As I was riding in to what turned out to be a very short shift of work today, I passed a homeless man begging. A woman handed him some money as she walked by, and part of me wondered what kind of booze he’d buy. Then I wondered why I was asking myself that.
It’s very tempting, isn’t it, to assume that all homeless people are on drugs, or are alcoholics, or are insane, or some combination of all three. It’s tempting to assume that, because we know we aren’t like that. We could never end up like them. They have horrible mental problems or substance abuse issues, so that’s why they’re on the streets. That could never happen to us.
Viewing the homeless as something other than ourselves makes it easy to marginalize them. If someone’s on drugs or drinks too much and ends up homeless, well, that’s kind of their own fault, right? So we don’t need to do anything for them until they sober up. Same with the mentally ill. If only they’d take their meds, they’d be just fine!
But of course the reality is far different. Homelessness can happen to anyone, including me, and including you. I’ve never actually been homeless, but I was very close once upon a time, and I know full-well how easy it is for it to happen to anyone.
Let’s indulge in an exercise. Say that you’re doing fairly well for yourself. You have a nice car, a nice house, and a nice job. You’re financially responsible, and you have six months of income saved up, in addition to a 401 (k) that has about $15,000 in it. So you’re not horribly panicked, though certainly not happy, when your boss calls you in and lays you off.
Let’s say that this happens during a recession not unlike the one we just got out of. Well, you got laid off, and that’s not your fault, so you get some unemployment money, plus two months of severance pay. Not a bad deal. Of course, you have to keep up your health insurance, so you suddenly have to pay a fair amount of COBRA, and the unemployment amounts to only $214 a week after taxes. But you’re ok for a while, and you know you can find work again.
But it’s a recession, so you can’t. Maybe you worked in a very specialized field, or maybe most of the jobs you did have been outsourced. So you look and look and don’t find anything. Two months go by, and the severance pay is gone. Now you start dipping into your savings, because that $214 a week isn’t even covering your house and car payments.
Eight months go by. You’re still out of work, and now you’re out of savings. You cash in your 401 (k), and promptly lose $5,000 off the top. But you have $10,000 to live on, and that’ll keep you going for a bit. Then your unemployment runs out. Well, you’re still doing ok, but you do have to tighten your belt.
Now you hit a year since you lost your job. Many people were in this situation back during the recession and many still are. You aren’t getting unemployment anymore, and your savings and 401 (k) are gone. You start using your credit cards to live off of, but you max those out fairly quickly and the interest rates are murder. Being a responsible person, you sell your car at a massive loss and buy a used car. At least you don’t have to worry about car payments, but there’s an alarming rattle that worries you.
Being a responsible person, you also decide it’s time to sell your house and move into an apartment. Cutting expenses is always wise. However the housing market is crap, and your house doesn’t sell.
Then you miss a mortgage payment. Then another one. You’ve got food on your table and your lights are still on, but you’re getting so desperate you’re starting to look for just any job at all, even one that doesn’t use the degree you’re still paying off.
Then the bank forecloses. Now you’re out on your ass, but not to fear; you have enough money that you’re able to get into an apartment. Then you get “lucky” and get a retail job. It pays only minimum wage, and you’re limited to only 28 hours a week so they don’t have to provide you with health care. Oh, and needless to say, your COBRA benefits are long since forgotten.
You’re still not quite earning what you need to, so you pick up a second job. This is a fast food job, horribly, and you again get only minimum wage and 28 hours per week. You have to max out those hours as much as you can, so you’re now working 54 hours a week, with only one day a week that you’re off (and you try to job hunt, but you’re just so tired now!). But you’re managing. You’re keeping your head above water.
Then you get horribly sick. The flu. If only you’d had health insurance, you could have gotten your usual flu shot, but oh, well. You miss a week of work. The fast food job fires your ass. They don’t have any patience for sick people who won’t come in and work with food. The retail job lets you keep working, but you’ve missed a week of pay.
Then that rattle you’d been worrying about catches up to you, and now you have to pay $500 to get your car fixed. You have no choice; if it doesn’t work, you don’t work. Of course, that money should have gone to your rent. But you make the responsible choice and get the car fixed. The end result is that you pay your rent late, and pay a late fee. By now you’re also paying your utilities late on a regular basis, and those also come with late fees. This all builds up and means that your next month’s rent is late, too, which means even more late fees, and a landlord who is losing patience.
You try your best to find another job, even a fast food job, but everyone either says you’re overqualified or finds another reason not to hire you, ie: you’ve been fired from two jobs in the last year. Well, laid off from one, but they’ll assume you’re lying about that.
Then you miss your rent payment. Your landlord gives you plenty of time, but you just can’t do it, and you come home to a 30 day eviction notice. Now you’re really in a panic. You try your best to find a place to live. Even crashing on a friend’s couch would be great! Even rooming with that weird guy you work with who always smells like cabbage and has this theory about how Mila Kunis is really his long-lost sister, who he wants to bang.
Of course you could just rent another apartment, but now you’ve got an eviction looming, and only one job. Good luck paying the first, last and deposit needed. Also, your credit rating is in the toilet. Remember that foreclosure? Remember those maxed-out credit cards you haven’t paid?
And so you’re out of your apartment, but at least you have a car. You spend a few nights in there, and needless to say, your hygiene isn’t the best. Your boss pulls you aside and gently suggests that you need to be a bit cleaner for your job.
Then the worst happens. One day while out job hunting, you come back to find that your car has been towed. You don’t have the money to pay the fees to get your car back, either, and so that night, for the first time, you go to a homeless shelter.
The next few nights are also spent there, and during this time period, you lose your job. It’s nothing personal, but they can’t have you working there smelling like you do and looking like you do. Then the shelter announces that they’re shutting down because of a lack of money.
And now, three years after you lost your good job, you spend your first night sleeping out on the actual streets…
This is a gloomy picture, and you know what? I best-cased it to a great extent. The hypothetical “you” doesn’t have kids, for example, or a disability. This hypothetical person is white, young and male, not older, black and female. This person has a college education. And you know what else?
This person obeys all the rules of society and still ends up homeless.
Nothing about the picture I’ve just painted here is even remotely implausible. None of it is something that can’t happen. All of it has, at various points, either actually happened to me or to people I’ve known. I said before that I haven’t ever been homeless, and that’s true. There was a point in my life where I kept a roof over my head by paying $250 a week to stay at a flophouse motel. That’s a thousand a month. I could have easily afforded a decent apartment, but that would have taken first, last and a deposit, and I couldn’t save up for that.
So the lesson here is that, really, homelessness can happen to anyone, and much more easily than you think. It can happen to me, it can happen to you. It’s a terrible thing, and you don’t have to have any drugs, alcohol, or mental health issues to bring it about. Though to be fair, once you’re out on the streets, something to make you forget your pain might be sorely tempting…