Tuesday, July 17, 2012

thoughts on homelessness

Tell Them Who I Am, by Elliot Liebow, is the story of life in a homeless woman's shelter in DC in the 80s. I'm drawn to this topic for some reason. Last year I read The Girl's Guide to Homelessness, by Brianna Karp. Both are these are memoirs, although Liebow's is a third person observation while Karp tells her story in true memoir style. Both books make the point that homelessness is real, and difficult, and that the system often times works against you.

Both these books come at the problem from different angles-- Liebow's describes what I most often think of as a homeless experience-- walking the streets during the day, waiting for the church run shelter to open-- while Karp was living in a camper in a Wal*Mart parking lot. Both of these descriptions show women living on the edge of the poverty line... and one small bit of misfortune sends you crashing into the abyss. Many of the women Liebow encountered had jobs (unless anyone at work discovered that they had no home, and then they often seemed to end up suddenly unemployed) but they worked for minimum wage. And minimum wage is not enough, especially if you don't have anyone with whom to share expenses.

The other point that was very obvious after reading both books is how important a true support system is to anyone being able to weather a rough spell. Having family and true friends who are not also living at poverty level makes a huge difference, but having anyone at all can be the difference between making it and not.

So what does this mean for me? I am unbelievably lucky, and I know it. I have everything I need-- plenty of it, in fact-- and so much of what I want. I have shelter, a variety of food, warmth, clothes for all types of weather, a savings account, good credit, and a great job with incredible benefits. I get plenty of sick days, to use for me and should I need to care for my family. I am eligible for family leave should I need it. And I have friends and family who are not only able to help in a long term emergency situation, but who would also do so willingly. Happily. I live relatively free from violence, and have never experienced war of any kind first hand. My heavens, I live a good life.

Last night Portland voted down a proposal banning pan handling in the medians. The police felt it was it's not safe for drivers or the pan handlers... but advocates for people who are homeless called them out (I think accurately) as a way to push these people out of view. Truly, I'm impressed with the vote, but why can't we focus on a world where no one needs to beg for money in the first place?

I hope to do more to link students with the resources and connections they need when they graduate. Make no mistake-- I'm not just talking about Sunshines here. Yes, I have taught kids who are homeless, but I'm not naive enough to think there aren't others I've encountered who were not in my program. Luckily, the kids I've encountered so far have had places to go and people willing and able to help them. I pray that is always the case, and that everyone is able to have a place to call home.


Wendy said...

I've read both of those books. Another really good book is Jeanette Walls' Glass Castle, which isn't about "homelessness", but she does describe how her family deals with being transients. And then, there's James Herlihy's novel "Midnight Cowboy."

I think, in a country as "rich" as ours, that it's a shame we are so unwilling to be more sympathetic, and I'm not talking about handouts, because the overwhelming majority of stories I've read and people I've met indicate that people who are homeless, for the most part, only want a decent job and a safe place to live. There was a story, not long ago, about a "homeless" campground. They were incredibly innovative and clean, and they even had a community laundry facility, running water, and a generator for electricity. They were on unused public land, but the city officials considered them a nuisance, and rather than just let them build their community, they were ordered to leave.

I just think there needs to be some give and take. If we're going to make navigating the system akin to solving the labyrinth, then we should, at least, be tolerant of those who have a self-sufficient attitude.

I love the stuff Dan Phillips is doing with building "low income" housing out of recycled materials. Too bad there's not more of that ... perhaps letting the homeless build their own housing using recycled materials on donated land. Seems like that would be a step in the right direction.

Anyway, rant over. Keep up the good work, and I, sincerely, hope none of your students ever need to use any of those resources. I've been, marginally, homeless and it was a little scary.

Rachel Buck said...

I read Glass Castle as well, and it hit me the same way the books on homelessness hit me. I hope to pass on empathy to those I encounter as well; understanding and compassion go a long way towards making a change for the better. Glad your home is a solid and secure one now :)

Traveling Jones said...

Look up "Dignity Village" in the "other" Portland for a study in the homeless creating a community and the city's (variety of) response(s).