I had the opportunity to take part in a panel discussion about poverty on HuffPost Live a few days ago and enjoyed it very much. Outside of some minor technical difficulties, I thought the segment went well and wished there was more time to talk about the realities of homelessness. No one thinks in their lifetime they'll lose everything they have or worked for yet it's happening to people everywhere.
People like to make asumptions about what they don't know, especially if they don't want to believe that they are only one incident away from becoming homeless themselves. The number one thing that people assume is that there's all these resources available for homelessness. Call 211 as a person needing immediate help and see what happens. Here in King County, it used to be that you could walk into an agency and apply for help but in April of this year, that has changed. Now the county funnels people needing help through the 211 line and there are several reasons for that. One, it is assumed that it will eliminate the "pick and choose" who gets helped problem many out here have experienced. Secondly, it gives the county a way to track how many people are asking for help and what kinds of services they're trying to access but here's the kicker; it doesn't do anything but add another layer of beauracracy to the overburdened system. No one I know here in Kent or Auburn has gotten housing help from calling 211 but they have been getting on waiting lists.
Consider yourself fortunate if you have friends and relatives willing to provide you with "suspension support," i.e. a place to stay, encouragement, childcare, transportation to and from a job or to doctor's appointments, gas money if you have your own car, etc. Without suspension support, there's nothing to stop the inevitable accelerated downward spiral that drags homeless people deeper into hopelessness. Many homeless people have jobs but the pay isn't enough to house them, so the argument about just having a job keeping you from homelessness is a myth. Maintaining a job and not letting your employer know you're homeless is also a challenge for many, since you have to keep yourself clean on a regular basis and not many people living outside have regular access to showers.
If you're a family with younger children, lack of childcare is crippling to an already overstretched budget. When I had two jobs, I still paid more than rent on childcare just to keep up the cycle of working seven days a week with little or no sleep, and we still ended up homeless!! Which reminds me, if you lose your health and can't work, then what? Even a brief moment away from a regular income nowadays can be devastating. After I had a stroke/seizure episode, it took 18 months of physical rehab to learn how to walk straight without falling down. When my health insurance ran out, so did my access to healthcare, and I couldn't keep doctor's appointments I couldn't afford. Ever since then it's been an ugly merry-go-round to find a living wage job that will get us out of living in a van.
People often ask me about shelters here and I laugh. I tell them to go find one for families and see if they can get in. There aren't very many and again... there's waiting lists! Most shelters have time limits so if you can't find a decent job by the time a 90-day stay is up, you have to leave and start the process all over again or like a lot of people, quit the shelter system altogether and join a tent city. Many refuse to go to shelters because of what happens to them while there. Many have bedbugs, lice and theft, so they feel safer somewhere else. Car dwelling isn't too much different except that you have to worry about gas, insurance and places to park at night. The other thing is looking out for car jackers while parked as I've startled a few who thought no one was in the van.
As a homeless mom I can tell you that keeping and maintaining a job hinges on reliable and affordable childcare. I'm damned if I do and damned if I don't without it. One thing I can't stand is starting a job then scrambling to find childcare during school days off or illness. Sometimes I've lost jobs because I couldn't afford or find childcare. Sure, there's childcare assistance through the state but there's also a six to eight week waiting period AFTER the hire date and your income from the job must be higher than minimum wage or you simply don't qualify for help.
Maintaining your health while being out here is also a challenge especially during winter. I worry more about terminally ill people out here because I feel that people who are already dying shouldn't have to face the humiliation of dying alone under a bridge or out in the woods somewhere yet it happens all the time. We can point the fingers at others all we want to but that seems like a waste of time to me when something could actually be done about it. I seriously doubt that any political campaign will take poverty seriously enough to make it a priority because there isn't a lot of money in doing so but if millions were involved to add to a candidates campaign funds, they'd be all over it!
Seems to me we ought to pull together instead of pulling each other apart these days but I suppose that's human nature. I figure while I'm on this unpleasant merry-go-round, I might as well try to help others new to homelessness by telling them the truth about what's out here and what to expect and not expect from agencies. I volunteer my time to help other homeless people who have even less than I do! Just because I'm out here doesn't mean I have to be callous or less compassionate towards others.
Follow Carey Fuller on Twitter: www.twitter.com/careyfuller