Homeless in America


My first full realization of homelessness hit as I was waking up, shivering, one cold, damp, and foggy November morning in 1991.  The pain in my lower back was excruciating, not to mention the numbness in my legs and feet.  I was attempting to raise myself to a seated position in response to pleadings from my two little daughters crying out, “Mommy, I’m hungry.”  “Will we find a house today?”  I’m not sure which pain paralyzed me more, the pain that immobilized my lower body from lying in a contorted position all night long, with one eye open (being too afraid to sleep), or the pain and fear that gripped my heart as I looked into the eyes of the most precious things in this world to me, my two innocent little daughters.  How do you explain to a child (let alone two of them) that they are homeless?  Furthermore, how do you get them to understand that mommy doesn’t know when we’ll have a home again, because we are broke and every shelter in town is full.

No one is ever prepared for homelessness, because no one thinks it can happen to her.  I know I didn’t.  So, how do you get children to accept, as they wake up on a raw, winter morning, in their car, you don’t know when they will see their warm cozy beds surrounded by mountains of dolls, clowns, and teddy bears again?  And, how do you explain to them that the stability they’ve come to expect in their lives that always brought the wonderful smells of breakfast, the warmth of a fireplace, hot cocoa, and mommy’s joyful hugs and kisses is not there for them this morning?  All mommy can do now is hold them as she steadies her trembling hands praying for the courage and strength to find a way.  I’ve always had a deep and abiding faith in God.  However, this particular morning, all I could do was raise my fist and scream quietly to “Him”: why us?  Only a few months before, our lives were moving forward.  We had plans, goals, and dreams.  Now life seemed little more than a cruel joke.  However, despite my anger, I knew deep in my heart that homelessness wasn’t God’s plan; instead, it’s a condition born out of human ignorance, stupidity, and indifference.

We were living in a quiet community in California, minding our business, when a young gang maliciously singled us out.  For no reason, they meddled with us, at first by day and eventually at night.  Four months later, there was extensive damage to our car and our nerves were badly shattered.  The police could see the people who were responsible, but catching them in the act was another matter entirely.  The night I watched the knobs and locks literally move on my front and back door was the last night we spent in that dwelling and in that town.  The streets became our new home.  You don’t hang around when a gang wants to hurt you.

On disability, recovering from a stroke, my expenses pretty much matched my income; we were caught, literally, between a rock and a hard place.  To cut moving and storage costs, I gave away half of our cherished items.  Some of these articles included beautiful furniture, a lovely doll collection, assorted appliances, and clothing.

Unable to afford a new place, we stayed in a motel, until that ate us up financially; and then, the car became home for a short time, a virtual hotel on wheels.  Local shelters that were immersed in their own crisis drew daily lines of homeless families several city blocks long.  Already strained to capacity, they were understaffed, overworked, and trying to manage their tiny operations on shoe-string budgets.  They were forced, repeatedly, to turn away countless men, women, and children.

Attempting to keep some structure in our lives, I tried to maintain some semblance of the “normalcy” we enjoyed in our home life.  I continued to tell bedtime stories and recited nightly prayers, which was followed by wrapping my little ones up in their coats and sleeping bags for another long cold, night. Between sobs, rubbing my hands and face to maintain body heat, I literally became a human blanket as I gently covered my babies while they slept.  A car heater is comforting, but only when it was on.  We had to consider gas.  Our money was dreadfully low, and food was the priority.

There came a point, however, when the money was finally gone and the agony of trying to live in a car forced me to swallow what was left of my pride.  I showed up on the doorsteps of people, in some cases people I hardly knew, because I couldn’t bear to watch my children suffer any longer.  Eventually, after almost two months of agonizing struggles, we were able to secure a small apartment, thanks to the compassion of a kind and understanding landlord.  By now I had learned to stop smoothing things over and was speaking candidly about our plight.  It takes courage to walk up to a stranger in a city you know little about, state your situation, lay down all your cash and suggest some reasonable terms for the next couple of months.  When you are struggling to survive and get on your feet, you don’t worry anymore about what others will think or say.  You simply use the truth and do what you must to escape hell.

FACTS ABOUT HOMELESSNESSThough a small segment of the population is “chronically homeless,” there are no definitive statistics about them at the national, state, or local levels, primarily because homelessness, for many, is a transient situation.  Sadly, because homeless counts reflect only those fortunate enough to receive services, the same tallies overlook millions more who are turned away for lack of available resources.  What’s more, homelessness tends to impacts rural communities more harshly than urban areas.

