Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Absurdity of the Perception of the Homeless in the United States

 Take a moment to think about the homeless population in our country. Where do you live and do you ever encounter anyone that is homeless? What descriptions come to mind when you think about the word "homeless"? A friend of mine once asked the question "What is warmer to sleep on concrete or marble?" Anyone who has had to sleep on the ground knows the answer. They're both cold and uncomfortable, it doesn't matter. Lately cities have taken the tact of trying to push homeless populations out. San Jose destroyed a tent city called the "Jungle" where several hundred homeless people had been living. They stated it was because the creek going through that area was getting contaminated. A man in Fort Lauderdale was arrested and repeatedly harassed for feeding the homeless- as if doing so encouraged more people to "become homeless" for a meal?

Are you picturing an unwashed man with a cardboard sign? Are you picturing someone sitting in stained clothing talking to themselves? Are you thinking "they must be crazy or on drugs"? Are you thinking they're all combat veterans? Bottom line is, are you already deciding in your mind that there is something seriously wrong with them and they somehow deserve to be where they are at?

There is a lot of stereotyping in how we perceive homelessness. Crazy, defective, screwed up, drug using, unhygienic, layered in unmatched clothing living out of a shopping cart. These words top the list. Should they? Why do they? What shapes how we perceive homelessness? You have to do a search on information on homelessness to get a lot of dry statistics on the topic that actually contradict these descriptions; otherwise you can search and find images that only reinforce the stereotypes.

I want to stop for a moment and take a serious look at that cardboard sign. Some sign bearers are legit while others have learned that they can make a living by having the right look and sitting in the right place with a sign. Last year I saw shifts of young couples working the intersections in Muskogee Oklahoma. As they prepared for their shift, leaving their home with a baby stroller that held new Starbucks mugs and a very nice iPad among other shiny accessories I watched them cover these items with a ragged blanket so people driving by wouldn't see them; but the couple could take turns sitting in a coffee shop while the other looked woeful working the street. The appearance of homelessness without the actuality of it. I knew a guy who used to work renaissance festivals, he kept getting in trouble for panhandling in Atlanta; he had a home and a job but wanted more money. He talked about making a couple hundred in an hour sometimes. When I worked at the VAMC in Bath there was a man who liked to sit off the highway exit with a sign saying he was a veteran. He was not. Many veterans and even the VAMC administration went and offered assistance only to learn that he lied because people gave more to veterans. I have also been told that in big enough cities there are people who design and sell the cardboard signs. Imagine putting that on your resume?

Now on the other hand, I have a friend who works a professional job. His wife divorced him after cheating on him. It was ugly. They have joint custody, but he couldn't afford as good a lawyer as she went out for. Although they have joint custody, he has to pay child support. The amount he pays limits what he has to live on. He has to survive on peanut butter sandwiches to go paycheck to paycheck. He can't afford to buy his children Christmas presents, which only reinforces the negative statements his ex wife makes to the children about him! If anything happens to his health or if he gets laid off at work, he could be on the street. No mental illness, no substance abuse, just life.

How many people are homeless in the United States? What supports are actually out there to help them obtain gainful employment or income? What supports are out there to help them gain safe permanent housing? How does someone become homeless?

There are many reasons from medical conditions, loss of employment, rising cost of housing, loss of investments, family conflicts, legal issues and mental health issues being among the top real reasons for homelessness. Each year reported percentages vary on reported causes. There is a major issue with obtaining accurate counts of homeless populations. Try accurately counting snowflakes. See the problem? They are homeless and all counts are estimates. At the end of 2013 it was estimated over 600,000 people in the US were homeless (according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness statistics). They stated that the national rate was 19 people out of every 10,000; with variations from 106 in Washington DC to 8 in Mississippi per 10,000. Lack of affordable permanent housing was a repeated theme, with less than a quarter of that number being the chronically homeless that could fit the image you were thinking of earlier. There are many families who are homeless; with an increase in people living out of vehicles, tent communities and shelters. Since 2009 there has been an act called HEARTH that has been helping to get people into housing programs and off the streets. As they place people and help find housing, more people are becoming homeless and needing assistance; there is a need for affordable housing in the United States. Unemployment as well as underemployment is also a major issue. If you aren't sure what underemployment is, it is when you find out the person bagging your groceries has a Masters degree or the person pumping your gas has a Bachelors degree.

Another great question: without an address how do you sign up for health care? How do you obtain employment? The first questions on any job application are about your address. Potential employers do not look highly on "a tent folded up in a ditch under a pile of branches behind the grocery store." If you are wondering about this oddly specific example address: while working in Hillsboro Oregon this summer I found a man hiding in this residence behind the grocery store just off the fair grounds. He looked relieved when I didn't harass him. I travel and work around the country, every time I get settled I start to apply or even look into applying for health care it is too late again. The process for someone low income takes so long, that about the time they would set appointments I am heading to my next paying job in another state and my next address. I have to go where I have work. Bottom line, regardless of what the bureaucrats in Washington want is that I take care of me first and worry about hoop jumping second.

Free food isn't always healthy food, sometimes the food handed out by food pantries is expired and rotting or it's not healthy- full of artificial ingredients and negligible nutritional value. Food pantries offer needed relief to individuals and families; their volunteers work hard to help those in need but they have to work with what is donated and fresh produce is often old, and almost inedible.

