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The face of homelessness by Michelle Kennedy

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During the day things weren’t so bad. Because I waited tables, I had the day free to take the kids to the ocean, the library, the laundromat. We walked around town and people smiled at us. They didn’t know how poor we were. They didn’t know we lived in our car. I applied for food stamps, but I didn’t qualify. I made too much money. Hah! I think it’s more expensive to be poor than to be rich. I didn’t have a refrigerator, so I couldn’t buy things like concentrated juice for $1 and make a pitcher to last for a couple of days. I had to buy individual servings at a $1 a piece. The kids developed a taste for water.

I found a truck stop that let me fill up my water jugs and had showers for the truckers. I paid for one at a time and would alternate each day on who would take one with me. We went there first thing every morning. I can’t deal without a shower. The two things I wouldn’t even try to skimp on were showers and laundry.

Finding an apartment was a Catch-22. I could, after two months, afford a cheaper studio or one-bedroom apartment, but landlords continually told me that they “couldn’t let” me live in one. Just too small for a family of four, they said. I should aim for a two-bedroom, they told me. No one seemed to mind that four of us were living in my car. A studio apartment would have seemed like the Taj Mahal at that point.

I could not contain my anger sometimes. I would watch as the kids—remarkably happy with their “camp-out as life” arrangement—played at the beach and scream in my head, “How is it possible that this is what my life is supposed to be like? I went to college, Goddamnit! I worked in the U.S. Senate! I am smarter than this...I have to be.”

And that was the fundamental issue then, just as it is now. It’s the thought that someone must be lazy or stupid to end up homeless. It is a myth in our society that the people who frequent soup kitchens and the free Thanksgiving dinners at the local church are lazy men, likely drug addicts, who live in boxes beneath a bridge. More and more, soup kitchens are feeding families, with parents who both work. It is a myth that two working parents, let alone one, can afford decent housing in this day and age.

“The loss of affordable housing in the United States, and the subsequent rise in homelessness, is directly linked to the decline in federal support for low-income housing as well as the recent and now deepening economic recession,” reports the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD’s) refusal to support the National Housing Trust Fund or recognize the need to build more affordable housing serves as evidence for the Bush administration’s attitude toward addressing homelessness. The inability of anyone in this country, who works 40 hours a week at minimum wage, to afford housing at fair market rent is an alarming indicator and predictor of homelessness. Additionally, the lack of affordable housing and the drastic funding cuts that nonprofit and service providing agencies have received lately has deepened the plight of people who are trying to find housing and those who must live on the streets.”

Further, the Coalition states that in no state or local jurisdiction can a person who works a minimum wage job afford the Fair Market Rental Rates determined by Housing and Urban Development (HUD). This fact is underscored when it is learned that 42 percent of homeless people nationwide, are indeed, employed.

Rep. Julia Carson (D-Indiana) introduced the “Bringing America Home Act,” a bill designed to end homelessness, in July 2003.

“In the United States, 3.5 million people—almost 40 percent of them children—experience homelessness each year. This national disgrace is unnecessary,” said Carson. “Many of these families are supported by working parents, but due to high rents, high unemployment, or low paying jobs, they have found themselves living on the streets, in cars, in shelters, in abandoned buildings, in motels, or in over-crowded, temporary accommodations with others.”

The bill includes housing, health, income and civil rights provisions, such as authorizing a National Housing Trust Fund, a source of funds that would build and preserve 1.5 million affordable homes over the next 10 years. If passed, the Bringing America Home Act would also provide opportunities for job training, vouchers for child-care and public transportation, and emergency funds for families facing eviction.

But, as with any government program, getting it to the people will be the main problem. I found out only after my experience with homelessness that there were child care programs available to me. I found out only after, and after much independent research, that there were programs available to help me get into an apartment much sooner than the three plus months it took. When I applied for food stamps, and was subsequently turned down, no one informed me of other opportunities I might be able to take advantage of to make my life a little easier. They seemed just happy to escort me on my way.

Then there are the many homeless men and women who refuse to ask for help. They believe, and sometimes rightly so, that their problems are their own fault and that they don’t need nor deserve a hand up. Poverty and homelessness are a state of mind as well as a state of being, but they don’t have to be. And a long way toward curing the state of mind, is to understand that the well-dressed mother strolling her baby to the library could very well be living in her car. Or that the nice young man who cashed your check for you at the bank could very well have slept in a shelter last night, or in the lounge of a truck stop.

mmo : july 2004

Michelle Kennedy is an award-winning journalist and columnist, as well as the author of nine parenting manuals. Her work in Brain, Child Magazine was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She has written for The New York Times, Salon.com, The Christian Science Monitor and many other publications. Her book relating her experience as a homeless mother is scheduled for publication in February 2005.

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