Poverty under wraps

There are so many ways to become homeless.

For instance, when a young man was preparing to be released from jail (for a non-violent, non-drug related crime, incidentally), he had to figure out where he was going to live. His brother invited him to come stay with him. What my friend did not realize was that his brother was living with 3 other roommates – and almost all of them were abusing drugs. Not the sort of situation you want to be in at any time, but especially not when you are on probation. In a city he was unfamiliar with, not yet having a job, with very little savings, and a criminal record that he had to report on any rental application, he was not going to find an apartment overnight. He decided that the shelter was a better option than living with his brother or living in the woods, so he got a bed in the shelter, and people who worked there were able to help him get an apartment and apply for veteran’s benefits to go back to school.

For instance, when a chemical engineer was laid off, she had trouble finding a new job, and lived for awhile off of her savings. Just after her COBRA benefits expired, her husband, who had always done the finances for the family, had an expensive hospitalization followed by a lengthy convalescence, and lost his job as well. The mortgage went unpaid for a couple of months, and the house was foreclosed on. Because it was summer time, they decided that the best way to preserve their meager savings in case they had still had not found jobs before the days grew colder was for themselves and their two teenage daughters to camp in park campgrounds. They would stay until they reached the limit of allowable days (usually a week or two), and then pack the tent into their station wagon, and drive to the next park, all the while interviewing for jobs.

For instance, when a growing season ended and the fields were picked over, a family of farmworkers left the leaky roofed shack with no electricity and no plumbing that was “included!” in their wages, and crowded into a van with another family, hoping to find work further north working other fields, picking other crops, living in another featureless lean-to. They hoped that they would not be stopped, because no one in the car had a driver’s license. They had crossed the border looking for jobs that were better then what they could find in Mexico – but which paid less than is legal to pay citizens of the United States.

For instance, when a young woman who had been treated unsuccessfully for depression for many years was overcome by her illness, she stopped going to work, then stopped eating, and finally stopped getting out of bed. She was evicted from her apartment, and found herself living in a car until a family friend discovered her situation and invited her to live with their family. She went from car to house, but it was not her home – insofar as she was now subject to the rules and rhythms of a household very different from the one she had grown up in. The chipper insistence of the well-meaning couple with little understanding of mental illness that she “look on the bright side!!” was oppressive. But the only alternatives she could think of were suicide or a return to her car. Until, finally one day, she didn’t understand how, she found she had the strength to apply for a job bagging groceries. Getting out of the house, meeting new people, and receiving a paycheck, she accepted a new friend’s offer of a ride to the county mental health clinic. There she was put on a medication that she hadn’t tried before. Maybe it would work this time.

For instance, when an eager young college graduate moved to a city he had long dreamed of living in, he soon discovered that the cost of living there was impossibly high. Working two 30-hour a week jobs was not enough to prevent him from illegally sharing a studio apartment with 12 other people. When that became unsustainable, he moved into a friend’s car. Too ashamed of his “failure” to confess the truth, his weekly phone calls to his parents from a public phone were filled with tales of how he was enjoying life in the big city. One day, he saw a young couple he assumed to be tourists, who had just walked out of the Ben & Jerry’s in a chic shopping district. Frustration overcame him, and he followed them down the street chanting, “I wish I could have an ice cream cone, but I can’t! I’m too poor for an ice cream cone. Nobody’s buying me any ice cream cones!” He couldn’t have known that they, too, had just moved to the city in great hopefulness, only to have spent three weeks living in a run-down residential hotel, unable to afford an apartment. This outing had been something that they had looked forward to for more than a week.

There are many more ways of becoming homeless – losing one’s home in a natural disaster, addiction, schizophrenia, PTSD, fleeing an abusive relationship, being kicked out of the house because of being an abuser oneself… and so much more.

And there are many more people who are poor without being homeless. There are the working poor and the elderly poor and the disabled poor… the not good enough English poor and the not white enough skin poor… the raised with low expectations poor and the raised with unreasonable expectations poor… the rural poor and the urban poor… poor single moms and poor single dads, and poor grandparents raising grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

I wonder: does roadside begging make all of this poverty any more visible to anyone?

If we wish to urge the City of Durham not to hide poverty, perhaps we ought to shut down 147 for a week, and route all the traffic through East Durham.

Nonetheless, so long as panhandlers are not actively obstructing traffic – so long as they do not walk into the street, nor stop cars at green lights, I increasingly fail to see the argument for banning roadside panhandling – morally, it is a justice issue; legally, it is a free speech issue. On public property, aren’t we allowed to say nearly anything? Even if it is, “Can you spare $2 for ‘bus fare’?”

Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether or not we ought to give money to those who ask for it, it seems we must let them ask.

2 responses

  1. I never knew the poverty and homeless situation in the U.S. was so complicated and complex. I guess the “There´s always a job at McDonalds …” statement is a bit over simplified. Nevertheless … thanks so much for the detailed response.

    • It’s true – there isn’t always a job at McDonald’s – and a job at McDonald’s is rarely enough to pay the bills – unless you live in a place with a low cost of living, you have no dependents to provide for, and you share living quarters with at least one other working person.

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