The rush of the cold February rain on the tin roof woke me up at 4:00 AM and I
immediately thought of the mom and teenage daughter I met yesterday. They are sleeping in their car in a parking lot somewhere in town. Surely the rain woke them, too. I hope they are warm enough; I hope they are safe.
Chronic and Crisis Homeless
They are both very bright, presentable people, not the stereotypical homeless people we envision. The stereotype is wrong. We envision the chronically homeless person, ragged and weary, holding a sign beside the highway. They are visible. The larger homeless population is families in crisis; families trying to find shelter and failing to do so, sleeping in their cars. Individual homeless people are fewer but homeless families have increased by 9 percent in the past year, according to the 2010 US Mayor’s Survey on Hunger and Homelessness, to about 1.5 million people.
Their plight reminds me of the mom who called me three years ago for help, when I was in a social service job. It was raining that day, too, and she was calling from a phone booth. This mom had six children, the youngest only two. There was no room in the shelter and she had been evicted by the landlord of the relative she had been staying with. I told her to give me a few minutes to find help and I would call her back at the phone booth.
No Room in Homeless Shelters
I hit all my contacts, but there was no room at any of the inns. When I called the mom back, there was no answer. I wasn’t surprised, she couldn’t stand in the rain for thirty minutes with six kids. When you are in social work, you’re not supposed to get personally involved. If you get personally involved, you will burn out and won’t be able to help anyone. That’s the rule and I wanted to break it.
Blaming the Victim
I wanted to bring them home to my little apartment and let them get a bath and a good meal. I wanted to tuck the baby in and read him a bedtime story. I still do. But they were gone. At this point, many people begin to rationalize: that mom made foolish choices to get into a mess like that. The temptation to blame the victims eases our discomfort. Our discomfort comes from the lurking fear that it could happen to us.
It did happen to me. I was downsized in 2008 and convinced that I could find another job quickly, like I always have. I simply lowered my standard of living drastically. I didn’t know tens of thousands of my colleagues in that state had been downsized as well. I didn’t know it would be two years before I would get even a part-time job. I thought this would be a learning experience, I could view life from the other side.
Homeless in Diapers
I moved into the “homeless house,” a small, ratty house with no heat, no insulation, no stove, and no hot water. I cleaned it up, donated my microwave and coffee pot, and got someone to hook up the water heater. A down-and-out neighbor, with only a bike for transportation, gave me a space heater. The previous tenant had been a mom with small children. When I found two new diapers and a small stuffed animal they left behind, I wondered where they had gone; I hoped somewhere good.
What Homeless Need
I did learn many things. To recover from being homeless you need transportation, food, decent shelter, and a phone. These days, you need internet access as well. If any of these elements are missing, you cannot pull out of homelessness. You can’t find a job without internet, you can’t get called for an interview without a phone. You can’t survive without food and shelter, and you can’t get to work without transportation. You need these things long-term, long enough to get a job and save up for rent and utility deposits for a place of your own.
Encourage the Poor
The other thing I learned is that poor people are treated like untouchables by many. I had held responsible positions in the past but people who knew me before looked askance at me now. I thought that odd, since I was the same person. Being broke is not a contagious disease. But I know they wondered what I had done wrong that this misfortune had come upon me. I must have sinned. We must be in control of our lives, things don’t just happen, do they? Actually, yes, sometimes things just happen that are beyond our control. I can’t control Wall Street gambling, for example.
Blaming the Poor
As the months of God’s Graduate School of Poverty dragged on, I thought I now knew how it was to be broke and homeless. But I did not, not really, because I had hope. I had skills, I had friends, I was an observer and not a participant. It truly sucks on so many levels to be broke and homeless. The suckiest thing of all is being socially ostracized. When you’re striving to get on your feet, it hurts for people to say that jobless people sit on their couches watching TV all day, exploiting their tax dollars.
Unemployed and Losing Hope
It hurts because, as the months drag on, we begin to question our own worth. Rejected by employers, hounded by debts, stalked by Dawg the Car Hunter, the battle to keep hope alive is epic. We know if we lose hope, we won’t send out that 400th resume. While typing a cover letter one day, I succumbed to battle fatigue. “Why don’t I just type a rejection letter and save all the steps in between?” I lost that skirmish, but eventually won the war.
What can we do? We can volunteer at the homeless shelter, organize a pipeline of donations for them, and keep up political pressure to change our society. We can do those things, but may God have mercy on your soul if you fail to treat poor people like human beings; if you patronize them or treat them like dirt. It doesn’t cost you any money to treat people with respect. “Whatever you do for the least of these,” Jesus said, “you do it for me.” That goes for whatever you do to the least as well.