Give and Take
First off, I'd like to thank everyone who offers prayers, links to the blog, words of encouragement and hope. These intangibles are more meaningful than you think, and more appreciated than you know.
Some people want to know why I'm blogging instead of focusing on the problem of securing housing and work. The short answer is, I am. Anyone who blogs a lot knows that it doesn't take a lot of time, plus, I am a quite fast typist. Also, I blog wheneever I have a spare moment. Most of my day right now is filled with searching for work, keeping appointments, meeting with people and agencies that can help, and taking care of personal business that doesn't fall into any of the above categories. But I'm not "on" all the time, so I try to keep people abreast. Rest assured, however, my family and my problems come first. Think about it: are any of you at work 24/7, other than emergency personnel, that is?
I also blog because if I can help just one person out of their own personal hell with a well-timed piece of advice, or a point to a heretofore-unknown resource, or just the knowledge that someone else is in it too, then I'll consider the time well spent.
Some have asked about the Beast. He's just a personification of my depression, doubts and fears rolled up into one diabolical jackass that comes lumbering to the fore from time to time. It's just easier to describe him as a Beast because, well, he acts like one, ready to pounce and tear my feelings to shreds at any unguarded moment.
Several people have offered donations in various ways. I certainly have no problem accepting donations (like a lot of people), but bear in mind that I'm not the only person in this mess, and there are many fine organizations around the country that could use your help much more. I do have a paypal account, but I hadn't used it in a long time, so it's still being set up. Along that line, several have asked if there is a way to get hold of me privately. My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Put something in the subject line that lets me know you're "legit" so I'll know to reset the spam filter for you.
One commenter wondered how I could get paid through Yahoo Clicks if I had no home. Actually, until I read that comment, I'd forgotten I'd even signed up for it. It was offered when I signed up with Blogger and I thought "what the hey, it's another potential few bucks when it's needed, so I signed up.
Several people wanted to see a copy of my skillset. I'm still looking for a way to post my resume to the Web without triggering a flood of cranks and spam. Anyone who knows of a good job in the Triad, NC area, just ping me at the above e-mail.
Lastly, there are those who think I'm just bitching or whining, or wanting publicity. I've never been one to seek the limelight (it's rather uncomfortable for me now) and as for bitching and whining -- there are far more elegant ways. Rather, as I've said before, I'm trying to break stereotypes. I'm not an alcoholic, or a beggar, or shiftlessly sitting around. I'm actually making progress (even if you can't see it) and hopefully someday soon I'll be in a position to reach down and grasp someone's hand to pull them up -- not use the anonymity of the Web to callously slap their face.
I will not apologize, however, for being a registered and proud Democrat. No one apologized for being a Republican when Clinton -- the greatest president since JFK -- was in office, so why should I be made to feel ashamed of my heroes?
Watching the Tsunami Roll In*
Now, just looking around the Web, I can see that I seem to have made a lot of noise. I've gotten many e-mails congratulating me on the News & Record article and offering encouragement. I've seen innumerable comments on the boards of Blogger and other sites that host blogs, some from countries such as Canada, France and Australia. View From the Sidewalk has been linked to from more sites than I could possibly keep up with. One blogger, sebastian, even put me onto the fact that the German media got wind of the story.
The. German. Media.
I nearly fell out of my chair when I saw that! I had forgotten just how big the Web has become. That the Germans would pick up on this (and I guess by default, other places in Europe) just blows my mind! It means the my story -- and by extension, the story of every homeless person in America and beyond -- might eventually make its way around the world.
Good. No one can get helped until the problem gets noticed.
Still, I wonder sometimes just what the heck I've gotten myself into. I seem to have made sufficient noise to attract attention to homelessness; now what do I do? In the short term, I'll be keeping up the blog and keeping people abreast of what's going on, but then what? I'm not planning to be homeless forever. Will I still have the same perspective once I have a roof overhead? What of the thoughts and debates I've influenced? What if (egad!) someone actually wants me to be a spokesperson or leader of some sort?
I just don't know.
I know at this point, failure isn't an option; the Beast would love that, so I guess I'll just keep on keepin' on.
And learn to swim before the tsunami hits.
*This is not to demean the tragedy of the people of Indonesia; indeed, many of the victims of the tsunamis in late December 2004 are probably still homeless themselves to this day.
Most times, I don't get a second glance, but I still worry. Sometimes, you can indeed look at someone and tell several things about them just from the way they look. Some homeless people are no exception. Of course, it doesn't help that usually, they're found in places where you would normally find the homeless: on street corners with a sign, hanging out near Greensboro Urban Ministry, sleeping in the library. But sometimes, you just know. It's that psychic/limbic connection that all humans share on some ancient, esoteric level. That feeling that the cavemen once used to tell who was part of their tribe and who wasn't. I try hard to keep people from simply knowing I'm homeless, and reacting accordingly. Besides, keeping such reaction to a minimum keeps the Beast at bay.
Speaking of the Beast, he jumped me yesterday afternoon. I had time before my interview, and since I was in the area, I visited the offices of Trone Advertising, where I'd worked from 2000-2002 (and held the absolute best job I've ever had in my life.) A position I'd applied for had already been filled, as had one I hadn't known about (and wish I had). As I left walking down the road to my interview, the Beast, who'd lumbered to my forebrain to see who I was talking to at Trone, lashed me with all the force he could muster. And he chose a devastating weapon: my memories of working at Trone, now so much ashes, and the knowledge that my career in graphic design may indeed be over. I fought him for a solid half-hour before I finally made him shuffle, grumbling back to his little corner of my mind. But I could feel that smirk he had, knowing he'd be back, and soon. Fortunately, he withdrew before I got to my interview.
