Sometimes, like today, I’m in the middle of working on other posts (not to mention other off-blog writing) when I get struck by something I just have to write about right now.
I get regular announcement emails from Cracked.com about their latest comic essays. I enjoy the site because the authors tend to write about things I wasn’t aware of (or things I was only half-aware of) and while each Cracked author has their own unique writing style, all of them share a similar tone: snarky, sarcastic, and sometimes hilarious.
Today’s essay, however, is a very serious one. Authors J.F. Sargent and William Bonnie have a serious essay about homelessness (although it still has those signature touches of sarcasm throughout it (some of which I found offensive, but there’s no point in complaining to Cracked because they strive to be offensive to get attention.) The moment I saw the title, 7 Things No One Tells You About Being Homeless, I knew that I was going to want to blog about their essay, no matter what those seven things were or what the authors had to say about them.
You see, I spent a huge amount of my twenties homeless. No one needs to tell me things about being homeless because I have lived it, over and over again, in sweltering weather and freezing, while unemployed and while trying to hold down a job, while healthy and ill and even while pregnant. You can follow the link above to read the Cracked article for yourself. What follows are my own comments based on reading the article with reference to my own life experiences.
Thing Number Seven: It Doesn’t Take Much to Wind Up Homeless
The author of the essay talks about his own experience with suddenly becoming homeless through no fault of his own. Yes, it happens — especially to people who are already living on the edge. And working a minimum wage job counts as living on the edge because it’s so hard to have savings or an emergency plan in place. Living on SSI disability is even more on the edge than living on minimum wage because we aren’t allowed to have savings.
One of the many times that I became homeless was because I was mistakenly arrested. Don’t think it couldn’t happen to you, too. People with common names get arrested for crimes committed by someone else with the same common name. People who match the description of a perpetrator get brought in for questioning. People wrongly accused of a crime by an alleged victim get arrested as a matter of course. And people whose social security number and name have been used in an act of identity theft are vulnerable to being arrested for crimes committed by their identity thief.
Being mistakenly arrested is usually more of a hassle than anything. But for people who are already living close to the bottom of the barrel, it can be a life shredding disaster. I was arrested at work, so I lost my job (a job I had just barely gotten.) I had just moved into my apartment which my co-worker helped me find. My co-worker was there to see me get arrested and had no way of knowing that it was a mistaken arrest. My co-worker, who happened to live in the apartment right beneath mine, was so shocked to see me get arrested. He was understandably upset to learn that he had been living downstairs from a criminal. He told our landlord that I was arrested. I returned home to an eviction notice.
So there I was: homeless, jobless, all my meager belongings gone, no place to sleep, no money to get another apartment, no connections to help me get another place. And I was young and demoralized and primarily focused on figuring out how I was going to survive the next 24 hours, let alone the next weeks and months. It never occurred to me to sue anyone for anything and I had no emotional supporters or intellectual mentors to make the suggestion. So I was back on the streets again.
And I should add that repeated bouts of homelessness take their toll on a person. After a while, I started to assume I was supposed to be homeless. I started to feel guilty whenever I had a roof over my head. I accepted the next spell of homelessness with resigned dejection. It began to seem like that was where I was meant to be, like I shouldn’t even bother fighting it any more.
Thing Number Six: Having a Job Won’t Save You
Most of the time, I became homeless because I no longer had a job. There were times when I became homeless while I was still working a job (usually a freshly acquired job to replace the one I had previously lost, causing the unavoidable homelessness.) There were times when I managed to land a job while I was homeless, although that’s not easy because of the lack of telephone that comes with homelessness. (Next time someone complains about homeless people with cell phones, ask them how those people are supposed to get jobs and become un-homeless without a number people can call them at.)
The author’s point in this section is that being homeless is expensive. But the first thing I noticed was how different his homeless experience was from mine. First off, he had a car. That was great because it gave him a relatively place to sleep but it was not great because it cost him lots of money due to the laws about where cars are allowed to be and for how long.
Some other things the author spent extra money on: he bought a camping stove, regular amounts of cooking fuel, and complained about how he could not store food because he had no refrigerator. This suggests that he couldn’t imagine any other way to live besides having a complete kitchen with stove, sink, refrigerator, and pantry. When I was homeless, I only ate food that did not require cooking. I only ate food I could carry around in my backpack without spoilage. I spent the same amount of money on food as I did when I had a kitchen — possibly less money. I ate other people’s food as much as possible: soup kitchens, fast food dumpster meals. I bought fast food off the discount menu.
The author shouldn’t have been buying camp stoves and fuel and expensive food. He wanted to get a place to live again, as quickly as possible, so he should not have tried to continue his style of living uninterrupted – he should have scaled back as far as humanly possible so that money would be available for a new place to live.