Unhygienic: where do you find a safe place to shower or bath when you have no real home? Is laundry your highest priority when you have nothing or is food? Complaining about where the homeless relieve themselves? Are there public toilets? Are there enough 24 hour access public toilets? I guess you go where you can, where you have a little privacy when you have limited to zero options. Next time you are out in public and have to go to the bathroom, take a moment to pretend you can't access the bathrooms anywhere. Where would you go? Where would you bathe? Would you buy food or do your laundry first?

Many programs require people to meet certain standards and to give up freedoms, privacy, and choices regarding how to spend their income to participate in them. When I worked in mental health, residents in our facility did not have control of when they could access money. They had to go to the office and plead for it. They were denied if the Manager did not feel they should get access to their money (say they chose not to complete a chore they were assigned or they had a negative interaction with staff regardless to whether they or the staff person instigated the issue, imagine someone saying you couldn't get ten dollars from the ATM because you had a bad day and snapped at someone you didn't like earlier). Many would rather be homeless than give up their rights and freedoms, even if it means they have to live in unhealthy environments and have people look down on them. It is humiliating to be an adult and to have someone else tell you how to make your decisions especially when no one is perfect and the people making the decisions can be just as messed up! Unless someone is deemed incompetent by the Court System they have rights, and should be treated with respect rather than condescension, labeling, and judgments. Staff opinions influence how much staff work with and offer assistance to individuals in programs. The more likable you are, the more help you may be offered. I watched sincere veterans who weren't always amiable receive less staff support than ones that were always superficially friendly. I gained the respect of the sincere, but possibly sometimes negative veterans and worked with them basing my level of assistance on how hard they worked to improve themselves rather than on how friendly they were. The veterans I worked with did not have high recidivism rates. I selected who I worked with based on their actions rather than their words. This isn't a common method in working with people, although many claim to do it. It isn't always easy to work with someone who responds with profanity when you ask about their day; but if you're responding with feelings you already missed the boat. They made an honest statement on their experience. If it is a shitty day, it is a shitty day for them; it has nothing to do with you. Often as I drove into work I would think "if I had to live in this program, what would I act like, how would it feel, and what would I say?"

Yesterday I walked the streets of a great city; murals covered the walls at street level in a cacophony of professional art. Sitting in front of them and around the landscaped fountains and statues there were individuals and small groups of homeless people. I walked past a couple leaning against the cold marble  side of a building as a police officer quietly encouraged them to go "somewhere else." It was a man and woman, the woman had just thrown up on the sidewalk. She was crying. Asking for a place to go, but the answer was just "not here." After the Officer walked away, she cried harder. They were real tears. She looked up at all the people walking by, all looking the other way only to steal glances in their peripheral vision as they passed her. It was one of those moments I felt like a ghost, somehow no one saw me watching. She turned to the man with her and said "I hate this, I'm so tired of having to live with my life on display. I didn't do anything wrong." She took a deep breath to compose herself. My heart hurt for her. She could be any of the hundreds of friends I have that travel and do sales for a living; living hand to mouth and pay day to pay day. She wasn't screaming, she was not deranged or drugged out. She was heartbroken and world weary. Her clothing weren't ragged or stained and she had groomed herself as best she could. She didn't smell. As I was walking on, I heard her stop a group of people from walking where she had thrown up her last meal. She didn't have anything to clean the sidewalk with. She didn't ask them for money. She didn't ask to be homeless. The man she was with never replied while I could hear. I wondered what twist of circumstance landed them there. I wondered if she would be better off leaving him and getting support. It should not have to be a choice: break someone's heart, destroy their pride and sense of self and what is left?

Some people live up to the expected image for the reaction of the crowd as well as the privacy and respect that come to someone unpredictable and potentially dangerous. I watched another woman, dressed in several layers of unstained clothing as she stood performing a graphic dramatic monologue to no one, never outright threatening anyone but looking repeatedly in a specific direction as if to tell someone unseen how she felt about them. Last night I was driving to a job and I saw a man sitting at a busy intersection with his sign and his dog. They were silent and resigned, as if they were on a guard shift watching the intersection. I had fresh fruit in the backseat, but couldn't reach it. I nodded at him and smiled. He smiled back. It was what I could give before the car behind me honked impatiently. It was an acknowledgment that he was human, an equal. Give food. Give eye contact. I decided that I would keep fruit and granola bars where I can reach them in the front seat so I can easily hand them out the window.

Are we humans or automated consumers tweeting, liking and shopping as the media tells us to? Turn it off, tune it out, take a moment to reach outside your life and be a respectful friend for someone who could really use one. Who really makes the decisions in your life? Do you or do you allow the media and advertisers to direct you? The holidays are coming up, I bet you're doing the shopping you are socially pressured to do although technically shopping and gift giving have nothing to do with holidays.

Consider employment and wages, consider housing costs. Why are they the way they are? Why have we allowed politicians and the media to make it acceptable to treat American citizens as less than human? Why not work to change it? Why not start looking at revising wages, health care costs, and housing costs in a meaningful way? Why not revise the political system to prevent corporations from making decisions and consider the wellbeing of all of the citizens of this country first- before we budget more money for wars overseas? Let's focus on improving the situation in our country. Why not look at systems in place in other countries that do not have large homelessness issues or underemployment issues; why not consider modeling our national healthcare system after one that works more effectively rather than making it up as we go along based on who's connected politically and wants to make money. Corruption, even legal corruption needs to stop its absurd that we find it acceptable at all.