I gotta get myself a good shrink.
Voices Carried By the Wind
One, the News & Record article featuring my blog has gotten positive buzz. I've heard now from about a dozen people already who saw it (and, I guess, got over the initial shock of seeing me do something worthwhile...) I just wish I could've given my friends on my e-mail list a heads up, but I couldn;t get the e-mail to work properly on this computer.
Two, got a call yesterday from the city's office of Housing and Community Development. The representative asked me if I'd be willing to help them prepare a report on housing within the city. Sounds like an interesting opportunity, although I let them know right away that I had no experience whatsoever in preparing that sort of official report (not since college, at least). I'm supposed to meet with them later today. We'll see how things go.
Lessons of Katrina
All have one thing in common: they used to have homes. In the space of one day, they don't any longer.
My point is that this can happen to any of us, at any time. My downfall was lack of money (and a modicum of poor planning) that led to eviction. But homelessness can come just as quickly under other circumstances. A fire. A tornado. A prolonged illness. Bankruptcy. Layoff. Job outsourcing. Incompetent political leaders. A meteor. The list goes on. It is easier than you think to have a house fulll of stuff one day and be living on the street less than a day later.
Homelessness can come like lightning (or by lightning...) Be vigilant.
Signs of Life
Since I currently have no car, I do a lot of walking; I've passed under a lot of bridges, and the relatively slow pace gives me time to really scan for signs of human habitation. The evidence is not under all bridges, but it's under enough of them to give some idea of the scope of the problem. It's usually something subtle: an abandoned blanket, a cardboard box strategically placed, perhaps some old camping gear (usually an indicator that its owner isn't too far away). I've only once actually glimpsed someone sleeping under a bridge. I wasn't homeless yet myself at the time, so of course, the only thing that ran through my mind is "there but for the grace of God go I."
Little did I know...
I've actually seen more entensive "accomodations." Entire small campsites set up under train trestles, overpasses, in and near abandoned dwellings. I'm sure that the area parks occasionally play unwitting host to men and women looking for a place to rest before heading out to do battle with life again the next day.
There must be some inducement we can offer those sleeping under bridges to abandon such areas (c'mon, people; they're sometimes not dry and often not safe) and try to secure space out of the rain. This is America, for God's sake. If we can put men on the moon (and soldiers in Iraq) we can certainly put the homeless somewhere drier and safer than an overpass.
Just my 1.5 cents (after taxes, of course).
Actions Taken During the Storm
Still, there have been regrettable retreats. I recall reading over the weekend that the mayor of Mocksville (or Mooresville; I don't have the story in front of me right now) was endorsing a town ordinance that would have the effect of driving away the town's only homeless person. Instead of driving him away, why not find some help for him? Offer him a permanent place to stay, or a job that pays well enough that he could secure his own? Then Mocksville/Mooresville could boast that they have no homeless people, instead of drawing the inevitable -- and deserved -- storm of scorn for abandoning a fellow citizen. I'll post more on this once I find the article I read.
In other news, we were moved to our new host church yesterday. This new group of people are proving to be every bit as nice as the folks at Westminster Presbyterian. A very humble thank you and hats off to Guilford Baptist Church. Westminster and Guilford are just two of the organizations that are refusing to abandon their fellow citzens to the storms of bad fortune. They, along with GIHN, have totally restored my faith in humanity. My advice to anyone still in this mess but reading these words: don;t give up. There's help out there. You might have to dig for it, but it's there.
Whence The Beast?
Good. I ain't got time either. Digging his claws out of my psyche takes up too much time I could be using to accomplish other things.
Casualties of Fenris*
GIHN, like all organizations, I guess has its share of ingrates who, having finally recieved the help they sought for so long, then turned around and did something so clearly against the rules that it makes you wonder why the staff and its network of volunteers haven't yet lost their sense of dedication.
Thankfully, the number of former clients of a criminal or antisocial bent seems to be small, but the bad ones seemed to be very bad indeed. I've been told of former members who surfed the Internet for porn on a computer routinely used by children, was rude and verbally abusive to the staff and volunteers, broke into the headquarters and stole valuables and used alcohol on the premises in full and knowing violation of the posted rules.
And these were just the ones I've been told about.
The concept of returning such disrespect for people who are genuinely respectful and helpful is alien to me. Why in the world, knowing the alternative is a return to the Street (and possibly a bad referral to other agencies that work with the homeless) would I ever deliberately violate a rule? To the contrary, whatever rules are posted, I make sure my family and I follow them to the letter, and I personally go above and beyond the posted rules. See, when I graduate out of GIHN (and I still want to be one of their fastest graduates) I want to be remembered not as the guy who downloaded porn onto a kids' computer, but the guy who was polite and helpful to the point of being anal about it.
Remember, the same people you meet on the way up are the same ones you meet on the way down.
Just my little soapbox rant for today.
*In Norse mythology, the monster wolf Fenris, having grown large enough to become a threat to the gods, was to be bound to keep him out of mischief. Having the Dwarves forge a magical chain, the gods tried to chain him with it, but Fenris (sensing a trick) would only agree to be bound if one of the gods put his hand in Fenris' mouth as a show of good faith. The Norse god Tyr agreed, and as a result, lost his hand when an angry Fenris found he couldn't break the magic chain.
