Fourteen years ago today, I became homeless. By the grace of God, I have survived.
Meet the outsider who accidentally solved chronic homelessness
Meet Sam Tsemberis. According to academics and advocates, he’s all but solved chronic homelessness. His research, which commands the support of most scholars, has inspired policies across the nation, as well as in the District. The results have been staggering. Late last month, Utah, the latest laboratory for Tsemberis’s’s models, reported it has nearly eradicated chronic homelessness. Phoenix, an earlier test case, eliminated chronic homelessness among veterans. Then New Orleans housed every homeless veteran.
In August, somebody hit their car, totaling it. The insurance company cut the couple a check for $800, which seemed like a windfall.
The plan: Buy a new car and use the rest for hotel stays.
Alex stayed with family, while Angel ventured out with Clouse and Schafer, and Emma, the dog, in a cab to cash the check and go buy a car.
They went from store to store, and even to a bank.
Nobody would cash the check.
That meant they couldn’t pay the cab driver. That meant they couldn’t go anywhere else.
The cabbie left them outside the Forest Park Kroger, with these words, “If you didn’t have a kid, I’d call the police.”
Schafer loaded their belongings – all they had left – into a grocery cart, and the trio sat on a shady sidewalk.
An older woman, leaving the store, bought them three packs of cigarettes. She left and returned with a leash for Emma and Jolly Rancher candy for Angel.
The family didn’t want to call attention to themselves so they hurried along, walking for hours through Forest Park.
It was a 90-plus degree day. They drew curious looks.
“People look at you different,” Schafer said. “You feel like you’re not a person.”
As it grew dark, Clouse called her dad. He let the kids stay overnight, but not his daughter and Schafer.
They slept in the damaged car, which was parked at a nearby auto shop.
Leonard Pitts Jr. commentary: Homeless woman defies stereotype from the right
Thursday April 3, 2014 5:56 AM
“We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work.”
— Rep. Paul Ryan
“You’re facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a (poor) person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don’t think too much further than that.”
— former South Carolina Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer
“There are 47 percent who are … dependent upon government, who believe they are victims, who believe government has a responsibility to care for them”
— Mitt Romney
Look at her face.
Spend a few quality moments with that image — her booking photo. Google it if you must, but find the image — her booking photo — and when you do, spend a few quality moments with it. Not so you can be touched by the woeful cast of her expression, not so you can be moved by the tears trickling freely upon her cheeks. Spend that time, rather, so that you can appreciate the realness and individuality of her.
You see, Shanesha Taylor is poor and much of what passes for discussion of the poor in this country is less about people than about types, cardboard cutouts from the overheated imaginations of those who have little idea what poverty even looks like. So study Taylor’s picture in order that you might understand what so many won’t: She is not a type. She is a human being.
Taylor was arrested last week in Scottsdale, Ariz., after leaving her two children, ages 2 years and 6 months, alone inside a hot car, the doors locked, the windows open a fraction. It was — let’s be real clear on this — something for which there is no excuse, though it’s also something with which we have become sadly familiar. Some people leave kids in the car while they stop for a drink. Some leave them so they can hit the casino.
Taylor left her kids so she could go to a job interview. She is 35 and homeless. She had no one to watch them. She was desperate for work. She took a chance.
Now her children have been taken away, and she is facing two felony counts of child abuse.
And Shanesha Taylor is the enemy. Or at least, that is the narrative that is relentlessly spun by pundits and politicians on the political right. She is lazy, a taker, a moocher, a scavenger, an animal bred in a culture of poverty with an entitlement mentality and an addiction to suckling from the public teat so overpowering that she lacks even the ability to be embarrassed by her plight. So yes, by all means, cut her welfare, cut her food stamps, cut her unemployment benefits. This is what the right wing says.
About the double-dealing banks that helped trigger a 2008 financial crisis that nearly crashed the U.S. economy, they say nothing. About the $500 million a year that is spent on empty military bases Congress refuses to close even though the Army no longer uses or needs them, they are silent. About $159 million the military and State Department spent for buildings in Afghanistan that are not and will not be used, they are mute.
