What is it to be Homeless?

Homelessness, it carries strong connotations of poverty, abandonment, and despair, yet it is still a major problem in American society with no end in sight for the people who find themselves in its midst. In 2004, over 7% of Americans found were defined as homeless, a number which continues to grow in connection with job losses and housing unavailability (Donohoe, 2004). Growing up in an upper middle class family, homelessness is something I’ve never had to experience firsthand but have witnessed time and again in people pandering for money in parking lots and on street corners. I have seen men, women, and children huddled together as they brace themselves for a night on the streets but until this point had largely kept myself separate. Through my field work and research for this project, I have come to a better understanding of the causes and effects of homelessness not only on the individual but on the family and society as a whole.

Defined as sleeping in shelters, on the street, in cars, abandoned buildings, train or bus stations, homelessness is a constant reminder of the inequalities of society (Donohoe, 2004). In Kentucky, where the homeless rate has climbed steadily, it is a growing problem. In 2005, the number of homeless persons seeking assistance in Kentucky was 19,908 – a noticeable jump from the previous year when the number was 15,226 (Kentucky Statistics). The question is posed in viewing these statistics, as to what happened to cause such a high increase in individuals and families finding themselves without a home during a time when the economy was in an upturn. Now, in recent light of the recession and overall jobless problem in the United States, the outlook does not seem promising.

The primary causes of homelessness range from domestic abuse, lack of housing, poverty, low wages, post-traumatic stress disorders, etc (“Factors Contributing to Homelessness”). The causes are as varied as the people who find themselves in this situation. Annually there are anywhere from 2.3 million to 3.5 million people nationwide who are homeless, 39% of which are children (“How Many are Homeless,” 2006). Their day to day lives center around finding food and shelter for themselves, of which are becoming scarcer as public assistance continues to decrease.

As part of my research I conducted several interrelated field studies, each meant to give me a better understanding of the homeless in Kentucky and to better ascertain the reasons behind their homelessness. The best way to understand this, I reasoned, was to place myself in their shoes. My experiments involved viewing the public’s response to homelessness. Dressing down in jeans, a t-shirt/sweatshirt combination, and a pair of old gym shoes with an old baseball cap borrowed from a friend, I set out to downtown Lexington to try and pander for loose change. As this had been my most common experience with the homeless, I sought to dispel my own stereotypes as well as experience through action what it means to be reduced to these circumstances. Standing on the corner of S. Broadway and Main streets, I scanned the area and saw a man farther down the street dressed in rags and holding a cardboard sign. I momentarily regretted my decision to forego the sign myself as it would be helpful in drawing people to me. However, I reasoned that as this was meant as a means of interacting with the public as a homeless person I had a better chance at verbal communication without the sign.

Having chosen both a high traffic area and a busy afternoon, I was soon watching people pass me without so much as a backward glance. Unsure of myself, I tried to remember my own experiences with being asked for money. It had seemed almost an effortless endeavor, lending to the stereotype I have heard most commonly thrown about that people begged no out of necessity but laziness. I soon discovered that pandering was no easy task. Seeing an elderly woman, who reminded me of my grandmother, I called to her, asking the standard question, “can you spare some change?” Maybe I called it too loud in my nervousness or possibly the dirt I had purposely smeared and worked into the fabric of my clothes and my general appearance of disarray but she moved away from me seeming to hold her breath. I smiled, trying to dispel her unease but it was too late. Surprising me with her speed and agility, she quickly made her way past darting between other ongoing pedestrians. Trying not to lose my nerve, I quickly turned my attention to the other people crossing in front of me. A man in a business suit, out of place himself on a Saturday afternoon, stopped in front of me as I called to him trying this time to temper my voice and not appear over enthused or worse disingenuous. “Why don’t you get a job?” he asked. “I work 50 hours a week to support my family, and you can’t go to McDonald’s and flip burgers for some cash? No! You expect me and all of these other hardworking people to give you theirs!” and with that he dug in his pocket, tossing a handful of pennies and pocket lint on the sidewalk in front of me.