News From the Front
The other appeared in Yes! Weekly this week. I like Yes! It's a refreshing counterpoint to the relentless right-wing drivel the Rhino Times spews forth every Thursday (no, I'm not going to link to it; JFK and FDR would get up out of their graves and come for me if I did). Anyway, Yes's homeless article is here. If it disappears from their site, you can read it in the February 20 week edition in hardcopy archives.
A search on News & Record's site will pull up previous articles they've done on the homeless, but there's a charge to pull them up and print them out. Of course, you can always go through the archives at the library once you've gotten the article dates.
Surreal slice of life, this is.
I'm actually not the type to garner publicity. After all, I'm not some narcissist like Paris Hilton, Dennis Rodman, or any of these other people that seem to be addicted to attention. I don't mind, however, drawing a bit of publicity as long as something good comes out ot it or something meaninigful is added to the debate.
Andy Warhol said everybody gets their fifteen minutes of fame. I guess this is mine; I'd better make it good. I want my fifteen minutes to actually help somebody, not feed an overblown sense of self-aggrandizement (Beyonce Knowles, Britney Spears, please call your offices.)
Speaking of fifteen minutes, I'll share mine. I wasn't going to name the host church where my family has been staying since Sunday, but they're such good people and so caring, I can't help it. So thank you, Westminster Presbyterian Church of Greensboro, for showing an old cynic that there are indeed people left on this polluted mudball who give a fig for someone else, and for being excellent hosts to a family going through a period of travail. "By their works shall you know them."
Shouting on a Dust Speck
One moment, while I finish up this slice of crow...
Got a call yesterday at the day center. A reporter for the local newspaper, the News & Record, had found my blog while researching something else. She tracked me down at GIHN and requested an interview. I had no idea my little rant would attract so much attention, but even though I had some reservations (for one thing, I'd have to decide whether or not to reveal my identity, which can be dangerous to do when you're on the Web) I decided why not? What could be bad about calling attention to the homeless?
Met with reporter Amy Dominello this morning*. We had a very pleasant talk. She had a list of questions and a copy of the blog ready, and I hoped I answered her questions coherently. The interview covered a range of topics, touching on job availability, the scope of the homeless problem, which organizations seem willing or unwilling to help (oh, yes, the blog about Greensboro Urban Ministry is coming, bet on it...), how close to insanity Our Hero has gotten, and stereotypes of the homeless, among other things.
Amy asked some excellent questions. One which sticks out in my mind was how had my perceptions toward the homeless changed since becoming one myself. I had to admit that before, I was a cynic, but now I'm a hyper-cynic. My perceptions, however, don't seem to have changed. I still feel a sense of...well, revulsion when I see someone sleeping in the library or standing on the street corner, but at least now I know that such revulsion is the product of knowing that these people are feeding stereotypes, not from knowing that they're poor or otherwise flawed.
Another question she asked me was basically how was it that I'm blogging rather than focusing on the family's needs right now. A valid question. In the time it takes me to blog, I could be looking up another housing list, or talking to social workers. My reponse was that 1) people in adversity learn to multitask damned fast and 2) I simply compartmentalize. When I have time to blog, I do. When I have to work, I work, when I have appointments with social workers and whatnot, I do that. This blog has become important to me, not only to keep people up to date, but also (If I may be permitted a grain of hubris) because dammit, no one will pay attention to the plight of the homeless until somebody makes noise. I wouldn't mind being the "yopp!" that drew attention to the Dust Speck**.
Don't know when the article will be published, but I'm guessing no more than a couple weeks. Stay tuned...
*I'd actually worked at the News & Record in the halcyon days when my graphic design skills were in demand. It was good to return to the place, although I didn't get to see much of it.
**C'mon, you seriously didn't forget Dr. Seuss' "Horton Hears a Who," did you?
Homeless. Hungry. God Bless.
Homeless. Hungry. God bless. Or some variant of the message thereof.
I couldn't help but be struck by the differences between us (other than gender and ethnicity, of course). She was passively working a street corner, depending solely on what spare change or food passing drivers would be willing to share and trusting that she'd have something to show for it at the end of the day besides a collection of obscene gestures and insults. I was on a public transport, actively headed to a job that, while it pays next to nothing, had a regular payday and some benefits.
But more importantly, unlike the woman on the corner, I wasn't feeding a stereotype.
With her sign, she was buying into (and causing others viewing her to buy into) a perception that the homeless are all panhandlers who just want to stand around doing nothing instead of working or otherwise trying to better their position. That we're all lazy, or on drugs/alcohol, or are otherwise, as Ronald Reagan so succinctly put it, "homeless by choice".
And once you feed a stereotype, you give it a strength that it doesn't deserve, and that strength invariably leads to negative perceptions. I can't imagine why anybody, homeless or otherwise, would want to aid a negative perception of themselves.
I'm certainly in no position to judge this woman. I have my survival strategy, she has hers. Maybe hers works better for her than mine does for me. I don't know. What I do know is that I've chosen not to feed the stereotype. I've decided that I'm better off not standing around passively on the street corner, or sleeping in the library, or hitting strangers up for change. I'm better off doing what I've always done: go to work, raise my kids, try to make tomorrow an increment better than today.
To do otherwise, to stand still holding a cardboard sign, is to do myself and other homeless people a massive disservice.
Levels of Comfort
We spent the first official night as members of the Guilford Interfaith Hospitality Network. As I've mentioned before, there is only one other family present in the program, a single mother with two little girls, one about Nessie's age. The fact that there is only one other family in the program at present should not lead one to think that the problem of homelessness has been blown out of proportion. To wit, see the statistics here, and a response to my initial posts at Chosen Fast here. This, to say the least, is a huge problem, but more on that later.
