism but ended up and taking my time getting my Bachelor’s degree in English from The University of Iowa. Part of the time I was living rent-free in my grandfather’s 3,000 square foot home by myself and working for my dad.

I planned to settle down get married and work for my dad for the rest of my life. Like the best laid plans of mice and men, things didn’t go that way. I ended up crazy and then drunk all the time. Dad said you got to go and I ended up in the Miriam House in Davenport. There were two parts to that shelter. Some guys slept on the floor on mats. If you were in the shelter’s program, a set of rules and weekly meetings, you got to sleep upstairs in a room with about six guys on bunk beds. I chose the latter.

I was full of self pity. I thought my life was really over at 30. I was obsessed over the events that happened with some women in Muscatine because no one would believe my story. I started writing them all down. I had been not writing for a long time and I had a very romantic notion about writing a novel in a homeless shelter. I would get all obsessed with my past and how important it was to me but didn’t think anyone would care. I got bogged down in the writing process because it wasn’t really creative per se. So I would go out and get drunk. I would try to pick up where I left off but it was useless.

I met Alice when I downed a fifth of vodka in two hours and ended up in jail. We were both waiting to talk to a counselor. She invited me out for coffee. It wasn’t long before we were reading The Brothers Karamozov together. She was like a guiding light to me. We read books and discussed life and literature. I got a job at Palmer College of Chiropractic doing janitorial work and was able to move out of the shelter. Then I got my first article published.

I managed to keep jobs and stay in rooming houses. Back in 1997, you could get a room for $250 a month and share a kitchen and bathroom with six other people. Alice became a mentor and a friend. If the possibility of a romantic relationship was not so awkward, I wouldn’t have bothered to pursue other women. I always kept my eye on my writing career but got in the most trouble when I pursued women.

Soon I began to have problems with women on a grand scale. So I decided to pursue the one who got me to come out of the house in the first place, an assistant defense attorney. I sent three letters to the courthouse and they sent the feds to my work place. My experiences with law enforcement personnel were bizarre and incomprehensible. There was no restraining order, as my letters were non-threatening. I thought all kinds of paranoid things were happening–no one would believe them–and was just waiting for the white van to show up and take me away. So I checked into the hospital for a break. When I got honest about my story, they thought there was more wrong with me.

I pretty much gave up on women and decided to pursue my writing career. I got a job at a newspaper. It was in some small town in Iowa where I didn’t know a soul. It was painful and it only lasted six months. I went out to Utah for a couple months to work in a Zion National Park. It’s was an nice vacation and I wrote a few articles for a small paper in Utah. Then I went back to mom and dad’s.

There I was, 38, living at my parent’s house and delivering pizza for Domino’s Pizza. I was depressed out of my mind and I couldn’t deal with my parents. One night I made $50 dollars in tips, got a cheap hotel room and a bottle. Once I started drinking and using drugs, who knows when it would have ended. I knew it wouldn’t be long till my folks would say hit the road jack. I figured if I were going down, I might as well max out a credit card on crack. I stayed at a friend’s house while I was doing this. I went through $10,000 in about three weeks.

When I hit the shelter in Muscatine, they were pushing disability. There were a lot of guys in their late thirties there who had worked most of their lives with a mental illness and found they couldn’t work. I refused to believe it even though I filled out the paper work. At the time I was facing at least two years to convince the government that I was too loony to hold a job.

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I got a job at the Lone Tree Reporter and eventually became the editor. I was overworked and burnt out quickly. Then I met the guys that had the funds and I still had my car. We were driving back and forth to Davenport, buying crack. I would get clean for a while and I would try to stay away from those guys but I kept coming back.

In the Muscatine Center for Social Action shelter, I’ve lived in the gym on a mat and I’ve lived upstairs but they won’t let me stay upstairs anymore. I’ve left to stay with friends and I’ve been asked to leave. I stayed at the John Lewis shelter in Davenport for a while, but they kept letting me come back to the shelter in Muscatine.

After spending three years in the shelter with no confidence in my ability to hold a job and no real hope of getting disability, I tried to swallow a bunch of pills even though I knew they wouldn’t kill me. Then a rumor about the woman that got me in trouble eight years ago started circulating and I thought it was over and done with. I had to move around. I hitchhiked to Iowa City and it was so easy that I was going to take off to Berkeley. But I decided to stick around.

Like a friend of mine said, I wasn’t homeless, I was camping. I slept wherever I thought I could get away with it. One night in the middle of the summer, I was going to sleep naked on a roof by the gay bar. I didn’t know it was a gay bar, and unfortunately some girl talking on her cell phone saw me and I had to go somewhere else. Sometimes the mosquitoes would be so bad I couldn’t sleep.

I started out with just the clothes on my back and a food stamp card. When my clothes got too funky, I changed at either the local thrift store or the Salvation Army. I tried to avoid the crowds at the free lunches at Wesley House and the Salvation Army in Iowa City. But I figured out if I got there early enough I could beat the lines. Gradually I got a backpack and some clothes. I got soap, shampoo, toothpaste and a toothbrush from the Johnson County Shelter House. I took my showers at the Rec Center.

Then a guy turned me on to a porch where a bunch of guys sleep. It was okay for a while and then it got a little too rowdy. My bag was stolen and it had my medication in it. I decided with no meds and winter coming on I should head back to Muscatine.

Somewhere along the line I had taken to prayer because I really had nothing better to do; this was when I was at the Jesus Mission in Muscatine. Some of the strangest things started happening. Some of those scary drunks that could hardly talk and would come in all beat up, started talking to me because they knew I had been there.

My experiences of living in shelters and working some 20 jobs in 17 years have been like a trip through the wilderness. Before my life was either drugs or books and lots of isolation. I hardly ever talked to anyone. Now I will say Hi to most anyone. I see all these college students with cell phones, iPods, laptops, and I can’t even afford a pack of cigarettes. Of course I should probably quit before I’m carrying around an oxygen tank. I’ve been smoking for longer than a lot of these kids have been alive.

I headed back to Muscatine for the winter. I wonder what those people sleeping down on the ped mall are going to do in this cold. I know I used to fight the system at the shelter in Muscatine because I was so much smarter and their rules were stupid. But, now they even let me pass the time in Iowa City for a week.

It’s kind of a trade off. In a way, I wish I would have got the girl and settled down with the family business. But I would have missed a lot of lessons in life. I never
would have gotten my first article published. I wouldn’t have pursued writing as passionately as I have. Being in a relationship would have tied me down and I never would have met Alice, who is a genuinely special person.

If there is any truth to the rumor I may still get the girl or maybe not. A relationship is not as important to me now. I feel at 42 I am just coming into form with my writing and who knows where it will lead me. I can say that I have met a lot of people that I wouldn’t have met if my life had turned out differently. I used to look down on some of those people. I’ve met some unexpectedly weird people who are just being themselves. They have brought to me expressions of personality that I wouldn’t have found in the academic or business world. My life is much richer for having met them.

Brian Schmarje’s story gives a voice to what many witness with blind eyes. This is only his story–no one else’s–and whatever similarities to the statistics of substance abuse and mental health issues that pervade Iowa’s homeless community are examples and not prerequisites.

The Johnson County Shelter House is currently located at 331 N. Gilbert Street. If you are interested and able to help your homeless neighbors, contact the Shelter House staff at 319-351-0326 or look for more information at