Not all downsizing is by choice, and it also isn’t necessarily a graceful change either. Sometimes, the school of hard knocks demands someone takes a crash course. One of those crash courses may find a lesson in being homeless.
Most people picture a derelict wino or drug addict, sleeping in rags behind a dumpster as the epitome of homelessness. That’s not the usual story. The usual homeless person is nearly invisible and may actually be your co-worker or that applicant for a job sitting neatly groomed with a resume in hand in your waiting area. It might include your kids’ classmates at school. It might be a friend who asks you to be their mailing address.
They don’t talk about it. They often avoid applying for any kind of government aid–it’s too hard to explain where they live. In public, they smile and look very ordinary. In private, they are often sleeping in a car, RV, van, or couch surfing from friend to relative’s house. They might shower at a truck stop, a friend’s house, the gym, or their job. They do their laundry in laundromats or someone’s house. Few people will ever hear them talk about their homeless state. Often, not even their closest friends or family are aware of it, although the signs are all there.
It can happen for a lot of reasons, ranging from medical problems to losing their job. Sometimes its a divorce that starts them out onto the streets. Sometimes it is substance abuse or other addictions too. What separates them from the derelict is a fine line of some kind of income, their clothing, their optimism, and a vehicle to store their remaining property in. Whatever creates that fine line, if they don’t find a way out of the situation before it dissolves, society as a whole has failed them and created another statistic.
Living that way is hard for them too. At night, they become refugees in their own homeland, forced to find a place out of sight and stay out of sight, without attracting anyone’s attention. That means area residents and police alike must stay unaware of their presence and lack of a better place to sleep. No lights, no television, no midnight snacks…because they dare not create anything that anyone would notice, such as noise, movement or light. Their vehicle must look unobtrusive and merely parked…for now. Shortly after daylight, or earlier if they are in a normal passenger car, they have to be back on the move, staying under the radar.
The world isn’t friendly to someone who has fallen on hard times.
There are laws against “vagrancy” in most locales. Most neighborhoods don’t want to be seen as friendly to the homeless–it brings down property values and increases crime. People make fun of the homeless and the down-and-out. Who wants to be regarded as a criminal, drain on society, a failure, and a source of humor?
America is filled with thousands of these faceless, unknown and invisible refugees from the economic bust. More streamed out after them after the waves of foreclosures that are continuing today. Some found it short term, and within a few weeks, were back in a house or apartment, continuing their lives as if nothing had ever happened, with that chapter locked and sealed behind them as a source of shame.
Others haven’t been so lucky. Even as the cycles continue of becoming homeless and finding a way back into a home continue, the numbers increase regularly, still uncounted, still faceless, and still desperately trying to stay under the radar. What employer wants to employ (or continue to employ) someone who is homeless?
Sympathies don’t rush towards them these days. People act as though it could never happen to them, and yet, most families are within thirty days of homelessness themselves, without friends or relatives that could or would help them if they did end up in that situation. How long could you survive if that paycheck was suddenly cut off? What if there was no unemployment check to follow that loss?
Granted, it’s not safe to just start rounding up homeless people and inviting them into your home–not all people of any group are safe house guests. Not everyone wants to work towards improving their lot in life either. At the same time, some kind of solutions need to be created at the community level. What kinds of things can be done to alleviate the problem without attracting those who are merely common criminals and prey on the unwary?
Some communities offer things like “safe parking.” Usually, it’s church parking lots, unused during the night, and people are allowed to park there, often with some kind of assistance available too, whether its a hot meal, a shower, or some kind of counseling. It helps those who are trying to stay safe and get back on their feet find a secure place to park for the night (they typically have to leave during the day.) Law enforcement can easily see who is there, and monitor the activity in the area, preventing the parking homeless from becoming a statistic either as a victim or the criminal.
While this might be a great idea, I’m also not sure if it is one that is truly feasible. The nature of the mobile homeless or car camping group is the fact that they are so very accustomed to flying under the radar and hiding their homeless state. Utilizing the “safe parking” is very near admitting that they are homeless, and for most of them, very risky behavior that can have terrible ramifications.
For some, it may be fear of losing their last bit of dignity. For others, it may be the fear of losing custody of their kids. For still others, it may be the idea of losing their beloved pet. Laws aren’t always very friendly to those who are homeless, and well-intention-ed assistance can often lead their victims into despair and sorrow.
Several things must happen for most of these people to get back on their feet. Usually, it revolves around becoming employed again if they are unemployed. Next, it is coming up with the funds necessary to pay deposits for a rental unit, electric, and other utilities. They’ll need furniture and household goods too. Last, but not least, they will also need to be able to survive on what they have left in terms of food, automobile insurance, repairs, clothing, and gasoline.
There is no government program to help with things such as deposits, and few social charities will do so either. Churches will rarely assist anyone unless they are a member of the church already. Utility companies and rental companies also don’t give the formerly homeless any kind of break on paying these deposits. Those deposits, often totaling far more than their monthly income, are a huge barrier to regaining stability and a home. They may also lack both the credit rating and references for a rental company, leaving them in a situation where they are forced to seek substandard housing that includes utilities, but at a dramatically higher cost.
No one wants to fund a program that is misused, and the possibilities of abuse of a program to assist with deposits, rentals, furniture, etc. does exist. We all know people who live to abuse such benefits, regarding the challenge of obtaining them as nothing more than a game, and another way to “beat the system.” With that said, most of us will encounter someone in just such a situation in the coming year.
Maybe its time to extend a helping hand to someone. Lending a hand to someone who is honestly trying to get back on their feet is immensely satisfying. They often make fantastic employees, and truly understanding friends. It might not be paying a bill for them, it might be something like a place to get mail, a shower, some laundry, and a hot meal with some television…it might be your old pots and pans or a bedroom set your kids have outgrown. It might be those curtains you finally replaced too. Whatever it is…make a difference. Next year, it might be you who is wearing their shoes.