We were taken from the Day Center to a large local church. The volunteer staff had already prepared rollaway beds for each of us and had a meal prepared. The volunteers are some of the nicest people I ever met, so nice in fact, I actually felt guilty about them having to stay and deal with us. It's always bugged me having to ask for help, and even more so now that I think of these good people spending time away from their own friends and families to be with us. Still, they seem to have no problem with it, and I would observe, have even come to expect it.
Pay attention, boys and girls; these people are what being Christians are all about. Not Pat Robertson's political abortions or Jerry Falwell's overly-smug social dictums, but people helping people as commanded by God. "Out of their works will you know them" I think is how it goes.
We haven't asked the other girls' mother what led to her losing her house (she still works, near as we can tell), since I deem it ain't our business. One thing I have observed, however, is that she seems...well, comfortable with being in a homeless program. She's savvy about how it works, all its little nuances, and seemingly has no problem being there with her kids.
I, on the other hand, am very uncomfortable indeed. Sorry, I'm not one of Reagan's "homeless-by-choice" and I'm not trying to stay in that progrm through its entire duration, 12 weeks. I want out. I want my own space with a roof over my head, I want it so bad I can taste it, and I'll be damned if I let anything stop me.
The day I get comfortable with being in a homeless program, someone please put a bullet through my skull.
Waiting for the Endorphins to Kick In
Not formally, anyway. There's only one other family in the program we're in, a mother with two children. We haven't formally met them yet. Right now, we're sort of keeping to ourselves as we sort out what role we're to continue playing in this sad little drama and decide what the next move will be.
I'm pretty sure some out there would call it snobbishness; call it what you will, but I haven't lived 43 years by blindingly trusting every new siutation or person I run across.
That's not to say that others in this plight are criminals or otherwise less worthy. It's just that...well I'll say it: we don't want to deal with a whole bunch of others right now.
I know in order to get the help we need, we can't afford to completely withdraw right now, and it's something we have to work on, but I stilll don't see jumping into this new siutation with both feet and eyes closed. This...isolation will pass. I guess it's just a situation where, much like someone who's just slammed their thumb with a hammer, we have to pause for a moment to let the pain subside.
Waiting for the endorphins to kick in, if you will.
Nothing of note happened today save we moved out of the hotel and into the GIHN program. We'll see what tomorrow brings. I've already got several irons in the fire...
But For the Grace of God
I know others in our situation aren't so lucky, especially single mothers with children*. I hate to think of some mom, several kids in tow, that's been kicked out of their home that didn't have the resources we had to hand.
And I'm not naive. I know that there are actually some who, having lost their home, discovered a flair for outdoor living and decided, for whatever reason, not to try to regain a permanent roof. I can't imagine what life for them is like. God willing, I won't ever have to find out. I'm a city boy; outdoor life ain't for me.
*And let me inject quickly here that this covers all single mothers, in whatever circumstance. Not all single mothers are on welfare. Some are recovering from medical problems, or struggling with the aftermath of a divorce, or are just plain victims of a capitalist economy that's out to get anything not born with a silver spoon in its mouth. And let us not forget people like the Katrina victims, and other survivors of disasters, natural or man-made.
Up To The Minute...
Over the past week, we explored what options we had, discarded those that were unworkable, and narrowed our focus down to just getting a place to stay, putting all else, even a focused job search,on hold. We holed up for a week in the Suburban Extended Stay Hotel from last Monday until today. In the meanwhile, we talked to several agencies for help and were referred to the Guilford Interfaith Hospitality Network, an organization that helps the homeless by tapping resources of the faith-based and secular communitites in order to provide temporary shelter, meals and other assistance.We were accepted into the program Thursday, February 16th and moved in today. A brief overview of how it works: we have a Day Center/headquarters we report to every day where we receive social services, counseling, help with job searches and other assistance. Each night, we're taken to a different church in the area that has agreed to host homeless families. Each week, a different church takes up in. The program is designed to last 12 weeks. Hopefully, by then we'll at least have a few more options.
The list of rules is long, and the program actively screens its participants, putting it a notch above most other programs, I guess. Still, we're not trying to stay here 3 whole months. I plan to be acting a lot faster than that.
We've discovered that being homeless isn't just a state of mind, nor is it something that is easily overcome. To be sure, we will get out of this mess, but it may not be done as quickly or as easily as we thought.
One reason is a huge hindrance is that the organizations dedicated to the homelessness problem tend only to give the people seeking their help only half the information they need to make informed decisions or pursue their options. For example, when this whle thing started, we went to the Greensboro Housing Authority to try and apply for public housing, but were told that the waiting list was up to a year long. Knowing we didn't have that kind of time frame, we demurred. During our initial intake interview with GIHN, however, we found out that with proper documentation that we were homeless (easily obtained from an agency working with the homeless, the application for public housing would move to near the top of the list! Had we known this in the first place, we would've applied a lot earlier. We'll certainly be doing it this week. Who knows, maybe we'll be in somewhere more permanent by Spring?
We've spoken with the Greensboro Housing Coalition several times now. My initial call several weeks ago was rebuffed outright, although maybe I just wasn't asking the right kinds of questions. I was left with the sense that they really don't do anything other than take in donations. The wife went there the following week and was asked to fill out a rather long intake form that she had to call me at work to help with. When she met me at the hotel we were staying at that night, I asked how things went. She showed me a thick stack of computer printouts the worker at the Housing Coalition made from a website called Socialserve. I could've done as much myself, and in fact had doen so just the day before. The wife had no clue why the Housing Coalition made her fill out a huge form just to hand us a stack of printouts easily obtained by anyone with enough savvy to be able to boot a computer.