I had to scale back that much because most of the time when I was homeless I didn’t have any income at all. The very idea of buying a camp stove and fuel while homeless is incredibly alien to me. If I had that kind of money, I wouldn’t have been homeless to start with. If I had a restaurant job, I made my employee meal really count. If I didn’t have a job, I took advantage of every free food opportunity available (easier back then when I didn’t have a celiac diagnosis or diabetes.)
The author also spent money regularly to get a hotel room so he could shower and use a mirror. That’s pretty alien to me, too. If you don’t have enough money to rent a room for at least a week, it’s not very smart to rent it for one day and then go back to being homeless afterward. A little shopping around can reveal rooms that rent by the week and they usually cost about the same as two nights of a by-the-night room. One day of a roof over your head only takes away your saved money, making you homeless that much longer before you can afford a more permanent roof over your head. Except in a very few situations one night of a place to stay when you can’t afford a place to stay for the rest of the month isn’t worth it.
Instead of spending hundreds of dollars on showers, I learned where I could find bathrooms that were single rooms, low traffic, and had sinks well-shaped for washing in. I would rotate among the useful bathrooms to take care of personal hygiene and I would be careful to leave the bathroom clean and dry so that I wouldn’t get spotted as a problem person and refused future bathroom use. I learned to wash my hair and body in about two minutes so no one was ever waiting for me (I hand-washed laundry in different places because that takes much longer.) And I bought something (like a pack of cheese crackers) from the business so that I was a customer using the bathroom, not a homeless person loitering.
The cost of a pack of cheese crackers is a much more affordable price for bathing than the cost of a hotel room!
So, while he wrote a very good article, I do think the author still might have a few things no one told him about being homeless.
Thing Number Five: Government Benefits Aren’t as Much Help as You Think
The author talks about the limited scope of housing assistance and this is true. Waiting lists are huge. Housing is often not where you want to live. For example, I could get government housing right now, but it would put me in an isolated area with few services beyond a police station and a liquor store. I would be spending so much money leaving the neighborhood to get to groceries, doctor’s appointments, social opportunities, etc. that it would make up the difference of the cheaper rent and I would be walking less (because that’s a scarier neighborhood with nothing good to walk to.) My overall quality of life would decrease if I moved into government housing here. And that’s after sitting on the waiting list for years.
Mostly, the author talks about the limitations of food stamps because you can’t buy prepared food with them. I never found food stamps to be a limitation but, again, I didn’t feel the need to get a cook stove and try to live the same life people with homes live. The author talks about malnutrition and kidney damage, but it takes time to develop those kinds of diseases. If he sacrificed and ate crap for a month or two, he could save money for a place to live and I doubt he would get kidney damage from living off tinned fish, uncooked spam, cheese crackers, peanut butter, etc. for a couple of months.
But, that said, yes, government benefits in the United States do not really cover the cost of living. People get so upset about Walmart workers not being paid a living wage, but those workers get paid so much more than disabled people are expected to live off from SSI disability payments. If you are upset about how low the minimum wage is or upset about Walmart workers getting paid so little that they are eligible for food stamps, please be upset about disabled people eing forced to live on even less than that.
Thing Number Four: Shelters are a Band-Aid
The author admits he never tried staying at a shelter but he has heard from others that they are problematic. He heard right.
I contracted a streptococcus infection at a shelter that was scraping leftover food from plates back into the big cook pot to serve again tomorrow. I had no medical attention. I was working a job and when I was too sick to keep working and asked my boss if I could go “home” for the day, I was told “tough it out or quit.” (I was working in food service, by the way. That’s a really great place for someone suffering a food-borne illness to be working, right?)
I knew I couldn’t tough it out so I left. When I left the restaurant and entered the extreme summer heat outside, I collapsed. I awoke in the hospital, on ice. Because I had already been toughing through the illness with no medical treatment, I had rheumatic fever. I was delirious. I suffered permanent heart valve damage.
As it turned out, my food safety level was higher when I was eating out of dumpsters than when I was eating at the homeless shelter.
Other shelters wouldn’t let me stay there at all because I was working a night job and no one was allowed to leave or enter the shelter during those hours.
At one shelter, I was the victim of a violent attack because I was captive in the shelter and thus an easy target for aggressors. When I was “free-range homeless” out on the streets, I could choose where to be and stay away from places where violent people spent time. In a shelter, I was locked in a small room with people who wanted to hurt others. The Cracked authors found a study that indicates the same thing: that people are in greater danger of being the victims of violence in a shelter than on the streets.
I learned early on that shelters were not a very good choice for me.
Thing Number Three: Your Free Time Becomes Your Enemy
I lost a lot of patience with the author on this point. He was so bored without a television and video games that he decided he needed to spend his spare time taking LSD. He said he went to the library but it was a small mountain town and he was too dirty to pass muster as a library patron. Yet when he was talking about his car, he said he had to spend a lot of money on gas to get it out of town where he could legally park. Either it was a small town where he got too much stink-eye to hang out at the library but didn’t have to drive far to find a place to park his car or it was a big town with a big library that lets dirty people read books, so long as they don’t get the books dirty or make a general nuisance of themselves but had to drive a long time to get to a place where he could safely park his car for the night.
