Working among those people who find themselves without a roof over their head is daunting and sometimes bleak. If your personal involvement does not include a relationship with someone experiencing this phenomenon, then your soul has been deprived of an awareness that can only be described as humbling. As a Sociologist, I prefer writing in third person void of opinion, but the following are stories of people I have personally encountered in what is known as participant observation. Their stories speak to only a few of the dangerous issues facing impoverished and homeless people in the United States and deserve a particular anecdotal account.
Melinda came into my social agency for food. She was living in the woods with her two teenage children. As we talked, I noticed that her demeanor was polished and her speech clear and concise. After a while I asked her if she had ever thought about taking classes at the community college. Her response chastened me and taught me never to assume anything about someone based upon their circumstances. She told me that she was three classes shy of a Master’s degree in Criminal Justice. After making a few calls, I discovered employers avoid hiring people with degrees and post graduate degrees. The primary reason is that employers do not want to train someone just to have them leave for something better, which could be guaranteed if someone is educated in a specific area. Melinda’s homelessness is considered transitional, with a real danger of becoming episodic, which means she could spend years in and out of homelessness. The hopelessness I felt at that moment was nothing compared to her present situation.
I had the rare opportunity to work alongside Jeff, who suffered from alcoholism. He is a highly skilled draftsman and carpenter in his 50’s. He also has an advanced understanding of computers and computer software. His case is the most recognized form of homelessness called chronic, but in actuality only represents 20%, depending on the geographical area, of the overall homeless population. Chronic homelessness is mostly due to alcoholism, drug abuse, and mental illness. Because of his inability to overcome his alcoholism, when he is sober his skills are taken advantage of by people who promise money for his work, but jilt him mercilessly. This kind of mistreatment is, of course, a well-reasoned cause to start drinking again. His cycle continues with little hope of recovery.
Social policies also have an effect and create fertile ground for homelessness. Anne came in during the Thanksgiving season for food. Her situation is considered transitional because she and her four children were staying with her mother, but her story is jaw-dropping. Her husband found out after 24 years that he was an undocumented immigrant. He missed the age specification in the Dream Act to avoid deportation to Mexico by 3 months. While in the U.S., he was a highly trained electrician, but was sent back to a country with no employment prospects. His parents were dead and he had no family to speak of in Mexico and no way to make money to send back to his wife and children. Anne and her children face a life without financial security.
Like these stories, the people living in danger of homelessness are many and as varied and desperate. The cultural rules and employment norms in this current U.S. capitalistic driven democracy has created a great divide. A comeback will require stepping away from a social environment bewitched by profit. The culture of consumerism must be replaced with the institution of laws that protect all people regardless of financial status. Homelessness will continue to worsen until the United States has returned to a level socioeconomic playing field.