As it turned out, while we were in Durham, I ended up weeding out four-fifths of the listings. I automatically reject any housing list that requires a credit check, because admit it, mine is lousy. And four-fifths of those listings we were given required a credit check.
We've been to the Department of Social Services, and will no doubt be going there again, becuase we don;t think we've scratched the surface as far as federal help goes.* There are typically many programs that clients aren't told about when they make their initial inquiries. See, there's that "only gven one-half the information" thing again.
I guess the takeaway message here is that anytime you deal with an organization, be sure to ask probing questions. And don' be afraid to ask, becuase you can be sure that the person behind the desk will be playing things close to the vest and won't give out all the info you need.
We woke up the morning of Monday, February 13th ready to hit the problem head-on. We had use of a car, some money in the bank, thanks to our tax refund, and Nessie was comfortably ensconced at a friend's house. Packing our rental listings, we took care of some errands (including visiting our storage unit to swap oout some items we didn't need) and headed for one of the cheaper apartment complexes on our list.
These apartments, not far from where we used to live, didn't indicate that they performed background or credit checks. Furthermore, the rents listed were cheap, and it was just steps from the bus line. It seemed like a perfect combination said spelled "cheap and easy to get".
Walking into the leasing office, I strode boldly up to the woman behind the desk and told her we were interested in renting one of her units.
"Alright, the application fee is $20, and we want you to fill out this authorization form to perform a background and credit check."
But the listing we had mentined none of that. That's why we chose that complex. Then the woman said something else that almost bowled me over: "And I'll tell you right now, if you have anything whatsoever on your record, you're better off just keeping your $20."
Well as refreshing as the honesty was, we were taken aback. We were sure we'd be able to at least see one of the units before being rejected.
We talked to the woman for another half-hour. My inital assessment was incorrect; she wasn't being a bitch. On the contrary, she was one of the most honest people we'd met since this journey began. Turns out she'd been in real estate management for 23 years and had a wealth of expertise. The gist of what we learned from her was that the combination of my credit record, that eviction and my ridiculously low pay meant that our family would be on the streets for a long, long time.
Somewhere in the recesses of my brain, I felt The Beast stir.
She did let us know we had a slim hope; we could try our luck with one of the private landlords around town; not all of them did creadit checks, but more and more were beginning to each year. As to her company, we discovered that most of the major complexes around town either were managed by the same company or used the same company to perform the background checks. In short: we could just forget about moving into one of the apartment complexes.
We thanked the woman and left after she suggested a few places to try and look for work to bring our income up (she'd reminded me of a fact I'd forgotten, that housing costs shouldn't exceed roughly one-third of income; in other words, we had to be making three times the amount of whatever we wanted to rent to live without risking another eviction.)
As it was growing late in the day, and I felt The Beast trying to wake up, I called the rest of the search off. We retreated to the hotel to decide what to do next.
The Evidence of Things Not Seen
The stereotypical homeless person can be seen in various media throughout the world. The image we Americans typically see is the scruffy man in dirty clothing standing on the street corner with a handmade cardboard sign (which typically reads not "Will Work For Food", but "Hungry, Homeless, God Bless", or some variant of such.) hitting passersby up for spare change.
Or the broken down woman long past her prime shuffling along pushing a battered shopping cart full of various and sundry knickknacks.
Or the drunken/stoned man with the aroma of booze/urine/sweat/tobacco who strikes up a conversation in such a way that five seconds in you know he's going to beg for money.
Or perhaps the man with scraggly facial stubble asleep in the library or bus station, head propped on his hand.
Sorry to bust your perceptions, but I fit none of those categories.
Up until February 9, I was just like anyone reading this: an average guy, looking to provide for his kids the best way he could in a world that, frankly, not only didn't give a damn but that would just as soon had seen me and my family dead.
As you will note from my missives, I'm quite articulate. No evidence of mental illness*, and thank God, still healthy enough to run for a bus if I have to without undue physical strain.** I've enough moxie to know what I need to do and when I need to do it, and I've enough testicular fortitude to do anything -- anything -- to see to the welfare of my kids. I've never smoked, abused drugs or alcohol, and keep myself relatively clean. Unless you know me personally, and know what I'm going through, you'd never guess that I no longer have a home to call my own. The only time you will see me standing on a street corner is if I'm waiting to cross. You won't see me broadcasting my plight with a stupid little cardboard sign. And I never, ever ask strangers for change, the time, or anything else. To the contrary, I seem to get hit up several times a week.
I spend a large part of my day typically either working or loking for better work. I've read, understood and enjoyed Shakepeare and Chaucer. As you can see, I'm relatively handy with a computer. I've enough awareness to realize that if I don't make lots of noise thorough the blogosphere, no one is going to give up that perception of the guy with the cardboard sign.
In short, I ain't your father's homeless.
It is true, albeit sad, that many homeless are the detritus resulting from too much alcohol, drug use, or disease through unprotected sex. And a shockingly high number are indeed mentally ill. However, it can be just as easily stated that many homeless are the result of sour finances or an economy in a China-induced death spiral or a bad divorce or a vindictive rich guy with more bucks than compassion.
I hope my little contribution to the blogosphere will help people understand that although I and many others are in the sorry state of not having their own roof over their head, we are no less human, no less dignified, no less capable, no less deserving of respect.
No less American.