You don’t have both. Not usually. And if he was too dirty to use the library, what happened to those hotel rooms he was renting to get cleaned up in? I spent my days in the library (that’s why I know so much stuff – the librarians let me stay as long as I wanted, so long as I was quiet and reading something) and I spent my nights at a 24-hour White Castle restaurant, nursing a coffee or soda pop for hours while I read a magazine or book I was carrying around with me. Yeah, I won’t lie: I’ve taken drugs before. But I never felt like homelessness was a great excuse to do lots of drugs to kill time. I spent my time trying to get my life in a better position, trying to find a job, trying to stay fed and clean and rested, and reading a jillion books in the library.
However, it is true that not everyone can hang out in the library. I will never forget how I burned with anger the day I watched a librarian kick a man out of the library for making grunting sounds — he pretty obviously had Tourette’s and he was discriminated against. His noises didn’t bother me. I knew he couldn’t help making them. I was so angry on his behalf and so ashamed that I did not speak up to defend him because I was afraid that I would get kicked out, too, and have to find a new place to go in the daytime.
Being homeless means not only being vulnerable, but risking losing everything if you try to help someone else.
Thing Number Two: Your Biggest Asset Is Your Charm
Yes. However. The author calls charming people “the hidden homeless,” saying, “They’re making the lifestyle work by being clever and funny and cool to be around, with the added bonus of us never noticing that they exist.” I am not quite such a social butterfly, but I managed to be a hidden homeless person, too, by being quiet, clean, not carrying too much stuff around with me, and sharing some of the privileges the author cites: white skin, all my teeth, a high level of education (in my case, mainly self-education. But my high level of self-education has made me a big supporter of the unschooling movement. Most people who can learn are able to teach themselves, either alone or with minimal student-led mentoring.)
But I didn’t have the kind of charm the author talks about, showing up on someone’s doorstep to cook food for them and sleep on their couch. I was not the cute fluffy homeless dog you want to feed. I was the skulking homeless mutt you fear. My main survival technique was to make myself as unfrightening as I possibly could. I can be charming. Most times, though, charm is far out of my reach. And the more stressful my life, the less charm I project. And being homeless is pretty stressful.
Thing Number One: Most Homeless Are Young, And They’re Only Homeless for a Couple of Months
The author cites some statistics:
- About 3/4 of homeless people are only homeless for a couple of months. (I was part of the other 1/4)
- Only 16% of the homeless are chronically homeless (I was in that 16%)
- 39% of homeless people are under 18 (I was part of the other 61%. It can be harder to get assistance if you are not under 18 or responsible for the welfare of someone under 18.)
He is right — homeless people aren’t all the stereotypes. But his takeaway was to care about the homeless because they aren’t all, “roving bands of shiftless, alcoholic drug addicts begging for change on the street,” or “crusty-bearded” men who smell of alcohol. I would rather see a takeaway that reminds us that people who are alcoholic or drug addicts or dirty or mentally ill deserve just as much compassion. People don’t choose to be homeless. People don’t become homeless because they’re bad people.
The author tried to change readers’ ideas about homeless people but he did it by reinforcing the stereotypes that hurt everyone. No, I had little patience for the author claiming that he had to entertain himself with LSD because they didn’t like him to go to the library. But I do have compassion for homeless people who use drugs or alcohol to self-medicate. The author actually encouraged bad attitudes toward homeless drug use by the way he portrayed his own drug use. He trivialized addiction. He encouraged stigma toward homeless who use drugs.
The way the author wrote framed me as one of the “bad homeless people” because of my chronic homelessness. I deserved just as much respect, compassion, and assistance as a young person who “just hit bad times.”
If you enjoy my writing, or any product of my creativity that I offer to you, remember that I am the face of chronic homelessness. I have a roof over my head right now and I’m not in immediate danger of losing it. But I really struggled to get here. I spent most of a decade homeless. When you hear or read someone talking about chronic homelessness, think of me. When you are asked about your opinion of chronically homeless people, remember that you are talking about me.
I enjoyed reading the Cracked author’s essay. But it highlighted how far we have to go in accepting people and helping them with their struggles. The author was mainly sleeping in his car and “couch surfing.” I wonder if Cracked would allow an author who had slept on sidewalks and eaten from dumpsters to write about homelessness. And I wonder if it’s possible for someone like me to write about the kind of homelessness I experienced while still maintaining that trademark Cracked style: glib, sarcastic, light. I really don’t know if I could write about my homelessness as an adventure of rollicking hijinks.
But perhaps the things I would say about being homeless are the “things no one tells you about being homeless” that they should be telling you.