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No One In Their Right Mind Chooses Life On The Street

October 20, 2008

Much like last year, there’s apparently an international Blog Action Day, where 10,000+ bloggers intend to discuss poverty and the like, just to see if they can get the word out or something.

It may even do some good, as long as the 10,000 bloggers aren’t the only ones reading each other’s writings about how poverty is a manifestation of the injustice of modern postindustrial life and how everyone should do their part and how poverty could be completely eliminated if we just throw enough money at it.

Really, the blogsphere can be one epic circlejerk at times, with the only folks reading blogs being other bloggers, only wanting to pull traffic back to their own blog by visiting others’ and to feel that little “I’m clever” rush we apprently get when we read something of a similar idealogical standpoint to our own (See: Confirmation Bias).

But I’m off-topic.  As ever, really.  No attention span to speak of seems to do that.

Poverty.  Yes, quite right.  That’s what I’m supposed to be writing on.  But … there are so many different directions I could go with this. 

I could run from the impoverished student standpoint, discussing the (very real) hardships suffered by many students around the world in order to be able to afford their studies – and so often dismissed in favour of the more visibly destitute under some misguided assumption that they have parents who can bail them out if things get too rough.  I do, I freely admit.  If I were to run out of cash tomorrow, Mother would bail my ass out.  I’d never live it down, but she’d help out.  Many aren’t so lucky.  Their families could only barely afford to get the to school, or they couldn’t at all – student loans really aren’t as generous as they’d have you believe.

I could take this to the hidden homeless, the number of people who can’t afford housing but aren’t on the streets – crashing with friends, overcrowding apartments they’re not supposed to be in simply riding the generousity of friends and family because no matter how hard they try, they can’t get housing.

Or maybe the fact that the number of people like this in developed areas is growing as North America’s credit crunch comes to up to full steam and suddenly they can’t even get a loan to put ’em in a house, or they’re defaulting on a mortgage they shouldn’t’ve had to begin with; while the same financial problems that keep them away from loans hit governmental programs and lo-and-behold there’s no longer any money for housing programs, either, so they’re fucked regardless.

How about the fact that food banks just don’t see donations any time of the year that isn’t the month before Christmas?  Seriously, folks, they need our help year ’round, they’re all that keeps many underprivledged, poor families well-nourished and acceptably fed.  Welfare / food stamps really aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.  I’ve not heard of a similar challenge run in Vancouver or Kitchener/Waterloo, my two hometowns, but Illinois’ $25 Challenge had regular folks attempting to create a survivable diet and lifestyle off the $25/week allotted through State food stamp programs – the experiences of participants are documented on this blog here, and all they’ve done is convince me that State aid alone is not sufficient to keep poor families healthy.

So, well, I’ve kinda blitzed through any number of things that I could have gone into great depth on, but I really feel this needs to go a little elsewhere, on a slight tangent from “Poverty” – homelessness.  More specifically, those stuck in the streets or in state shelters.  ‘Cause poverty if this sad unfortunate man-trap that creates a nigh-unbreakable cycle for those stuck in it, living in the streets is just a goddamend landmine that doesn’t even bother trying to hold you down, it just blows your fucking legs off so you can’t get back up again.

The most telling, imporatant phrase you can ever keep in mind when dealing with the genuinely destitute is that “No one in their right mind chooses life on the streets.” Really.  Just say it out loud.  Think about every possible interpretation you can.

“No one in their right mind chooses life on the streets.”  In a study of the homeless population of Toronto, 66% of the homeless people surveyed had a history of mental illness, and 66% had a history of substance abuse – 86% had a history of one or the other.  While substance abuse and addiction aren’t formally a mental illness per se, the affects of additiction can force people into situations normally unconscionable by a regular person.  And while many of the mental illnesses suffered by the homeless would be treatable were they suffered by a regular person, they almost certainly cannot afford expensive medications and treatments – those that would be state supported are often witheld by doctors due to distrust of giving psychoactives to the homeless – there is a perception that these drugs will merely be resold or abused by the recipient.  And the illness doesn’t always mean they’re incapable of interacting with society:  I met a homeless man once who was living in the middle of a park due to extreme claustrophobia.  He’d been a successful english professor for 20 years or so when, as he put it, he was lecturing in the middle of a class and “his mind broke” – he experienced a debilitating panic attact and felt the lecture hall was closing in on him – and despite trying nearly everything, he can barely stand to get under an awning if it’s raining.  He said he slept on his deck for a month or so, but split after his wife lost patience with him and he stopped bathing because he couldn’t stand to be indoors long enough.  They couldn’t find a psychiatrist who was willing to make out-calls to him on their budget, so he’s been nearly untreated so far.  He’s clever, well-spoken, and very popular within the homeless community – but he’s the first to admit he’s “not right in the head.”

