On Homelessness: Something to Hold Onto

Yesterday my friend broke down and cried. He told me,

“You don’t know how much it means to me, you stopping by and seeing how I’m doing. I’m so afraid of hurting myself or hurting someone else because I’m so angry. But seeing you gives me something to hold onto.”

I could feel tears well up in my eyes realizing how so little could mean so much to this man.

His name is Anthony and he is a chronically homeless man. Homelessness is a disease, a painful, destructive disease. For some it’s stage 4 homelessness, there’s no salvation in a system ruled by devaluing people for suffering, calling them lazy or a burden. For others, if you diagnose it early, you can help them by killing the virus passed on in a classist system: additional educational support, a loan, temporary reprieve, or even simple advice that your parents taught you to see as common sense. Anthony was one of thousands homeless people helped last year by the city of San Francisco, he is also one of thousands who was disqualified for what he dubbed arbitrary reasons. Being late to a meeting seems like an occasional occurrence for most young professionals, but it’s not a big problem. Just call in, show up a few minutes late, or call in sick if you’re not feeling well. But for people who are homeless or disadvantaged, the chances they receive are a lot less forgiving. People see the poor as charity cases and hold them by more stringent rules. Meaning: one misstep and you’re out, “Next!” Keep in mind that the help system for displaced people relies on appointments, meetings, assessments, and lengthy processes. This for people who wonder where they will sleep, how long they can stay there (criminalized loitering), without a phone, without an address, little to no technological literacy and always worried the little they do own will get stolen.

“I waited from 9am until 3pm at the corner like they asked me to, but they said they couldn’t find me. But I was right there, I didn’t leave, I didn’t go to the bathroom or eat anything. Then I went to the address I had and it was like I broke some sort of rule and I was disqualified and no one will talk to me anymore.”

Anthony said it’s not the couple dollars I spare, here and there. It’s the quick minute on my way to work or the occasional half hour after work. This is a good person with a difficult life and some mistakes, but he deserves to be cared for and loved like anybody else. There is a stigma against homelessness, the dirty clothes, the raggedness, the cardboard shelters, the sheer desperation of someone trying to sell The Street Spirit or the soullessness of a panhandler on autopilot:
“Please help support”
“Please can you spare some change”
“Anything helps”
“Good evening, I am very hungry and have not eaten in two days.”

I can’t even begin to comprehend what it means to be homeless, but I know what I’m missing when I don’t see Anthony. I’m missing a toothy smile, a man who never hesitates to share with others, someone who always, until today, put a brave front and tells me he is trying again, and again, and again to get off the street, and somebody who is always willing to impart a bit of wisdom and a genuine hug.

“I used to be really happy with my life, but lately it seems like everything is going against me. My case manager won’t talk to me, I fell asleep at the library and someone took all my stuff, I managed to find my sleeping bag stuffed in the trash… so thank you.”

Do you have an Anthony in your life? Someone you could build a meaningful connection with, but who you may have prejudged, discounted or simply not seen through your filter of privilege? How many steps removed are you from homelessness? If you run out of money, can a friend or family member take you in? Do you own stuff you can sell? Do you have a credit history to take a loan or credit card? Do you have an educational certificate to find a new job? Are you ill and will this illness keep you from working, cause self-medicating habits, or scare employers? Are you older? Are you reading this on your laptop?

Most of us have many layers of safety that keep us from falling too deep. Those who fall into extreme poverty resulting in homelessness already come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Just as we can look at privilege as the intersectionality of perks (male, white, wealthy, educated, cis), we can look at poverty and homeless concentrated at the intersectionality of mental illness, cyclical poverty, geographical upbringing, lack of resources/wealth and worst of all a lack of interpersonal capital.

The homeless feel invisible because we make them invisible. Did you ignore someone today?

[Image: “Life in the Streets in San Francisco” protected by a Creative Commons license belonging to Giuseppe Milo]

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