In June of 2009 PBS predicted that -- according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness -- "The recession will force 1.5 million more people into homelessness over the next two years." That was 1.5 million MORE people. That makes best estimates for the number of homeless people in the U.S. anywhere from three to five million. The same PBS story says that 1.5 million of the overall total are children.
These numbers are so large that it's difficult to imagine the typical homeless person. Because homelessness is at such epidemic proportions, there is nothing typical about the conditions, circumstances, or character of the homeless.
So rather than try and imagine the entire spectrum -- from aging military veteran to colicky new born -- let's just talk about one of these newer homeless folks.
Allow me to introduce a man who became homeless as a result of our nation's economic downturn. He's one of those million and a half extra folks added to the already existing crowd experiencing chronic homelessness. Only recently and unexpectedly, this gent found that he couldn't keep his bills paid and a roof over his head for the first time in his life.
To protect this lost soul's only remaining possession -- his pride -- I'm calling him J.S. Bach. He's a composer and musician and he's played with some of the coolest dudes in modern American music. He's backed up Merle Haggard, Freddy Fender, Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams Jr., and Willie Nelson just to name drop a few. I asked him why he doesn't ask for help. And I get the same answer I've always gotten from folks who've never been homeless before, "I'd like to earn my way out of the corner I've painted myself into ... The worst thing about all this is the self-loathing and crippling fear that underscores this whole situation."
When the economy went south Bach got fewer and fewer gigs. Because it was incomprehensible that the hiring slump for live music would last years instead of months, Bach hocked some of his musical instruments to make his rent payments. He was certain that he'd find work in plenty of time to rescue what he'd borrowed against at the pawn brokers and besides, he had other stuff in storage.
Bach later learned what most non-homeless folks never find out -- if you can't pay your rent, chances are you won't be paying for your storage. Bach's got a car, it's the last thing he hasn't sold just to get out from under the mess he's in because now he's afraid he'll need it for lodging if he wears out his welcome couch surfing.
I heard about Bach through a friend of mine. My friend knew I'd worked with the homeless for years. My friend knows I think the TV show where they cut the lock off storage compartments and auction the contents is the cruelest show ever made. And my friend knows that I believe in people. I believe if someone heard Bach's music -- you can listen to it at a link we made for him on the web page of the radio station where I work -- they would help him.
By March Bach needs the storage rental brought current, his instruments out of hock and some car insurance. Or he'll never see his belongings again. $1500 would change his world temporarily. Getting a job could change it for good. Bach used to make $1500 in no time as a session artist.
Bach also needs a home and a clinic to help him get the medicine he needs. But -- for now -- there are organizations out there that will help him with that. Bach's despair over losing his possessions and his inability to get work -- he can't drive to gigs without car insurance -- are taking hold. So the prospect of having a home and his health care needs addressed doesn't give him any hope.
Bach explains, "I'm admittedly frightened about losing my music equipment, car, and other belongings. If I had any bootstraps, I'd 'pull myself up by the bootstraps.' If anyone can spare a pair of bootstraps or two, I'll apply them towards the solution."
If you listen to our homeless Bach's music you'll know he's a he's a talented musician and songwriter. But he's also composed a few sentences that sum up the horrible feeling of homelessness more succinctly than any description I've heard or read, "Self-loathing and self-destructive thoughts are a constant reality. I feel I'm displacing too much space. Failures result in the fear to make decisions, thus entropy gains more than a foothold."