This was not easy. Pandering required that you have not only a tough skin but also that you set aside your pride. I found myself struggling with tears, wanting to call out to the man as he plowed his way down the street that I wasn’t really homeless. I wanted to call, but I’m a college student, I have a job, I have a home but this would only stunt any further work I wished to accomplish in this area. I needed to blend. A young woman, not much older than myself, stopped in front of me as I struggled with my own ego trying to reconcile the humiliation of the research with understanding I knew I would gain. I looked up and she appeared the very opposite of the man in the business suit. Dressed similarly to me, though clean with freshly washed hair and fashionably distressed jeans and a bright green sweater, she held a cup of coffee in one hand and a few dollar bills in the other and on her face was a sympathetic smile. “Don’t let him bother you,” she said handing me the coffee and forcing the bills into my hand. “I know where you are coming from. I lost my job two years ago and was in the exact same spot as you. I was evicted from my apartment and lived in my car and the shelter for 2 months before I was able to get back on my feet. Just be happy you don’t have kids, I still feel guilty that my daughter had to go through all of that with me.” With this, she smiled and waved to me before crossing to the other side of the S. Broadway.

Within minutes of each other, I had experienced the two extremes of the human interaction side of pandering. Though the man in the business suit had almost discouraged me to the point of blowing my cover, the kind young woman’s kindness made me feel a new kind of guilt. She did not seem a financially well off woman but she had still tried to help. Even more than the embarrassment and loss of pride at the man in the business suit judging me all from a simple request, “can you spare some change” I felt guilt at having taken money from this woman and her daughter. I made a mental note to try and ask the homeless people I encountered how they felt at asking for money from strangers.

First, I had the day to worry about. I had purposely set off on my research without money or other means of procuring food and drink. For the moment, if I wanted to eat, I would have to continue to pander for a little more cash. As it went from morning to afternoon, I had no repeat encounters with the anger of the businessman but also did not experience any more of the kindness of the young woman. Many people either ignored my call for spare change or reach into their pockets without looking in my direction. One man asked why I needed the money. I tried to reply that I just needed enough to get a meal or two, at which he laughed before tossing some loose change my way, “Sure. Last time I checked, crack wasn’t a meal.”

The audacity of the man completely surprised me. Did I look like a drug addict? Did he think people only became homeless because of personal mistakes? I realized I was taken aback because he had asked a question aloud that I had only thought in my own head as I gave spare change to people in the past. Though drug addiction is a major problem for the homeless community, it is not the root of the problem. Given the discrepancies in statistics though it is understandable that this would be associated with  and even blamed for the continually growing rate of homelessness. In information published by the National Coalition for the Homeless in 2005, it is noted that early statistics for substance abuse and addiction among the homeless were incorrectly calculated leading to an assumption that over 60% of the homeless suffer from one form of substance addiction of another. However, recent statistics from US Conference of Mayors in 2005 puts the number as being closer to 30% (“Who is Homeless” 2005). The question is though, did their drug addiction lead to their homelessness or is it a result?

After collecting almost $15 dollars, I set off to find a homeless person or people who would talk to me about the circumstances that led to their current state. Walking toward the man with the cardboard sign, I thought at first to speak with him as I had grown to feel a certain kinship with the man having worked the same street this morning. As I approached him, I saw a group of teenage boys stopped in front of him. They were laughing as one of them tore the man’s sign from his hands and proceeded to tear it in half. The man, obviously angered, kept his head down to the verbal abuse that rained from the teens mouths. No one it seemed was in the least concern. Pedestrians kept a wide breadth of the scene and kept their eyes to the ground. Finished with their fun, the boys threw the sign at the man’s feet and continued walking, still laughing at the humiliation of the man. Seeing the anger of the man, I decided that now would not be a good time to speak with him. Instead, I continued walking past him knowing that while his pride may be hurt, he had been spared any actual physical violence.

I knew that this man had been one of the lucky ones. From 1999-2005 there were 472 acts of violence committed against homeless individuals (“Hate Crimes.” 2006), targeted specifically because of their homeless status. Of that number, 169 were murders. Shelter workers and advocates have heard increasing stories of harassment, beatings, being set on fire, and even decapitation (National Coalition for the Homeless. “Hate Crimes.” 2006) as the years have gone by.

