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Saturday, January 10, 2015

Poverty and Homelessness

A work in progress
There has been a lot of talk among my friends about poverty and homelessness lately. It has all been really constructive, positive and loving "What can I do to help the cause" sort of talk, and it's all good, but it's brought up a lot of things for me that I still really struggle with. Once upon a time, I thought some time and distance would fix the emotional wounds that are caused by poverty and homelessness, but I suppose it isn't that simple. Yes, I have been on welfare. My daughter and I have been homeless twice. We couch surfed so we were lucky, but luck is relative, I suppose. I grew up thinking, no, believing with my whole heart, that God never gives you more than you can handle, that adversity makes you stronger, that if you are polite and kind and do the right things, then bad things can't touch you, and that family will always be there for you. I believed that our lives are as positive or negative as the choices we make, but that we always had a choice. I know better than all that now. I wish I didn't, and maybe that's why I don't really talk about it, but if I can make just one person understand, or if I can take the self-hatred out of someone else's experience, then this difficult and painful disclosure is worthwhile. Sometimes things do the most harm if they're allowed to fester below the surface and never allowed exposure to the light of day. And it IS a new day, but nothing can erase what we've been through.

Poverty is one of those things that's extremely misunderstood. There's this idea that there is a solid safety net, that a person has to err egregiously to find themselves struggling financially, and boy, if you end up homeless,  then certainly you must have done SOMETHING to deserve that. I'll tell you what I did: I had a child. Even though it was the best, most positive and straight up honorable thing I've ever done with my life, it meant I was automatically living below the poverty line. I didn't get any child support. It happens. I hadn't finished college yet, so the amount of money I could make was negligible. I depended on welfare and the money I could make either working at home (I was a sculptor) or at jobs I could bring my child to. My grandmother helped me out a lot for awhile and we were okay, but then she died. My parents tried to help inasmuch as they could too, but the whole structure of my family had dissolved and my personal safety net was gone. Then, everything changed.

I won't get into all the details because they are tedious. But the reality for the average poor person looks something like trying to pay $800 worth of bills with $600 every month. Month after month. It fluctuates up and down periodicity depending on what you yourself are able to make (Congratulations on your new job. You are now losing your food stamps and have less money to work with.) I had a lot of nice things (I'm so lucky to have had good stuff to start with. I'm so lucky I came from a good family). I had to sell a lot of them at ridiculous prices, but at least I had them to sell. I was even able to start a business boarding dogs, and we did okay for awhile there too. But the thing about limited resources that is the most terrifying is the inability to absorb the impact of other peoples' decisions. You are quite literally at the mercy of people who care more about the bottom line than they care about you, or more about who knows what. I just know that when my basement flooded (the landlord had removed the pump before I moved in. I couldn't afford one of my own), my landlord got married and moved away, leaving her son in charge. He didn't take care of the basement (as promised), he didn't bring back the pump. When holes rotted through the floor and toxic mold grew in the walls, my daughter and I started getting sick (just get a spray bottle with bleachwater) and finally the place was condemned. It's what you can expect when the rent is "affordable", unfortunately. We couldn't find another place.

My parents rallied, my boyfriend at the time and his mom did too (Not my boyfriend anymore, but I still love them both). The plan was a house for my daughter and I, and an expanded business plan. I had this. I had people. We were going to be okay. We had it all worked out. And then we didn't. At the last minute, everything fell apart (My own family doesn't believe in me. I must be a terrible person). We scrambled to find something, ANYTHING. But rents are high and sometimes on purpose. Gotta keep the riff raff out, ya know. We lost our home and my business in one fell swoop.

There's something about packing your things when you know everything is going into storage (I can't believe this is happening). There's a disbelief (This can't be real) that goes with it until those final moments (at least my dogs are okay in my friend's kennel). It feels like a train is coming, and you're tied to the tracks. It feels like like screaming for help in a dream where nobody can hear you. And worse, your child's fate is inextricably tied to yours. It's what you think of in that moment when you load up the last of your things on the truck (I'm so lucky to have help moving my stuff), the moments when you are putting everything you own (at least I have stuff and a place to keep it) into a storage locker; your bed, your child's bed, your books and your child's toys. Then that slam of the door sliding shut on your whole world, and the click of the lock.  But the worst moment is that one when you get in your car (at least I have a car) and your child looks at you, and all you can think is "What do we do now?" (Oh God, don't cry. If ever you needed to hold it together it's now. Do it. Be strong. You failed. You failed. You're a failure. You failed your child, so you better HOLD IT TOGETHER YOU LOSER.) It's weird that life just keeps going. I'd bring my daughter to school, fortunate that she had that stability (Thank you, B&T), then go to the kennel to take care of the dogs (I'm so lucky to have a safe place for them), and search day after day for a place to call home. I would go pick up my daughter after school (Act normal. Keep it together. Nobody wants to hear about your embarrassing problems. Failure Failure Failure. Don't forget to smile. All these people get to go home and have dinner. They get to relax and go to bed. I wonder if they know how awesome that is.)

