A lot of Americans who are well past middle age grew up with Mad magazine parodies as their source of honest political education. Mad had an imitator called Cracked, a print publication that over the decades metamorphosed into a website that’s both entertaining and tuned in to the reality of the times. Strange as it seems, a Cracked.com piece titled “7 Things No One Tells You About Being Homeless” has exposed nearly 1,800,000 visitors to some hard truths that hopefully they will not have the opportunity to find out for themselves.
The author, William Bonnie, who had a job and paid his rent, explains how he came to endure a spell of homelessness anyway. He counts himself as one of the lucky ones, because his life has improved since. He didn’t particularly want to learn these things, but passes along something we all need to know: “The line between where you are now and sleeping in your car is much, much thinner than you think.” In fact, nearly a third of all people experiencing homelessness are actually employed.
Their chances of ever owning a home? Slim to none. The likelihood of saving enough to move into a rental is almost equally nonexistent. First and last month’s rent, plus security deposit, plus enough for minimal furniture, add up to a sizeable chunk of change.
Bonnie goes into considerable detail about the conflicts between shelter rules and the needs of an employed person or someone who’s looking for a job. At the very simplest level, shelters are designed to have people sleep at night and vacate the premises during the day, which makes it impossible to live in a shelter and hold a second- or third-shift job.
Since sleeping within sight of any citizens in town is usually quickly punished, the car resident will need to spend a considerable amount on fuel to go back and forth to some remote area, if one can be found. Keeping warm can be an expensive proposition, and once in a while you need a night in a cheap motel in order to catch a shower.
If you are suddenly homeless, and lucky enough to have a car, you’ll need to invest about $150 in outdoor cooking equipment and, since you don’t have a refrigerator, an ice chest. If you’re lucky enough to get food stamps, the grocery store is only supposed to sell foods that require from-scratch preparation. Food stamps are not supposed to be used for prepared foods such as deli items, and only four states allow their use in restaurants. It’s possible to avoid the cooking problem by subsisting on snack crackers and soda pop, in which case you’ll be not only homeless but fat and malnourished.
The author was indeed one of the lucky ones, being white, personable, able-bodied, capable of inspiring trust, and equipped with at least one skill (gourmet cooking) with which to recompense helpful friends. He elaborates on how he was a member of the “hidden homeless” class, composed of people who have enough of a support system to avail themselves of some of the benefits of housed existence and avoid looking like a “stereotypical homeless guy.”
A foreign thought
One aspect of homelessness does not become apparent until a person is in that situation — the problem of how to fill up massive amounts of free time when there is no job to go to. It costs money to hang out in even the cheapest diner or café, and few businesses want customers who sit around for hours nursing a single cup of coffee. There are places to hang out for free, but it might get you arrested. So, what happens? Sometimes, Bonnie says, even the person who never had a substance abuse problem before can develop one:
What often comes first is having nothing else to do (an especially big problem for people staying in shelters), and the boredom literally drives them crazy. I finally understood, in a very immediate way, why people who’ve been living on the street for a long time tend to be addicts: Drugs not only get you high, but also give you a schedule and a routine. And once again we see how a short-term problem can turn into a cycle that threatens to suck the rest of your life into it.
Another important thing he asks us to keep in mind is that nearly 40% of the homeless are younger than 18, and that includes a huge number of children who never did anything to deserve such a harried and tenuous existence. Millions of Americans spend more than half their paychecks on just staying inside walls. We used to be told that a quarter of our income was a reasonable amount, and then it became a third, and now we’re not supposed to balk at any outlandish proportion of our income going for rent, because we’re darn fortunate not to be sleeping in a dumpster.
Homeowners fare no better, unless they are already wealthy enough not to really need the help they get through the mortgage interest deduction. More than 10 million homeowners are barely hanging on, paying more than half their income for housing. In 2012, homeowners with annual incomes below $50,000 only got 3% of the benefits conveyed by this deduction, while homeowners making more than $100,000 per year reaped 77% of its benefits. But that’s a topic for another day.
Source: “7 Things No One Tells You About Being Homeless,” Cracked.com, 11/12/13
Source: “Mortgage Interest Deduction Is Ripe for Reform,” CPBB.org, 06/25/13
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