‘You Can’t Sleep Here’

Lifelong homeless author gets new start in Port Townsend

Posted 8/14/19

Half African and half Chinese, an immigrant of Trinidad and Tobago and diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, Robin Ray Lum Cheong found it exceedingly difficult to lead a typical American life.

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‘You Can’t Sleep Here’

Lifelong homeless author gets new start in Port Townsend

Posted

Half African and half Chinese, an immigrant of Trinidad and Tobago and diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, Robin Ray Lum Cheong found it exceedingly difficult to lead a typical American life.

Instead, Lum Cheong found himself alone and living on the streets of New York City, Los Angeles and Seattle before finding his forever home. He has settled down at San Juan Commons in Port Townsend, which offers 50 apartments for seniors aged 55 and over.

No longer living in his car, Lum Cheong, 56, is a poet and author. His works include “You Can’t Sleep Here: A clown’s guide to surviving homelessness.”

The book is available online at Amazon.com.

A long road

Because of the many obstacles he faced, Lum Cheong attempted suicide on several occasions.

“When I was a teenager (I jumped) right outside of a window from the sixth floor,” Lum Cheong said. “When I was in college I was very suicidal. When I was 30 years old, I went as far as I could with life. So, 40 sleeping pills and beer. I ended up in Creedmoor Psychiatric in New York.”

Lum Cheong was never successful in his suicide attempts, because life, it seems, had other plans for him.

Lum Cheong grew up in Mayaro, a community in the southeast corner of Trinidad and Tobago, which is located northeast of Venezuela.

“It is pretty much green like this, like the Pacific Northwest,” he said. “A lot of forests. This is why I am drawn to the forest.”

When he was a boy, his mother moved to the United States seeking a better life. Lum Cheong was left behind with his alcoholic father and spent much of his youth on the streets of the island nation.

“People were coming up because of opportunity like they are doing now from Central America in droves,” Lum Cheong said. “My mother came up first and I didn’t see her for six years.”

His mother did not send any of the money she earned back home because she knew Lum Cheong’s father would waste it all on booze, Lum Cheong said.

“She was trying to establish herself and work out all the paperwork. About six years later she started trying to get us up here one at a time.”

In 1974, Lum Cheong arrived in New York City. He immediately experienced culture shock, he said.

“I arrived through JFK and there was the big bad Bronx with the subway and the noise and the buildings. It was overwhelming and I am autistic, so on top of the culture shock I can’t take a whole bunch of input anyway.”

Because of his Asperger’s, and because he was an immigrant of mixed races, Lum Cheong tended to isolate himself.

“I didn’t hang on anyone. I felt no one understood me. I was by myself all the time.”

Even in Mayoro, Lum Cheong had felt he was an outsider.

“I am part Chinese. When I was growing up it was mainly black kids, so they made fun of me because I was light skinned. When I came to the United States I lived in a black neighborhood and again they made fun of me.”

Lum Cheong was also turned off by the Christian faith because his mother, a Catholic, was adamant he adopt the religion.

“My mother was ultra religious,” he said. “She just kind of shoved it down my throat. I reacted by going to school at Iowa State University just to get away from New York.”

Lum Cheong now practices Jainism.

Good with numbers, Lum Cheong initially pursued a technical degree. He later switched to an art major and minored in English.

“I started writing when I went to college in Iowa.”

According to the Iowa State Registrar’s Office in Ames, Lum Cheong attended from 1980 to 1982 and studied science and humanities.

While in Iowa, Lum Cheong didn’t feel he belonged since his classmates were predominantly white. He said he never finished his college degree because his mother did not complete the necessary paperwork for his financial aid, and he moved back to New York City where he became a nurse.

“It was torture every day,” he said. “Every time I punched that clock, ‘Is it 3 o’clock yet?’ Even before I punched the clock.”

Lum Cheong looked for other jobs, but couldn’t find any. He also tried to join the military, but was ineligible due to poor eyesight, he said.

Without work, Lum Cheong found himself on the streets.

“When I was in New York I was homeless and I got into substances. I traveled around the country a lot.”

He eventually traveled to Rhode Island before heading west.

“I got the bug to be a screenwriter, so I went to LA. I was homeless in LA.”

Not finding any success in Hollywood, Lum- Cheong moved back to New York.

“I had a girlfriend that lasted a year and a half and she kicked me out so I moved to Nashville because I am a songwriter. I was homeless in Nashville.”

Then Lum Cheong made his way to the Pacific Northwest.

“I came up here to Seattle and I got a job eventually, but the rent on the apartment went up so I was homeless for five years in the car.”

Having lived as a homeless man throughout the country, Lum Cheong said the worst place to live on the streets is in Los Angeles.

That fact was driven home when Ennis William Cosby was murdered Jan. 16, 1997 on the side of Interstate 405 while fixing a flat tire. Lum Cheong was sleeping not far away in his car, he said. “It could have happened to me. At night I used to stay at the public library in West Hollywood. I was pretty vulnerable.”

Further, the homeless in LA at that time were treated with contempt, Lum Cheong said.

“In LA the food truck pulls up on the corner. They open the back of the truck and throw all the food out on the street. People just kind of run to it. It is like the third world. This is LA.”

The hardest part of being homeless is never getting good rest, Lum Cheong said.

“Sleeping in a car is not restful. When the sun comes up you are up too. When you go to the library and see homeless people nodding off … they are really tired. They didn’t sleep last night. You are always looking for a place to rest, for a bathroom, food to eat. It is a struggle.”

A new beginning

Lum-cheong spent some time living in his car near Forks before landing in Port Townsend. He said his life is completely different now.

“I feel good because now I am a writer and in a place where I can sit down and write. In February, I started writing poetry in earnest. When I was homeless I wrote those novels. Just something to do. I wrote two novels when I was homeless a few years ago.”

At San Juan Commons, Lum-cheong can still isolate himself when he wants, but can also choose to be part of the community, he said.

“This building, we have artists here, people who play scrabble and a few writers.”

Don Ekrem, San Juan Commons property manager, said Lum Cheong has recently begun to come out of his shell.

“The interesting thing about Robin is that he has been here for a little over a year and the first nine months he pretty much stuck to himself. The last three months he has been coming out more and sharing with the residents some of his stuff. I think he is doing wonderful here and he seems to enjoy it and the residents enjoy him.”

Ekrem said he is impressed by Lum Cheong’s work.

“I have seen his latest that he is working on right now, a book of poetry and pictures. I thought it was beautiful.”

Lum Cheong said he is lucky to be in Port Townsend.

“The people here are very progressive. I have a lot of company here as far as me being a musician. Me being a writer.”

Still, Lum Cheong does not often venture far from home.

“Even until now when I go to the supermarket I am very quick about it,” he said. “In and out.”

When he is not writing, Lum Cheong often strums one of his three guitars or jams on his keyboard, he said.

“On the 4th of July, we had a barbecue,” Ekrem said. “He was down. My wife and I have an Alexa and Robin said, ‘I do music too.’ I asked alexa to play a Robin Ray, and it did. It knew his music. That’s fascinating.”

While his own life turned out well in the end, Lum Cheong was realistic about the plight of those who now find themselves homeless.

“Your background has to be squeaky clean,” he said. “A lot of people don’t have that. You can’t give them false hope. With a place like this, if you’ve had an eviction, you aren’t going to get it. If you’ve had a drug arrest, it’s not going to happen.”

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