After walking for several blocks, I stopped in a corner store to buy myself some water. Walking to the back of the store where the refrigerators were,  I could feel the clerk’s eyes follow me. I guess, making sure I was not shoplifting. With this, I understood yet one more stereotype and misconception of homelessness – namely the role of criminal. Though I had the money to buy the water, though I had spent a day being verbally abused and ignored in order to scrounge together the change for this very water, the clerk assumed I would steal it. I walked to the counter, feeling his eyes on me, I assume checking my body’s silhouette for bulges of pilfered food. “1.47” he said, simply, still not taking his eyes off of me, his nose curling at the smell he assumed must be wafting off of me. Counting the change onto the counter, I saw my hands with the fingernails lightly ingrained with dirt and the grime of the street. Reaching forward to hand him the change, I saw him recoil slightly and I instead placed the change on the counter where it was carefully counted. Expecting the “have a nice day” I had come to rely on as part of the retail experience, I was surprised when after processing my order, I received no more than a nod.

Later that afternoon, I found myself sitting on a park bench beside a young homeless man, trying to find his life story in the sometimes incoherent ramblings. John was an Iraq War veteran who after returning from his stint in the Army, found himself increasingly anxious and unable to forget the bloodshed. Now a methamphetamine addict, he is thin to the point of starvation. Under his beard, I could see sores where the meth was surfacing and his front teeth were rotted to nothing. John is just one of many veterans who make up the homeless population. With approximately 11% of the total homeless population veterans, comprising 40% of the total male population of homeless persons (National Coalition for the Homeless, “Who is Homeless,” 2005), John is the embodiment of the what happens to veterans when resources become limited and their problems too big to be handled effectively by the system.

“A lot of the guys you see out here who are veterans were in ‘nam, they’ve been back and forth between the veterans hospital, group homes, and the street. When I first came back, I went back to working in my uncle’s garage fixing engines and changing oil. I hadn’t really had many plans before I signed up following 9/11. When I came back, my mom and girlfriend were pushing me to go back to school. Use the G.I. bill, you know. But I just couldn’t concentrate. I couldn’t sleep at night. When I did sleep, I had bad nightmares, bodies piled to the ceiling, blood everywhere. I started drinking, so I could sleep but it just made things worse. I slept but when I was awake nobody wanted to be around me. I went to the V.A. and they diagnosed me with post traumatic stress, gave me a couple prescriptions and a list of counselors and sent me on my way. For a little while the pills helped, but I was still drinking and had started to smoke meth. It kept me awake a lot but I thought I was getting things done. But then I lost my job, my girlfriend left me and I was stuck living in my parents’ basement. I started snorting meth and then shooting up,” with this, John pulls up his sleeves to show me the track marks running along his forearms. “Eventually, even my parents had enough. I wrecked their car, stole $4,000 worth of jewelry and computer equipment that I pawned for half that to buy more meth and booze. This is where I ended up.”

I told John about my earlier experience pandering and asked him if he ever felt bad for asking strangers for money. To this he shrugged and smiled, showing blackened gums above where his two front teeth once were, “You must be new. When I first started asking, sure I felt bad. I never thought I’d be asking for handouts. I wasn’t raised that way. Shit, if my dad saw me on a street corner begging he’d probably kick my ass. But you gotta do what you gotta do. I mean, come on, who is going to hire me? I stink, I’m paranoid, I have a meth addiction and no teeth. If I want to eat or get more drugs, I have to beg or steal. I’d rather beg than steal any day. I still have some scruples,” he laughingly explained. Had he ever tried rehab or contacting on the programs that helps the homeless? “Sure. I’ve gone down to the shelter and filled out the paperwork but they don’t have a whole lot of money either so I couldn’t stay forever and the rehab program they tried to get me into was full. I tell myself everyday that this will be the last. Once I’ve shot up the last of my bag, I just won’t buy anymore but it never works out that way. I start jonesing and the nightmares come back. I sat over in there one night,” he said, pointing to a pavilion on the other side of the park, “and cried because I thought I was back in Iraq. I could hear the mortars exploding around my head and the screams of children in my ears. My friend found me after a couple of hours and offered me his needle and it all melted away. Of course, I found out a couple months later that he had hepatitis and had passed it onto me but he was just trying to help, I guess I can’t blame him too much. I’ll die sooner than later anyway.” When I asked him what he meant, he shrugged again. “Look at how I live. I’m lucky to eat every other day. I’ve shot up so much meth that it’s coming out my pores and am lucky to find a vein anymore. I’ve been beaten up, pushed in front of cars, spit on. I had pneumonia last winter, almost died from that. And I want to die. I should have died in Iraq, I think of that every day. If I knew then what my life would become,  I would have shot myself when I still had a gun. The day I don’t wake up, will be the best day of my life.”

