Homeless in the USA

On the site Quora, where I am considered to be a “Most Viewed Writer” on the subject of Homelessness, somebody recently posed the question: “How do people become homeless in the USA?”  I answered it quickly according to my experience, and later noticed that it had received over 3,500 views and 73 “upvotes.”  So I figured I’d share it here.  I hope you gain from it.

Having lived in a community of over 1,000 homeless people for five years, and having been homeless and borderline-homeless in other areas for seven additional years, I think I might be qualified to answer this question.

There are many ways that a person can become homeless in America. Let me list four that seem most prevalent:

(1) A sudden medical problem or family crisis that costs a person an unexpected amount of money, making it impossible for them to continue paying rent or mortgage.

(2) Socio-economic factors beyond the scope of individual control; e.g., a persistent rent increase over a period of time that far exceeds any increase in the renter’s income.

(3) A drug or alcohol problem resulting in job loss, eviction, and/or general inability to make rational decisions over the long haul.

(4) A mental health condition that goes untreated or is (as in my own case) misdiagnosed, resulting in one’s taking medications that work to one’s detriment rather than one’s benefit.

My experience is that, in larger urban areas, there is a greater percentage of people who became homeless as a result of socio-economic factors or circumstances beyond their control.

evictionIn smaller, more rural areas, such as the small college town where I now live in Northern Idaho, it is much more difficult to become homeless without sort of “asking for it” by displaying a serious drug or alcohol problem.

I do know that in the two years that I have now successfully rented apartments in my present city – first, a studio, then a one-bedroom, I have done every thing that would have “made me homeless” in situations that arose in the San Francisco Bay Area, where rents are on the average four times as high, but where my fixed income from Social Security has not varied.

Had I not moved to this small college town in the middle of the country, I would have died a meaningless death on the Berkeley city streets. I simply would never have been able to pay the rent. And because I was largely regarded as unemployable due to my mental health condition, I found it difficult to cut through that stigma in order to find a job.

After almost two years of successfully paying my rent every month, I am living a very meaningful and happy life.

All it took was a $200 Greyhound bus ticket to a distant State, and a loan on an apartment deposit, to end twelve years of seemingly inescapable homelessness in the Bay Area. I applied for a part-time job three weeks after I arrived in Idaho, and was hired. I even managed to keep the job for ten months before aspects of my condition caused them to ask me to resign. But by that time, I was established in the community with a church and a solid support group, and I knew how to make ends meet.

I hope this information has been helpful, and of particular use to someone who may be in need.

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The Poor Oppressed

If you see the poor oppressed in a district,
and justice and rights denied,
do not be surprised at such things;
for one official is eyed by a higher one,
and over them both are others higher still.
The increase from the land is taken by all;
the king himself profits from the fields.

Whoever loves money never has enough;
whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income.
This too is meaningless.
As goods increase,
so do those who consume them.
And what benefit are they to the owners
except to feast their eyes on them?

The sleep of a laborer is sweet,
whether they eat little or much,
but as for the rich,
their abundance
permits them no sleep.

I have seen a grievous evil under the sun:
wealth hoarded to the harm of its owners,
or wealth lost through some misfortune,
so that when they have children
there is nothing left for them to inherit.

Everyone comes naked from their mother’s womb,
and as everyone comes, so they depart.
They take nothing from their toil
that they can carry
in their hands.

– Ecclesiastes 5:8-15

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Anything Helps – God Bless!

 

The God Who Believes in Me

This undated piece was written in Berkeley in early 2016.  I hope it gives you a picture of what Homelessness was like — for me.  

It’s driving me nuts having to be outdoors while almost everybody I can halfway relate to in life is indoors. If I relate to the people who live outdoors, it is because we all live outdoors. We share the values and mores of outdoor living in common, even if we share nothing else. But ninety percent of the time – damn right we share nothing else.

Approximately three times a week, someone who lives outside, someone whom I’ve never seen before, emerges out of someplace where I’ve probably never been and threatens to knock the crap out of me.  Yet I am a man of peace.  I only want to make my music.  I want to sit down with my laptop, crank up my music notation software, and compose.  But if I even dare get my hands on a laptop at these days, I’m an easy mark for every living thing that hides behind a bush.  I’ve been hit on the head with guns down here. If I buy a laptop, they assume it’s for trade or sale.  If I’m not willing to sell it, they might just take it by force.  My musicianship means nothing to a predator.