*Other than occasional attacks from The Beast, but we'll deal with him in good time.
**In fact, one night I did something I thought myself completely incapable of. It was critical that I had to be somewhere 2.5 miles away in 30 minutes, so I started walking fast, breaking into a run whenever I had breath to do so. I ended up doing a 12-minute mile. Not too shabby for a 240-pound man in his forties.
I had decided to go to Durham. Not sure why, just a vague feeling that I wanted to go home. Maybe it was just the last vestige of the child within who wanted his mother. I don't know. All I knew was that the notion manifested as just a Really Good Idea.
However, that could wait until the weekend. Friday, February 10th was a day to try and get some help. The wife and I worked the phones for hours that day, and made a startling discovery: nobody seriously gave a damn about the homeless.
Oh sure, there are organizations abounding in the Triad area of North Carolina that claim to want to "end homelessness": Habitat for Humanity, the Greensboro Urban Ministry, the Salvation Army, the Greensboro housing Authority, the Greensboro Housing Coalition, and other, smaller, lesser-known ones ad nauseum. They expend shocking amounts of time, energy and goodwill to rake in millions in grants, donations and taxpayer funding. But when it comes time to step up to the plate and swing, they often hit airballs. The Greensboro Urban Ministry is the worst in this regard, in my humble opinion, but more on that later.
Renting a car for our trip*, we went to pick Nessie up from school on our way out of town. I was told her teacher wanted to talk to me before we left. Nessie's teacher informed us that word of our plight had gotten around the school and, because of Nessie's popularity**, a few offers of help had come our way. The teacher offered to drive Nessie to and from school herself if that would help. The school guidance counselor referred up to a place called the Greensboro Interfaith Hospitality Network (which up until then we'd heard little about) and the grandmother of one of Nessie's best friends offered to put her up with her family for a few weeks to help us get things sorted out.
The say we were grateful, and overwhelmed by the generosity, is an understatement.
Arrangements with the grandmother were quickly made. As Nessie and I were leaving the building, the teacher ran up. We thought Nessie had forgotten something inside, but instead the teacher thrust her hand toward me, explaining that some of Nessie's other teachers wanted to help out as well.
The hand contained a total of $115.
I believe if I hadn't been so socially conditioned to do so, I'd've cried. As it was, I could only stand there stammering for a few seconds, and then thanked the teacher profusely and asked her to please convey our gratitude to the other teachers as well.
I had always respected teachers, but that one act showed me in stark detail just how selfless, and unflaggingly dedicated to their profession they are. God bless our teachers.
We headed eastward for advice, the psychic bolstering of family, and not incidentally, a free place to sleep at my mother's house. We spent the weekend planning, getting advice from family members (none who'd been in this situation before, but a few had come close) and reconnecting. We had brought along a large sheaf of rental listings and narrowed these down to a few targeted places we wanted to try.
Our visit was pleasant, and we even got in a little sightseeing (although we're from Durham, we're always amazed at how the place has changed) and checked out what rentals were available in Durham, in case we had to make a Full Retreat. What we found was that Durham, like Greensboro, has an abundance of rental housing that's not being occupied.
I'm sure the reasons why are myriad, but one thing we've discovered that more and more landlords are using credit checks to weed out those they suspect won;t pay their rent. The trouble is, these checks are also excluding people of strong moral character who just happen to have weak finances. As such, they are little more than a weapon, used to bludgeon the poor in general. Of course landlords have a right and a duty to ensure they'll get paid like anyone else, but considering they are in an enviable position to direct affect the homelessness rate, why not display a little compassion and allow a poor-but-honest family a decent place to live without all the high-finance b.s.?
Anyway, on our return to Greensboro, we were ready to begin tackling the problem of our own space to sleep.
We had no idea that it would be harder than we thought.
NEXT: Briarpatch. The family discovers that securing a new place to live isn't as simple as it used to be.
*Perhaps not the wisest thing to do, given our situation, but the rates were cheap, we needed breathing space, and neither the wife nor I had seen our mothers in over a year. It was overdue.
**I know this just sounds like parental bragging, but the wife and I are constantly amazed as to the depth of feeling Nessie's peers and teachers have for her, and the number of friends she has within the school. We're certain it's contributing greatly to the excellent grades she brings to us.
The Path Eclipsed
After a quick trip to the storage unit (and a very fast unload, taking only a couple hours to unload the truck and put everything up in the storage unit), I treated the family to breakfast at Golden Corral. Who knows, it may have been our last time being together as a complete family unit.
During the meal, I called my mom in Durham and let her know that 1) yes, we had gotten out ahead of the Sheriff*, 2) we had no idea what we were going to do next, and 3) no, she didn't raise an idiot; I'd think of something. Eventually. Maybe.
Looking around at the other people in the restaurant, I was struck how content they seemed. When they left Golden Corral, they would be going to good jobs. Or warm homes. Or shopping with a pocketful of money. Or some combination of those things, things we didn't have. I felt The Beast shift in his sleep a little, but he didn't wake up. I didn;t have time to deal with him anyway. We had to think of a place to stay initially until we could get our heads together.
My oldest sone, fortunately, had friends had had been staying with, so he was covered. I had money, but knew that renting hotel rooms would burn through it fast, unless we stayed in one of the seedier ones (I really didn't want to explain to Nessie why a lady in a super-short skirt would be at the door asking about something called a "threesome" with Mama and Daddy...) In order to do something, though, I packed everyone off to the library while I used the van to run necessary errands. (There's a new one; using a 16-foot moving van to run to the grocery store, the bank, and check mail at your former address.)
