“You can’t sleep here!” Robin Ray heard this command so often as he lived through homelessness in communities across the United States that it became the title for his third book, You can’t sleep here: A clown’s guide to surviving homelessness.
Part memoir, part travel guide to surviving without a home in America, the book presents a compelling voice straight from the streets. We caught up with Ray to talk about his life and his writing last summer while he was living in transitional housing on Solid Ground’s Sand Point Housing campus.
“I’ve been meaning to write [this guide] for a while, because being on the street, you notice things. This guide is coming from someone who has been on the street, homeless in Nashville, Los Angeles, New York, Seattle and Long Island. I think I have a handle on homelessness, so that’s why I wrote that book.”
According to his blog, Ray was “born in sunny Trinidad & Tobago (and) emigrated to the U.S. when he was 12 years old. It didn’t take long for him to realize he had a penchant for the arts, specifically, music, drawing and literature. Often hampered with setbacks over the years, he nevertheless continued to work at his various disciplines. He has co-owned and worked at a recording studio in New York City, played in several rock bands, and has had his poems and short stories published in various magazines.”
“I’ve been homeless all my life really,” Ray told us. “I came to the US when I was 12. By the time I came here, I had moved around about seven times already.” The constant moving and some long-term health issues were factors in his homelessness and helped set the stage for Ray’s creative endeavors.
“I’m an outcast. That is probably the simplest way I could begin it. When I was a kid all the other kids are out there playing, and I wasn’t one of them because I’m mixed. I’m light-skinned; I grew up in a black community, so the kids made fun of me. I also had poor vision, which I didn’t know, and didn’t get glasses until I was 10 years old. So I had to do something while I was inside. I used to read a lot, and from reading I just started writing.”
A creative outlet
“As a kid I was writing songs. Music was popular, so I used to write songs. But I wasn’t a musician back then, so all I could do was write words. I was always just kind of a creative person, writing all the time.”
Ray’s fiction oeuvre gravitates toward mystery and horror genres, including his novella Tears of a Clown. Ray has a strong affinity for the clown character.
“I’ve been meaning to write [this guide] for a while, because being on the street, you notice things. This guide is coming from someone who has been on the street. … I think I have a handle on homelessness, so that’s why I wrote that book.” ~Robin Ray, author
“I am a clown – you know, for the abuses I’ve had, the homelessness I’ve had, and the drug addictions I’ve been through. You can imagine what else I have been through on the street, getting shot and beaten, getting stabbed. I should be serious. I should be morosely serious or dreadfully series, but I am not! I don’t know, everything is like a joke, or I just try not to take it so seriously. Everything is serious, but maybe it is a defense mechanism – my way of dealing with all the craziness.”
While living at Sand Point, Ray took advantage of Magnuson Park, especially enjoying the beach past the boat launch. In addition to the community of people living at the park, it provided solitude and respite that supported his writing. The survival guide gave Ray an opportunity.
“I’d been a musician a long time. I owned my own recording studio, and I was in bands in LA and New York, and I’ve done albums – but I walked away from it and concentrated on writing. Music was a collaborative process, but writing was solitary.”
A different approach to art & healthier living
“If I went back to music, I would have to go back to drinking, because that’s how you connect with people. That’s the problem, I stopped the drugging and drinking. The music and drinking and drugging went hand in hand. When I was writing, I was drinking; when I was performing I was drinking; when I was connecting with people, I was drinking. It was just too much.”
Last fall, Ray relocated to Forks, WA, which he thought would provide the “small and quiet” life to support his writing. But cramped living quarters (a trailer), the unrelenting rain, and the isolation of being one of the few black people in town belied Ray’s expectations. He moved back to Seattle and continues to seek permanent affordable housing.