A lot of people have a lot of misunderstandings about poverty and homelessness. There's so much propaganda floating around out there that's very enticing. If you believe the poor are okay, you don't have to do anything. If you think the safety net works, YOU are off the hook.  If you believe that the poor and homeless did it to themselves, it allows you the triple advantage of 1) getting to pass judgement 2) getting to feel 'better than' and 3) you have the opportunity to feel good about turning your back on other human beings. I think very few people would knowingly do that, but the misinformation that's spread around has made poor-bashing acceptable and normal. It's disgusting. If you seriously believe that there is any advantage to being poor, I strongly encourage you to be in touch with local organizations who deal with poverty issues. Or, you know, talk to poor people. Perhaps even more important, set aside your personal bias and LISTEN.

Having said that, some of the LEAST understanding people I have ever met are social workers. Some are amazing, some just want to get through the day, but there are a surprising number of them who just want to talk down to you, talk at you, tell you how to live your life and talk to you about choices. They have the right intentions, but they are coming from their own place and not that of the client. They can't relate at all but they think they understand perfectly. It's a very dangerous combination, and likely the source of the perpetuation of misinformation so prevalent in the media today. They dispense a lot of advice that folks don't want or need and really can't take. To be clear, the REAL choices are: Food or rent, food  or gas, food or electricity, food or cleaning supplies, and when it gets toward the end of the month, food for me OR for my child (obviously a no-brainer). If I had a nickel for every person who wanted to talk at me about my "budgeting issues" or similar subjects (you just have to learn to be POSITIVE!), I would have had no more financial problems. My biggest budgeting issues were that I didn't have enough money, and lacked a magic wand.

So what DO the poor need? The short answer is more money. It takes a shocking amount of time and energy to wake up every day wondering how to feed you family, and to traipse about (if , in fact you are fortunate enough to have the ability to traipse), all over town to access random services, hoping to piece together enough money to keep the light on. It's energy that would be much better spent elsewhere. No matter what Fox "News" and their ilk say, nobody wants to be poor, poverty isn't lucrative, there is no advantage and nobody is doing well on subsidies. NOBODY. Pardon my French, but that is bullshit. I tried to come up with a better word, but there isn't one. On the rare occasion that somebody attempts fraud, they are caught and prosecuted. The second thing people need is opportunity. People who have opportunities take them so for granted that they can't even kinda understand that they aren't available to everyone, or conceive of how different life might be without them. It makes a huge difference when mommy and daddy pay for your education and sign off on all the big purchases so that you can build something positive for yourself right from the get go. It changes everything.

The other thing to remember is that homelessness isn't the problem, it's the symptom. If ever there was proof that the poor weren't getting what they need to help themselves and stop being poor, it's the alarming rate of homelessness. Homelessness happens when you have done everything you can do and it doesn't work, and have asked for help that doesn't come. It's a point of utter helplessness and hopelessness. I can't speak for everyone, but for me it was that moment when I realized that everything I believed in was bullshit. It was the moment when I knew to whom I mattered, and to whom I didn't. I realized that God most definitely gives you more than you can handle, and when it happened something broke so profoundly inside me that I've never been the same. Over the years I've worked hard at gluing all the little pieces together, but I don't think I'll ever be the same. I'm seriously agoraphobic. I mean, seriously. The panic attacks are so embarrassing, but it is what it is. I get nosebleeds whenever I get correspondence from my landlord, even though it's always benign. So no, adversity doesn't always make you stronger. Sometimes it fucks you up irrevocably. But I'm working on it. Even so, I can't help but believe it happened for a reason. I have yet to discover what that reason might be, but I'll know it when I see it.

It's over for us now, the 'living it' part. My daughter is an adult and we share household expenses. But every time I hear somebody trash the poor I get angry, because they are trashing me. Every time somebody disrespects and dehumanizes the homeless, they are dehumanizing me, and worse, my daughter. Those families are us, those children are my child. Anybody can end up there. It took me years of scraping and clawing to forgive myself for the sins that I was held accountable for but never actually committed, but I did do that much. I believe in myself, but very few others. My cynicism was well-earned. I wish I smiled more, that I was calmer and less emotional. I'll get there. In the meantime, I will always defend and advocate for those who can't do it for themselves, because I know they can't. I won't judge because nobody can be harder on a person than they are on themselves. But mostly because I understand that sometimes, people don't need a lecture or a pep-talk; what they need is real, tangible help.




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