Shaken, I thanked John for talking to me and tried to make sense of what he had told me. Before talking, he had taken a quick dose of meth to loosen his tongue but what he let loose was more than just his own story. Between John’s veteran status, gender, drug addiction, and mental illness he is unfortunately a prime example of homelessness in America. Approximately 22% of the homeless population suffers from one form of mental illness or another (“Why Are People Homeless,” 2006). Though it has been said that the increase in mentally ill homeless people is due to the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill, this is false. Most of this was done between the 1950s and 1960s but homeless rates did not begin to reach their current rates until the 1980s. According to a 2003 report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, many of the mentally ill homeless could and can live within the community and receive treatment from outpatient facilities. Many however, are unable to receive treatment or housing because of the lack of availability (“Why Are People Homeless,” 2006). As John noted, with waiting lists and the unpredictability of street life, finding ones next meal is hard enough. Finding help with housing and medicine is even more of a challenge.

Having been shaken by my experiences at pandering, moving through regular daily activities like making a small purchase at a convenience store, and John’s own tales I knew I was neither prepared nor willing to spend my night as a homeless person. Before going home, I ventured to the bus station, where I had originally planned to spend the night. Walking towards the entrance, I saw a man holding a cardboard sign. Thinking he was the man from earlier, I hurried forward to try and see how he had fared after his run in with the teenagers. I was wrong. Though similar in dress and situation, this was a new man. Much older, appearing to be in his sixties or seventies. I braced myself for a request for spare change, forgetting my own appearance, but he ignored me. I knelt down to ask him some questions, figuring that this would be my last chance as I was now determined after my brief experience before returning to my normal life. No one, I now knew would knowingly choose homelessness. Asking his name, he eyed me warily, “you ain’t a cop are you?” Deciding to blow my cover, such as it was, I explained that I was a college student trying to understand what it means to be homeless. “Why would you do that? You think this is a game?  Just go home, at least you have one. I been sleeping on park benches and in bus stations for 5 years, count your blessings.” With this he turned away from me, his eyes fixed on a couple walking along the sidewalk.

Speechless, I left him to his pandering. Regardless of my experiments, I had still only had an outsider’s experience of his daily life. I could, as he put so bluntly, go home. I had a home. Even as I begged on the street, I knew that I had a bank account across town with more money in it than this man would see in a week. I would finish my education and get a job, buy a home and build a family. For this man, that kind of life must seem a dream. I now knew, however, that the future I have so long imagined and planned for can just as easily be taken from me. It can start with something as seemingly changeable as losing a job and spiral into a hopelessness that left some dead, others wishing for death. For John the tipping point had been a combination of factors: mainly his drug use and trying to cope with post-traumatic stress. The causes, I now realized were encompassing of us all in one form or another. I now was able to understand through my experience that just like the woman from that morning find myself living in a car one day and begging on a street corner for real next time.

“Kentucky Statistics.” Homeless in Kentucky. Retrieved March 30, 2009 from http://www.kyhousing.org/homeless/KH.asp?ID=602.

Donohoe, M. (2004, July 7). “Homelessness in the United States: History, Epidemiology, Health Issues, Women, and Public Policy.” Medscape. Retrieved March 30, 2009 from http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/481800.

“Who is Homeless.” (2006, June) National Coalition of the Homeless. Central Kentucky Housing and Homeless Initiative. Retrieved March 30, 2009 from http://www.ckhhi.org/Who%20is%20Homeless.pdf.

“Why are People Homeless.” (2006, June) National Coalition of the Homeless. Central Kentucky Housing and Homeless Initiative. Retrieved March 30, 2009 from http://www.ckhhi.org/Why%20are%20people%20homeless.pdf.

“Hate Crimes and Violence Against People Who Are Homeless.” (2006, June) National Coalition of the Homeless. Central Kentucky Housing and Homeless Initiative. Retrieved March 30, 2009 from http://www.ckhhi.org/Hate%20Crimes.pdf.

“Factors Contributing to Homelessness.” Homeless Resource Network. Retrieved March 30, 2009 from http://www.homelessresourcenetwork.org/causes.html.