“No one in their right mind chooses life on the streets.”  Of the innumerable people living on the streets, a miniscule fraction are actually there by choice.  The majority are there through unfortunate circumstances that leave them nowhere else to turn.  It always bears saying that a majority of these people would be living elsewhere if they had nay other options – and are there because there aren’t any.  Relationship issues with parents and friends may cut off those avenues of support, or they could simply be geographically incapable of receiving assistance.  I met a woman who’d moved to Vancovuer from Northern Quebec for a job, and when the job ran out, so did her rent money.  When she was evicted, she no longer had a fixed address for family to send money to, and just as she couldn’t afford to get home, they couldn’t afford to come find her.  She said her biggest luxury on a good week of panhandling is to plug quarters into a payphone like mad and call home.  They’re there ’cause there’s no way out.

“No one in their right mind chooses life on the streets.”  Sadly, for all but a few lucky ones, living in the streets becomes a life sentance.  I had a conversation with Jaertes about unemployment, and with his ease finding jobs online, his amazement that there are people who want work, without it.  This isn’t some sort of detachment from reality or anything, he just didn’t think it all the way through.  There aren’t part-time or tempwork jobs everywhere in Canada, first off – some areas just don’t have enough wealth, at all, that people post piecework jobs for others to pick up, or all the entry level jobs are already taken.  It’s common.  Eventually we got to homelessness, and, well, it’s all to easy to forget that after two weeks or so on the streets, you start smelling like them.  Even with shelter showers, it’s nigh impossible to clean up to normal folks’ standards, ’cause nothing you have is clean.  Sure, you’ve washed yourself, but all your posessions still smell like streets, and the average laundromat doesn’t let street people in.  How do you get a job when you can’t dress up for an interview, can’t clean up for the interview, and have no computer access to print off a resume or even look for jobs online?  Other than places dedicated to services for the homeless, ‘net cafes don’t let the homeless in – they’re bad for business, and scare off the regular, wealthier, folks.  They’re stuck there, and there’s no way out that’s not drugs or death.  Hence, high addiciton rates on the streets – many of those folks weren’t junkies when they got stuck out on the sidewalk, but the habit developed as a way of numbing the pain that society really wants to pretend you’re not there, that there’s no one willing to bail you out, hell, just to keep feeling warm. And thr drugs just become another tooth in the trap – how do you clean up and get off the streets when every cent you have is going to a drug habit?

They’re out there ’cause they have nowhere else, and no way out.  For all that I’d be hard pressed to advocate just tossing them change out of pity – that money would oft as not be better invested in shelters and leg-up programs than in this or that specific hobo’s food/booze/drug budget – be nice to them.  If they’re being friendly, talk to them.  I found that while I was doing outreach, most of them just wanted someone to talk to, to treat them like a regular person.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 21, 2008 10:02 am

    I have experienced the misery of homelessness at several points in my life and, although there is a certain sense of freedom to it, it is a dangerous and miserable lifestyle that is hard to rise out of.
    Contrary to popular belief, most homeless did not become so out of choice. Most did not become homeless because they are lazy, stupid, or immoral. Many homeless people are victims of abuse in the form of neglect and abandonment by their parents or other caregivers. Like many victims of abuse, a lot of them have chemical dependency problems. Their existence is so miserable that they use alcohol or other drugs as an escape. Some of them are simply victims of life’s tragedies, such as hurricanes, fires, or other catastrophes from which they simply don’t have the resources to recover.
    Also, there is a snowball effect that occurs with homelessness. After all, who is going to hire someone with no address? Most homeless people don’t have the resources to even do their laundry; who is going to hire someone in filthy clothes? Also once a person has fallen to the level of living on the streets it is very difficult for them to get a job even if they are capable of working, because the condition of homelessness creates a low sense of self-esteem which makes it difficult to relate to other people. It is difficult to find, much less keep a job once a person’s self-esteem is so badly damaged.
    I invite you to my website: http://www.FreetheGods.com. There you will find pictures I have taken of homeless people. I always give them a dollar or two for the privilege of photographing them. Usually, I am surprised by their cheerfulness and sense of pride. Often, they will show themselves to have some kind of talent. There is a fine line between genius and insanity.

    David Settino Scott, III

    I was all set to compose an eloquent and thoughtful response to the fact that you’ve pretty much echoed what I said without apparently paying any attention to the text – you wrote a very nice opinion piece, but it’s not any sort of comment or reply to me, per-ce. You weren’t pointing out mistakes or misconceptions, or disagreeing with what I said, or even really agreeing with it. You just kinda had your say.

    Regardless, I was set to give you the benefit of the doubt – until – oh wait, Google, you have something you’d like to say? You’ve seen this exact same comment somewhere else? Really, Google? Can you show it to us? Ah, yes – this is the exact same comment, somewhere else. There’s another over here, as well? Did you just cut & paste to my blog, David Settino Scott, III? That’s a very rude thing to do. Either give me the courtesy of a genuine reply or fuck off.

  2. October 21, 2008 12:06 pm

    Fucking cut & paste. Get bent, asshat.

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