But let an urban legend spread about some joker using food stamps to buy beer, let some indigent seem a little too content in his meager circumstances, and you can’t shut them up. This, they say, is what waste looks like. These people represent all 46 million poor people in this country. They are the face of poverty.
The poor have no lobbyists, no cable TV network, no national interest group to speak on their behalf, so the lie stands. Even so, it remains a lie.
So take a moment with Taylor’s face. Apparently, she wasn’t a scavenger, wasn’t a moocher, didn’t feel entitled, wasn’t even lazy.
She was just a person who wanted to work so she could provide for her children. Because the true face of poverty is the face of people just trying to make the best they can out of what they’ve got. Not incidentally, that’s probably your face, too.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald.
De Blasio’s tale of two cities hits home
By Nathaniel P. Morris, Published: March 7
Nathaniel P. Morris is a student at Harvard Medical School.
My girlfriend recently moved into a new apartment in New York City, and I took a train down from Boston to lend a hand. We spent most of the weekend arranging furniture and unpacking her things, but we also caught up with college friends. Over dinner, we chatted about work, family, relationships and politics. I had heard about Mayor Bill de Blasio and his vision to combat inequality. I didn’t know that we were about glimpse his Tale of Two Cities.
On Sunday, after some shopping and a walk through Central Park, we decided to get out of the cold. We descended into the subway at Grand Central Station to head back downtown. When the train rolled up, we snagged a pair of seats, two of roughly 20 passengers in the car. None of us said anything as we creaked into the dark tunnel.
A few stops passed in relative silence as the train rumbled along. A teenager bobbed his head, music faintly emanating from his oversize headphones. We reached Bleecker Street, and no one seemed to be getting on or off. Then, just as the doors were about to shut, a disheveled man wearing glasses and a backpack stepped aboard. Towering over us, he began to shout.
“Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen. I apologize for the inconvenience.”
Everyone looked up.
“I lost my job a few months ago and have been living in a homeless shelter.”
Everyone looked down.
“They put a roof over my head, but I still have to find my own food. I haven’t had a bite to eat all day, and I haven’t had any luck on these trains. I’d really appreciate some loose change or extra snacks, any kind of help.”
When he finished his speech, the man pulled out a shiny little bag, the kind most people use for gifts. He walked through the car, rattling his receptacle in front of person after person — rows of slumped heads, a ritual of somber neglect. Many people pulled the trick of taking out their cellphones and pretending to do something important. I opted for starting a random conversation with my girlfriend — as if the desolation before us couldn’t be seen or heard, so it wasn’t our fault for not helping out. The well-dressed couple across from us had three bags of groceries from Trader Joe’s. The man shuffled by with a longing gaze, but no success.
When he finally reached the end of the car, he cried out, “See, I told you I was having bad luck.” He slumped into a seat, closed his eyes and buried his head in his hands.
For the next couple of stops, I periodically looked over at him. I thought about why I didn’t give him anything when I knew my girlfriend and I didn’t really need the cash in our pockets. I went through the usual justifications: Maybe he’s an alcoholic or on drugs. Perhaps he’s a criminal who got fired. Why does this guy deserve others’ money and assistance, just for begging? Wouldn’t my money go further at a homeless outreach program or an organized charity?
Then I thought about the sheer desperation, and courage, it takes to stand in front of a train of strangers and bare your soul, announcing to everyone the shambles your life has become and hoping for scraps in return. I guess that the anxiety of the whole situation is why I just waited for the moment to pass.
Suddenly, the train screeched to a halt. We were at City Hall. The man slowly stood up, looked down the car one last time and left. I watched through the scratched window to see if he would move on to the next car. Instead, he walked up the stairs, empty-handed, into the cold night.
People make the mistake of seeking the Higher Power in the supernatural, the miraculous: God – Who can be discerned in daily life – the warmth of the sun, the color of a tulip, the smile of a child, being in the right place at the right time, finding that special someone. Stranded and hungry, perhaps homeless, a person standing with a sign at the exit, who receives money from you: a miracle in that’s person’s day.
If you haven’t any charity in your heart, you have the worst kind of heart trouble.
And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.
I Cor. 13:13
How libraries became the front line of America’s homelessness crisis
They are destinations “for people who have no place to go.”