I'd felt a sense of helplesness before, but for the first time in my lilfe, I was a fish totally out of water. I'd never been evicted or homeless beefore, so like we Southerners are wont to say, I "didn't know how to act." I figured maybe my first step would be to get some concrete information. so I headed for the library myself to commune with the Internet.
That was a mistake.
Most of the "information" I found fell into one of three categories: useless, passing mention, and mostly useless with a germ of useful information. Unfortunately, most of said useful information I had already comiled from other sources. Two hours later, all I had to show for my efforts was a case of eyestrain and a new amazement at the depth of dross on the Web.
By this time it was getting near time for the library to close, and I began thinking we should head for home.
Oh. Right. Forgot.
A sense of panic set in. We had no home to return to, it was getting dark, and the weather forecast called for cold temperatures that night.
Fortunately, there was a hotel within walking distance, but having passed by it many times in my travels through downtown, it didn't look to be the best choice in the world. Still, it was a roof, heat, a hot bath and the possibility of a weekly rate, so I swallowed my pride and hurried forth before the library closed with Mike (my second-oldest) and Nessie in tow.
A bored-looking older woman looked impassively at us from behind the counter as we walked in. I thought for a moment she would simply reach for a stick to prod us back outside with, but I put on my best I'm-just-a-customer outfit and asked if they had any rooms available for a week.
"Nope. Out of those."
Okay, then how about two rooms for two nights?
That they could do. To the tune of $180. I tried not to let the sound of my teeth grinding interfere with the transaction. As I handed over my debit card, I kept telling myself "it keeps Mike and Nessie out of the cold. It keeps Mike and Nessie out of the cold..."
I rented a room with a king bed for myself, the wife and Nessie, and a double for the boys. The rooms were somewhat rough around the edges, and the heater in ours made an awful din, but it was better than bunking under a bridge, or taking our chances in a night shelter.
Once we'd gotten some food and some hot showers, we felt better. But we still had no concrete idea what our next move would be. I decided we'd need some advice from a group of people who'd have some shred of compassion for us.
We'd go to Durham.
We'd go home.
NEXT: Toward Sunrise. The family decides to spend time reconnecting in the city of the parents' birth.
The official word came in the mail (not posted on the front door, thank God) on February 3rd. Writ of Possession. We were to be gone by 9 am on February 9th, 2006, when the Sheriff would be by to padlock the door.
Up until that point, we had been scrambling trying to find a new place to stay and to keep up the tatters of our lives as much as possible for the kids' sake. I still had to go to work at my job, a low-paying gig at a department store. My wife still had to go out daily to look for work and run down leads for alternate housing. The kids, of course, had school. Still, even with the threat of final eviction hanging over our heads, we had to soldier on.
I'd like to take a moment now to introduce one more player in our band of characters. I call it simply The Beast. It's a personification of my ever-present depression. I figure since he's always going to be with me, I might as well acknowledge him and set a table for him. He comes and goes, periodically reminding me of past failures and future uncertainties. Sometimes I can fight him off. Sometimes he sneaks up on me. Most times he just sits at the back of my mind, letting his power grow until he has sufficient to break through my emotional shields.
That's what he did through the end of January right up until Sunday, February 5th. Then he struck with a vengeance. Tearing straight through my shields, I battled him all day long. I was ready to die, it was so bad. He finally left me alone (thanks to a hefty dose of liquor and "Family Guy") but it was attack I'll not soon forget. Wasted an entire day just getting rid of him.
The rest of the week up until The End passed in a blur. I recall having to work two days that week and cursing the total waste of time it seemed to be, since I needed that time to get ready to go. In the evenings after work, however, I would hit the front door packing. Utilizing the half of tax refund I had gotten* I rented a truck and storage unit, made arrangements for our cat, Alexis (who still considered me worthy to sit in my lap and purr when I was feeling blue) and got hold of bins, bags, boxes, anything I could think of to hold stuff.
The entire day of Wednesday the 8th was spent packing and stuffing into containers. Anything not potentially necessary to our immediate survival was hustled off to the truck to be stored in the unit. The Goodwill behind our house began getting massive donations, but always at night. (God forgive me, but I just didn't feel like answering a thousand questions with each load of our lives in plastic Hefty bags.) A trash pile sprang up in front of the house measuring 7' x 12' x 4', not counting the broken dryer and the large dresser. Curious neighbors would begin ostensibly retrieving things from their cars or picking up objects from their yards, but long experience with most of them told us that their intelligence just wasn't up to the task of being subtle. The people next door to us suddenly decided their kids needed to play outside. It was the first time in the eight months since that family moved in that we got a good look at the little urchins.
Wednesday waned into night, then the wee hours. The orgy of stuffing, moving, lifting and packing continued unabated. I vaguely remember calling a halt long enough to eat something and catch "Lost" on TV, then things began again. Around 3 am, we surveyed the scene. We'd packed about 97% of our lives in a 16' rented moving van, but we were exhausted. The rest would have to wait until morning.
I slept fitfully and woke up about 6:15 am. I let the family sleep a little longer, but by 7:15, we were all up and the pack-stuff-lift-move dance continued. I kept an eye on the clock. The minutes wound down. 7:25, 7:45, 7:55, 8:10, 8:25, 8:35.
As we hit the fifteen minute-to-zero-mark, we still had 2 mattresses, a dresser, the refrigerator (broken) and a few small items to move. I made the decision to simply abandon what we absolutely didn't need and take the rest. As 9 am approached, I stationed one of the kids near the door to warn of the approach of the Brownshirts. We moved the mattresses and swept under them like madmen making sure we weren't leaving small valuables or coins behind.