Based on a study conducted by the Urban Institute in 2000, the best approximation of homelessness nationally suggests that at least 3.5 million people, of whom 1.35 million are children, experience homelessness annually, with the prospect that many more Americans are at risk of becoming homeless than ever before.

The National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) suggests some of the most compelling arguments as to why homelessness is on the increase nationwide.  Among them is a continuing shortage of affordable housing, extending back some 20-25 years, along with a simultaneous increase in poverty.  In fact, a recent study by Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) revealed that 5.4 million low-income, unassisted American households had the worst-case housing needs, paying more than 50% of their income on rent, in many instances for substandard housing.  Of these households, 40% had at least one person working.  Given the fact that 32.9 million Americans (U.S. Census 2001) know poverty up close and personal, aggravated by economic difficulties that are escalating poverty nationwide, actual need far outstrips existing efforts to tackle this problem across the board.   Homeless advocates suggest, “A missed paycheck, a health crisis, or an unpaid bill pushes poor families over the edge into homelessness.”

NCH asserts that at heart of this problem are eroding employment opportunities for large segments of the workforce; stagnant or falling incomes; and less secure jobs, which offer fewer benefits; and the declining value and availability of public assistance.  The Coalition also contends that in times of economic growth, fiscal gain, in actuality, is realized by the top income and wealth brackets.  Paradoxically, those earning at or near minimum wage continue to fall considerably short of what most Fair Housing Market rents require for housing, especially after basic necessities are considered.  In other words, for millions of Americans, having a job is no relief from poverty.  “Thus,” NCH asserts, “a rising tide does not lift all boats, and in the United States today, many boats are struggling to stay afloat.”

Other factors cited by the Coalition expose the real story behind declining welfare rolls, as well as inadequate Social Security benefits and a pervasive lack of affordable healthcare, nationwide: “Only a small fraction of recipients’ new jobs, following The Welfare Reform Act of 1996, actually paid above minimum wage,” which still holds true.  Similarly, millions of Social Security recipients, in particular SSI beneficiaries, receive incomes that fall far short of what most Fair Market Rents require nationwide.  Curiously, Bush wants to privatize Social Security at a time when many of this program’s recipients are already at risk of becoming homeless on the benefits they receive.  Finally, a lack of affordable healthcare, especially with the onset of illness, can lead to a downward spiral resulting in job loss, depleted savings, and eventual eviction, among other catastrophic problems, as was the case with me.

Ironically, the current Administration’s policy is characterized by a $200 million increase to homeless programs for FY06, while severely cutting mainstream social programs, which critics suggest will only exacerbate homelessness. The President’s priorities become even more skewed with his $1.3 trillion extension in tax breaks that exclusively benefits America’s wealthiest.

Add to this the President’s recent request for billions more to support a war that many believe is more about the weapons of mass deception than anything else, and eyebrows lift even higher.  One has to ask the question: is bankrupting the American public the price of world dominance these days?

Homelessness, in America, has assumed the level of a human rights crisis that is increasingly claiming those from the middle-income brackets.  Given the choppy economic waters of our time, further fueled by powerful commercial concerns exerting greater political control over our government, and the erosion of once cherished American ideals, its only direction is up.  What will the ultimate toll for millions amount to before viable solutions are put into practice to end this needless national tragedy?

Though our ordeal with homelessness lasted a little under two months, it was the longest period of our lives.  Besides being brutally traumatizing, the experience sent my little ones into a deep depression that crushed what was left of my heart.  It took every bit of the next six years to build our psyches and emotions back to a place known as “safe.”  Since then, my philosophy about material possessions and life has changed dramatically.  Things can always be replaced, but rebuilding the human spirit takes considerable effort and tremendous courage.  Despite our cruel jolt in reality, we survived and grew.