Maybe five times a week, a person who lives inside (whom I’ve also never seen before) approaches me and asks: “Are you homeless?”   How I have come to hate that question!  I almost disdain telling the truth, because I am so tired of seeing so much blood come pouring out of their heart, you’d think they’d have expected me to slurp it up and drink it.  Then, as they begin to promote whatever form of “help” they think best suits me, I find that in order to gain access to their assistance, I will be required to change my taste in food, my outlook on life, my political philosophy, and sometimes even my religion.   I’m frickin’ sixty-three years old, for God’s sake!!  I worked all my life!!  And they’re asking me to change my faith?  Now, of all times?  My faith is exactly what has kept me alive throughout twelve years of indignity and insanity.  Why should I abandon that which has helped me the most, in order to risk being hurt more than helped by the benign but misinformed intentions of a total stranger?   

I know a very conservative homeless man who tells me he is expected to become a liberal because it is the liberals who are feeding him.  But I have also seen many who identify as liberals become homeless, only to find themselves expected to become conservatives because, in their case, it’s the conservative Christians who feed them.   Why is that, just because someone is down on their luck, they are expected to adopt the views of those who are not?  Everyone is entitled to their own perspective, and it angers me that I should be expected to adopt the perspective of another person only because that person happens to have a roof over their head and more money than I do.  Just because a person is in a higher socio-economic class doesn’t make them right.  All it means is that they are in a better position to take advantage of another person’s weakness.  And in my case, that weakness is H– H–H–  My God, I don’t even want to speak the word anymore! 

What word?  The H-Word!  Homeless!  The word that, in one way, nobody ever hears — and in another way, it’s the only word they hear. It’s maddening. It’s exasperating. It’s more than frustrating – it’s infuriating.

Then there are the those who are not strangers.   These are the ones to whom I once was close, perhaps even intimate — the well-meaning friends and family members who want to “help.”  Oh, they’ll help all right!  They’ll help in any way they can shy of actually putting a roof over my head.  They’re always looking for the problem that “caused” me to become homeless, as if solving whatever that elusive problem might be could possibly solve the much more enormous problem that is Homelessness Itself.  None of those band-aids can possibly heal the wound of Homelessness.   That wound is way too deep for that.

There’s this huge division between the people who live outdoors and those who live indoors. It’s almost as though we’re an entirely different species. I can’t seem to do anything to bridge the gap, nor can I seem to do anything to get myself back inside. I’ve tried everything. All the suggestions everybody gives – they only lead me back to Homelessness. They never hit the core issue at its heart. So I get into this space where I start thinking: “Well, screw it. What’s the use of even trying?”  

I shrug my shoulders.  I head back to my Spot, lean my back against the brick wall of the BART station at the corner of Shattuck & Allston, take off my hat, and hold up a sign that reads:

BROKE AND HOMELESS
OFTEN HUNGRY
PLEASE HELP IF YOU CAN

I silently watch them all go by.  I make eye contact.  I look as many of them in the eye as possible.  Then, slowly but surely, little bits of change find their way into my hat.  Then a couple of dollars here and there, every now and then a five, a ten if I’m lucky, perhaps even a twenty.  People ask if they can buy me a sandwich.  Some people sneer, but they’re easy to overlook.  By and by, I calm down.  I forget my frustrations, my angst.  I meditate.  I pray.  I look around me, and it is a beautiful day in the city that I love.

An hour goes by, and suddenly it doesn’t matter any longer what they all think.  No longer am I driven nuts.  Then another half hour or so goes by, and I remember something.  I remember who I am.  I know who I am.  I even like who I am.   So what’s that word I hear?  The H-Word?  Is that supposed to say something about me?  Ah but no – perhaps we have forgotten.  Nothing says anything about me but the Me who Knows Who Me Is.   I Am the One I Am.

Three hours go by.  I pick up my cash.  The sun is setting.   I weave my way off toward the spot where I sleep, where nobody knows where to find me.   I look to the stars, and say my prayers to the God who believes in Me.

Please help raise public awareness as to the Homeless Phenomenon in America.
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Anything Helps — God Bless.