Sometimes the way I’m living feels like I’m in exile in my own backyard. Many in my situation often feel the same way. For those of you who don’t know what it’s like to be a homeless parent, this blog is dedicated to you!
I often run into people who don’t realize I’m homeless because apparently, I don’t look like what they stereotype a homeless person is “supposed” to look like. Soon after they realize I’m telling the truth, here come the assumptions about why I haven’t gotten out of homelessness in the eight years we’ve been out here. An interesting observation I’ve made about people is that it is more comfortable to assume what they don’t know than to grasp the reality that there isn’t a safety net for folks when they fall through the cracks of a crap economy. What this tells me is that people are complacent and comfortable NOT KNOWING. There are a host of reasons for that type of attitude but what I’m going to talk about today is the real time reality of day to day living that goes unnoticed by most except for those who are and have lived the homeless life.
Let’s start with the assumption that all homeless kids aren’t in school. Granted, I’ve done a lot of outreach in the city of Kent and Auburn to homeless families whose kids aren’t in school but every family’s situation is different yet similar if that makes sense. Unless the parents or parent has an addiction or serious mental illness, most of the families I’ve met living out of their vehicles or “on the run” have kids enrolled in school full time. Why wouldn’t they? Many were enrolled in school before they lost their homes, right? I know of housed kids who don’t go to school so homelessness isn’t always a factor when it comes to attendance. Here’s another factor to consider. When homeless, obviously you have no place to go. For folks without a car, being “on the run” constantly to find a safe place to sleep, food and whatever else they need takes up more time and energy than you might think. You can only ride bus routes for so long just to keep warm and take a nap in the evenings. You can only hang out during the day at a local library during business hours to use the computers to look for work, apply for services, etc. If you don’t have an address or a phone, how will potential employers find you? What if you don’t have health insurance and don’t qualify for state medical benefits? What if you can’t get food stamps? If you live out of your car, what happens if you run out of gas or need repairs done and you don’t have the funds to do so? If the library is closed during holidays, where will you spend your days? Many towns do not have homeless resource/day centers, just like the city of Kent! So while folks with kids are running around to survive, there might be days where they cannot get to school or are simply too exhausted!
Oh and don’t assume that people can just dump their kids off into Foster care or any other agency. My views on that are:
1. Why is it ok to pay a stranger to take care of somebody’s kids instead of giving the parents help to take care of their own kids, especially if the parents are not abusive or neglectful?
2. What happened to building strong families and keeping them together?
3. Taking kids away from their parents due to economic hardship caused by lack of resources or access to resources is another way to penalize the poor for being poor.
For the kids in homelessness, there is the added stigma of their peers finding out they’re homeless. Sooner or later, the truth will come out either because they can’t afford to buy new clothes, their shoes wear out, lack of access to regular showers becomes apparent, they can’t concentrate in school due to consistent hunger or lack of sleep, can’t afford to participate in school activities, and the list goes on from there. Then there’s the heartbreak of losing a cherished friend due to parents deciding that associating with a homeless kid will somehow infect them with poverty. Depending on what kind of people are running your school district, you will either get apathy or compassion from educators. I’ve experienced both.
For teenagers, homelessness can be tragic. If they are unaccompanied youth, their homelessness is very different from adult homelessness. For one thing, they have to be a certain age to qualify for food stamps, visits to the local food bank, etc. They are prone to predation from drug dealers, sex traffickers, gangs and street violence. Often times they discover their city may not have youth shelter but instead, juvenile detention centers. They get criticized for hanging out in public places, often accused of loitering or harassed by cops for panhandling. For teens still with their families, going to school can be a daily ordeal if your classmates don’t know your homeless. Peer pressure and bullying are very real problems they have to struggle with so they need all the support they can get but sadly, often do not. How do you think they feel when mom or dad gets passed over on a job interview or skips meals just to make sure they get fed first? I’ve met boys out here that starting selling drugs because they were sick and tired of being hungry, threadbare or hearing their mothers cry at night. They have no faith in a system that doesn’t seem to do anything fast enough for them. They’re not interested in being preached at, to or about. They want results they can see and touch just like everybody else.
I once reached out to a young man who was constantly being judged by his appearance. He complained about not being able to find work even though he had a degree in welding. He couldn’t get much help from local agencies or the state and started talking about death by train. One day, he surprised me when he got judgment thrown out of him by a man dressed in his Sunday best on his way to church with his family. The young man was panhandling to this man when the man blurted out “Why don’t you just get a job instead of living like a bum?!” The youth replied “Sir, I am not a bum. I have two years of college and am a trained welder. I can’t find a job because no one wants to hire me. I am not a drug addict, either. I will take any job I can get but I don’t qualify for health insurance through the state, I don’t qualify for housing, I can’t even eat on a regular basis and that’s the only reason I ask people for money!” The man was stunned to hear this and to everyone’s surprise, he reached into his pocket and handed the youth a $10 bill. He even apologized for his comment.
The biggest observations I’ve made about other people’s reaction to poverty came from watching relative’s behavior once I told them we are homeless and have been for eight years. Instead of noticing that I’ve had two jobs since I was 12, child support is missing, and they weren’t around or chose not to be when we lost our apartment and couldn’t apply for Section 8 because this state is closed to application and has been for years, they assumed from where they’re at that I must not be doing something right. That’s when I ask them why they never showed up at the hospital after I had a stroke from working two jobs back to back. The other thing is the habit of offering help when it’s convenient to do so. Here’s a clue, homelessness is never convenient and help is required according to an individual’s need, not yours! Timing also plays a key role in getting out of homelessness because it does no good to come up with rent money after you’ve already been evicted or lost everything you owned. We don’t need part time child care, we need full time child care to work two minimum wage jobs that may or may not pay for rent. If we lose our health, then our situation has become even more urgent. The longer one is stuck in homelessness, the harder it is to get out of it. Also, if you offer shelter to family members having a hard time, be realistic with your expectations. It takes longer than a few weeks, months or a year to get back on your feet, especially with increased cuts to social services and the rising costs of living. Poor relatives may not be able to chip in for utilities or your food bill either which is a big part of why so many families are living out of their cars or in hotels if they can afford to.
I have watched how certain attitudes about poverty have been institutionalized even at the local government level. When cities enact “quality of life” ordinances against the homeless, that is a result of being out of touch with real time homelessness and the obvious lack of resources to help the homeless get off the streets. Criminalizing the poor, either by policy or attitude, only makes it harder on the homeless and doesn’t solve poverty. For those of us out here struggling to get by, we expect to be judged for being poor. We expect people to assume the worst about us but more than anything, your reaction to poverty is a reflection of a society’s values so what does yours say about you?