However, as I look around in California, and think of the rest of America, my heart breaks again.  Homelessness, which is everyone’s problem, is an epidemic.  The day is gone when we can rely on faulty perceptions that have led some of us to believe “they,” or “those people,” will somehow go away and get it together.  We need to honestly look at the reasons “they” came to be there.  And realize the reasons for homelessness are as varied as there are people.  Illness is a factor for some, while for others it’s domestic violence.  Some come as victims of crime, while for others it’s the loss of a job.  Many working poor and others living on fixed incomes are literally one paycheck from the streets.  Homelessness can also result from a combination of situations, compounded by bureaucratic bungling, as was the case with me.  And yet for others, the reasons can reach even deeper into life as we survey our human casualties of past wars who have been abandoned by an unappreciative and apathetic society.

And yes, there are substance abusers and the mentally ill among the homeless, too, as with every other walk of life.  Seeing some of these individuals humbled me and exposed the harm that comes from judging others without benefit of a profound insight into the human heart, of which only God is capable.  Like us, many of these individuals have a history that has left its share of wounds.  I also realized: their misfortune, in a sense, is ours, especially when it gets ignored, for it is this latter group that public perception distinguishes as the quintessential image of homelessness.  Somewhere along the way, it has conveniently escaped our attention that homelessness is a condition that harbors people of every age, color, and background, and this includes families, too.

Homelessness, though preventable, has accelerated in part due to our indifference towards one another today, in contrast to an earlier period in our history when neighbor reached out to help neighbor.  If you think life will never place you in the position of being without the basic amenities, think again.  While I was homeless, I encountered individuals who, unlike me, had realized and lost every façade of the “American dream.”

Coming to grips with my own situation, I remembered my grandparents.  Some things never seem to change.  Like millions, they endured the Great Depression of the thirties that ensued after a failed Market that was driven by greed (as it still  is).  How shocked they would be to know people still wait in bread lines, eat at soup kitchens, and sleep on the streets.  The difference now is that we are besieged by a more virulent form of economic exploitation that assumes countless guises.  Again, the pillars of society are nothing more than yesterday’s robber barons who, in many instances, go unpunished for the harm they inflict upon millions.  Sometimes, today’s robber barons are indicted, but when they are punished at all, their punishment is seldom commensurate to their offense.  What does that say about our “values”?  There are more Enrons that have yet to be exposed.  Equally disturbing is the implication that some of the corporate intrigue may reach into the upper ranks of government that appears to be driven more by concerns of the top CEOs of the Fortune 500 than the grassroots concerns that represent the real America.  This all becomes even more unforgivable against the huge backdrop of a war costing billions of dollars and taking an ever greater human toll, while millions of Americans increasingly are at risk of becoming homeless here at home.

If we open our eyes, part of the solution to homelessness is in view.  There are countless abandoned buildings, vacant lots, and former military installations throughout this country.  Another resource is “we the people,” who, in order to form a more perfect union . . . ,” can unite and end the secession that has divided this nation into haves and have-nots by insuring inclusion and justice for all.  We can aspire towards a new awareness that rejects the belief that poverty and inferiority are inseparable.  Too, there is a thing called human ingenuity; the homeless can be employed in their own renaissance.  They have capable hands, good minds, and assorted talents.  Armed with education, job security, a viable wage, affordable and decent housing, and healthcare, America’s greatest resource would flourish.  Finally, there is the alliance of government and industry that can be politically harnessed and reformed into a tremendous tool for good by a caring and informed electorate.  Our choice is clear: we will either embrace the idea of public sovereignty and humanitarian priorities or future archeologists will be assessing what drove us to ruin.

I shudder to think of where we would have gone had a local charity, which was almost forced to close its doors, not been available to us on a cold, dizzily December morning in 1991.  I will never forget the warm hug from a nameless and caring soul there who held me and my daughters as we cried.  It was in that moment, with this wonderful lady’s reassuring words and heartfelt compassion, when I knew our healing had begun.

Perhaps we will earnestly tackle the issue of homelessness or the bigger picture, poverty, or at least grapple with the reasons people end up this way.  Of course, this will require vacating our comfort zone, overhauling attitudes, and making a decided shift towards “values” and priorities that place human welfare at the top of our national agenda.  Then, maybe, we’ll realize that somewhere in those huddled masses might rest the genius to cure dreaded diseases, the vision to actualize global accord, the knowledge to end famines, and the honest mind to safeguard integrity in our political and business dealings, both here and abroad.  The potential for good is infinite when we band together to eradicate all manner of injustice.

Lara DeLuz is a freelance writer fromSacramento, California.  Her writing has appeared in the Progressive Populist, Salon, and Sacramento News and Review among others.

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