Regular Folk

Posted: March 3, 2008 in Family, Homeless Shelters, Homelessness, Housing, Misconceptions, Stereotypes

Over the last few months or so, my circle of acquaintances has changed dramatically. I’m not really part of the "houseless" community anymore, but I’m not quite a part of the "housed" community either. It’s sort of a limbo state of existence. As a result I’m not exposed to the homeless as much as I used to be.

Several days ago I met "Teresa." A young woman in her late twenties. Married. Mother of four young children. Dressed relatively nice. Nothing in her demeanor that would indicate the situation that she and her family were in.  

We ran across one another’s paths at a shopping center and somehow or other we struck up a conversation.

As the conversation went on, it came to the surface that she and her family were homeless, but not in the way that most people think of. They were "couch" homeless and had been for nearly eight months. They had been able to avoid having to live on the street because members of their church had been allowing the six of them to stay in their home.

Although her husband has a full time job, they had found themselves on the brink of becoming "street" homeless because their previous landlord had raised their rent. Unable to afford the increase, they found themselves getting behind on their rent and eventually being evicted. With the eviction now a part of their "rental history," they were unable to find somewhere else to rent.

But, Teresa’s situation isn’t an isolated incident.

About a month ago I was sitting on a public bench drinking a soft drink. A project I had been working on had come to a grinding halt. I had been unable to figure out how to make a certain function do what I wanted it to do and was trying to come up with a solution. Sitting there, thinking about the problem, I must’ve had a look of frustration on my face because a couple walked up and asked if I was okay.

They were nicely dressed. Well spoken. Seemed relatively well educated. They had a look of "the family next door." However the husband had been out of work for nearly a year due to an injury. The wife had managed to find a job, but it was only part time. And, they had been living in their vehicle for a couple of weeks. They had finally run out of money and had had to move out of their apartment.

In mid-February, I ran into a gentleman I had first met last autumn. Self-employed and running a small business from his home, he had contacted me to redesign his website. The project never went through because he had been struggling with finances and had decided to wait until he would be more able to afford the cost.

When we ran into each other this last time, his wife had just undergone emergency surgery a week or so earlier. Being self-employed, he hadn’t been able to afford medical coverage. Now he was being buried under a mountain of medical bills.

As we talked, I could see the anxiety in his eyes. He admitted that because of the bills, he and his family might have to move in with his parents to avoid becoming homeless. But, moving in with his family would be a "last resort" because they are older and have a small home. He fears becoming a burden to them.

A week or so ago, I saw a woman give a homeless gentleman a Styrofoam container with food.

When I commented to her that it had been a kind gesture, in a lowered voice, she told me that she herself had been homeless for nearly three years. It was just recently that she had been able to get her life "back on track."

She went on to tell me that her life is still far from being completely stable. More than once since having been able to "reclaim" her life, she has been near to becoming homeless again. She worries that her life is still on a precipice and that it wouldn’t take much to push her back into homelessness.

Yet, nothing in her appearance, speech or demeanor would indicate that she had once been homeless.

The list of folks that I have met who at one time or another in their lives have experienced homelessness; who are on the verge of becoming homeless; or who are currently "couch" homeless is constantly growing. There are, in fact, more Americans who are "precariously housed" than there are those who live on the streets. And their numbers are increasing at a faster rate than those who are becoming "street" homeless.

The most recent numbers I could find regarding "couch" homelessness came from the National Coalition for the Homeless website. Prepared by Dr. Alan Hoback, it stated (on page 7 of the report) that the number of "couch" homeless was estimated in 2000 as being around 1.65% of the American population, or 4,700,000 persons.

The numbers given for "street" and "shelter" homeless was 2.5 million to 3.5 million persons.

There are a number of similarities among all of the "couch" homeless I’ve met in past few months.

First, they have found themselves in their current precarious situation through no real fault of their own. They have fallen on financially tough times due to rent increases, loss of jobs, medical emergencies and other types of stresses on their finances.

Second, they are having a psychologically and emotionally difficult time living in someone else’s home. They feel as though they are becoming, or have become a burden to family and/or friends. It isn’t so much a matter of pride as it is a sense of shame; a feeling that they’ve somehow failed.

Third, to reduce their sense of being an imposition on others, they are generally "pitching in financially" to the persons with whom they are staying. This makes it difficult for them to save enough money to get a place of their own.

Lastly, other people, for the most part, aren’t able to recognize that they are indeed homeless because they do not generally have the "look" of being homeless.

If anything, despite being homeless, they are just "regular" folk – like everyone else.

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