Apparently, some people don’t think I know how to spell. I’m referring to my recent use of the word “inequity.” Some think I am referring to “iniquity.” Others believe I am talking about “inequality.” Neither is the case. The truth is that I have spelled the word correctly: “inequity.”
Of the three nouns cited, the second one corresponds to the usage of the word as it pertains to this series. The first “instance of injustice or unfairness” has to do with how homeless people are assumed to have done something terribly wrong in order to have become homeless, and that therefore homelessness is their due. The second has to do with the notion that the homeless person is not qualified to engage in normal conversations or activities that people who live indoors are permitted to indulge. The third has to do with privacy — how homeless people are deprived access to it, and regarded with suspicion if they seek it.
Today I would like to discuss a fourth inequity: how it is assumed that the homeless person does not have a job and is in fact unemployable. Nothing could be further from the truth.
A 2017 report by the Washington Council of Governments concluded that 22% of single homeless people, and 25% of homeless people in families, are employed. These figures are remarkably similar to a report citing that 22% of homeless people are drug-addicted. While it is often supposed that nearly all homeless people are drug-addicted (and no homeless people are working), the two statistics have a striking commonality. Both of them equate homelessness with something that homelessness is not.
Homelessness is not the same thing as drug addiction. Yet many people assume that a homeless person is an addict. It is not the same thing as unemployment either. Yet people will pass a homeless person on the street, and shout: Get a job! Having been homeless for a number of years, I can tell you why I think people are content with these misconceptions. Simply put, they justify the idea that the person is homeless because of some factor that that they can control; and that therefore, homelessness is their choice. These comfortable fallacies free people from having to sympathize with the homeless person’s plight.
Now when I became homeless by choice, it was a choice made after seven years of struggling in and out of homeless and borderline-homeless situations, all the while finding my entire set of options for personal progress completely negated by the detrimental effects of any living situation I was able to afford. While people assumed my main problem was something other than this, the fact of the matter is that I was making $50.000 a year and doing quite well before circumstances led to homelessness. I then found homelessness nearly impossible to escape.
Many people have no idea how deep the hole of homelessness is dug. Again and again, I tried my hardest to climb out of it. But in the urban Bay Area reality, where studio apartments often rent for $2500/mo. or more, I could not get back on my feet. The situations I could afford were limited to shelters, halfway houses, board-and-care homes, and (if I got desperate) psych wards and rehab facilities. All of these resorts were undignifying, the last two were downright dehumanizing and criminalizing, and every one of them wound up leading me back to the streets. Finally, I figured I better start learning how to be a functional homeless person, since that is where I continually found myself landing. So on April 15, 2011, I left the last of numerous lousy living situations in order to join an intentional homeless community in Berkeley, California.
In Berkeley, where there were over one thousand visible homeless people on the streets, it wasn’t generally assumed that any of us were capable of working. Combine that with a “progressive” quasi-socialist climate, and one was more likely to be encouraged to seek government aid through mental health disability than to get a job. In short, it was assumed that I was unemployable. This is another facet of this inequity.
Only once did someone suggest I “get a job.” And when they did, I was damn near ready to go to the Social Security Office and ask them to cancel my disability paychecks. It was so rare that someone believed I could work that what was intended to be a demeaning insult was actually refreshing.
Then, when I left Berkeley and moved to low-rent district in the Pacific Northwest, I found that within five days, I was able to secure a one year lease on a studio room, within three weeks, had secured a job, and was employed part-time shortly thereafter. This was after being considered unemployable for years in Berkeley! And as I always am quick to say, despite what many of my old associates in California believed, I did not change at all on a 48 hour one way bus trip.
What this points to is that when dealing with homeless people, we need to consider the socio-economic factors first and foremost, before we make judgments as to their personal character and choices. The exact same person who secured a lease and a job as soon as he moved to Idaho was the one who flew a sign on a sidewalk for five years in California.
To those who still think people generally become homeless because they are drug addicts, alcoholics, nut cases, losers, or lazy bums, I say, please think again. While this is sometimes the case, it is more often true that prolonged homelessness brings about any or all of those factors. Please think a lot. This culture gone awry needs the best thinking of us all.
Please donate to Eden in Babylon.
A little bit goes a long, long way.