9 o'clock came.
We kept working, picking up the pace, trying to salvage the last shreds of life and dignity. We dealt with a minor crisis when Nessie, our youngest, adamantly had to have the stickers she had been collecting on the mirror in her room, now forming part of a retaining wall for the front yard trash pile. I hurriedly salvaged what I could and made it clear that she would be starting a new collection based on the few she had left.
At 9:15, we finally finished. I closed the back of the truck now holding eight years of our lives with an anticlimactic thud. We all unconsciously gathered at the head of the driveway and looked back at our home and castle since 1998, when we had first glimpsed it in a pounding rain. It lookd as forlorn now as it did then, despite the fact it was now a deceptively sunny day.
Since there was only room for two in the truck, I took one of my sons with me while dispatching the other off the the storage unit on the city bus. The women were to go and amuse themselves at the library until our return.
Then as a family, we'd decide what to do next.
At least The Beast had left me alone. For now.
NEXT: The Path Eclipsed. The family must make their initial decisions concerning an unfamiliar condition: homelessness.
*Back in '04, my friends had collectively loaned me a substantial amount of money trying to forestall this inevitability. I have not forgotten their kindness, and indeed had intended on having them paid back by now. I hope any reading this account will forgive me for using the money I was going to pay them back with to deal with this emergency and extend me a little more time.
The Dark Chain
A bit of background first, just so I don’t come off as a whiner:
The Profile (see left) tells the bare bones. My formative years were spent amid the sociopolitical turmoil of the sixties, and some of my fondest childhood memories stem from that period. Probably got my sense of social justice there, too. I was apparently a very smart child; I taught myself to read and was reading at a 7th grade level when I was only 3 years old.* I absorbed information like a sponge and as a result had a full scholarship to a private school in Orange County. After several years there, I transferred to a public school in Durham. After years of being dumbed down and beaten up I graduated high school in 1980. I went to college for four years before my grades tanked and I dropped out. I'd discovered graphic design by then and made it my career. Things went swimmingly between 1991 and 2001. I landed several jobs in graphics, always managing to snag another upon losing one, and building a portfolio and a minor reputation. My career finally culminated in 2000, when I landed a job at one of the most powerful ad agencies in North Carolina.
So once upon a time, I actually had a somewhat bright future.
But as you're no doubt guessed, things have gone radically south since then.
The hammer finally fell recently, but the groundwork had been building for years.
I guess it all began in 2000. George W. Bush stole the White House. His subsequent tinkering with the economy sent industries that typically use graphic designers into a tailspin. Our agency eventually shed over 2/3 of its staff over the course of a year, and I was one of them. I've had trouble finding a decent job since.**
What most people don’t understand about the poor is that although the income dries up, the bills and expenses march on. As the prospects for good jobs went down (by good, I mean a job that would pay me enough to catch up my bills, keep them up, and allow me to put a little away on the side to prevent financial emergencies from becoming overwhelming. In other words, just about anything above subsistence wage), my debt went up, to the point where the rent fell behind. And farther behind. And farther yet. I'd kept one or two steps ahead of the wolves as long as I could, but in January of this year, they finally caught up with me. I was taken up for eviction and my landlord wasn't willing to work with me anymore.
Suddenly for the first time in my life, I faced life on the Street. And if that weren’t bad enough, the family was going to be right there in the gutter with me. Things were going from bad to worse.
Next: Hammer Blow. Our Hero scrambles to vacate the premises and for the first time finds himself and his family in a dire situation.
*One of my mother's most prized possessions is a newspaper clipping of me sitting on my grandmother's lap and reading a book to her. I vaguely remember the time; the local newspaper had apparently gotten wind of me and sent a reporter and photographer around. Now before anyone begins yawning and bragging about how they could read Shakespeare just minutes out of their mother's womb, please bear in mind that this was the Sixties. There was still a frightening amount of racial prejudice around, so the feat of a little black boy teaching himself to read was quite unusual for the time.
**Aside from the ubiquitous temporary and freelance assignments, that is.
...With a Single Step
So why am I here, what am I doing, and all of that?
Well, after looking about the web for a blog that highlighted my current problem from the perspective of someone actually going through it, I didn't see one. So I figured I'd better be the one to do it.
The problem here is homelessness.
No, not the Dickensian "are there no workhouses?" type of homeless, and not the Reaganesque "the homeless are homeless by choice" type of homeless. You see, homelessness is more complex, more intricate than that.
See, in Greensboro, NC, the homeless shelters are putting people on waiting lists instead of trying to find them someplace decent to stay the night or the week. The city Housing Authority is putting people trying to get into public housing on waiting lists, and they aren't even taking Section 8 anymore. What this means is anybody in Greensboro without some sort of income, or family in town, or even a car is boned. Meanwhile, the agencies and organizations dedicated to combatting homelessness are busy talking at each other and talking around the people that actually need the help.
Over the next few posts, I'll be bringing you up to speed on a perennial problem in America from the eyes of someone who's actually living the nightmare. I'm hoping that my words can convey the subtle horror my family's life has become and help others see that homeless people are not just objects of scorn, pity or comedy, but could be any of you -- yess, even milllionaires -- given a certain set of circumstances that take place at a certain time. And I hope (perhaps vainly) that I can prod a few officials into shutting up and actually doing something for a change.
Next: The Dark Chain. The set of circumstances that resulted in this fate, and a recap of events that has occurred since.