(Author’s Note: I want to start this last installment with the words of two writers I admire. Their words speak to me.).
David Roddy co-writes the podcast “Worker’s Cauldron” with Mercedas Castillo. He advocates for the marginalized and homeless. The “Worker’s Cauldron” originally called “Sh!t Gets Weird” focuses on “the cultural politics of the paranormal.” Each program is a lesson about history you probably did not learn in school, at least not here in the United States. You can catch the podcast at: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/the-workers-cauldron.
The most dangerous person is one who never questions the efficacy of his or her hard work to overcome adversity, who doesn’t take into account circumstance, outside help, or sheer luck. It is dangerous to disconnect racial disadvantages, disadvantages that are especially hard for those who are single mothers. A person is doomed to callousness and a heartless inconsideration of others as long as they idealize that hard work is the sole cause of success.
The other is poet Lyla Osmundsen, a member of the Women Writers of the Well. At our Monday evening meeting, she responded to the prompt: “Have I invented the world I see?” Vibrant with emotion, shining Love with the heart of an angel, Lyla wrote from the core of her being, which she does – always. She completed the first two lines during our meeting and read them to us. I was so touched I asked if she could complete it to add to this blog entry. Thankfully, she agreed. Her book is available at: Wa(o)ndering to Poetry (9781717396556): Osmundsen, Lyla Fain: Books
Have I Invented the World I See? – Lyla Osmundsen, 3/10/21
Does my anger vibrate in unison
with the anger of others,
causing volcanic eruptions of
daily gun violence?
Does my careless waste
constitute a crime
against a starving individual?
Does stuffing my house
with thoughtless trifle
transform into the tragedy
of a child with no home?
Lyla asked the hard questions of herself. Those of us that hear her words, in turn ask them of ourselves. What are the ramifications of our emotions, our patterns, our wants and desires? We all need to ask, “What world have I created?” Is it the one we want to see?
To live, a human needs water, food, and shelter. These are not privileges. These are necessities. According to most articles that I read, the top four reasons for homelessness are: lack of affordable housing, unemployment, poverty, and low wages. Contrary to popular belief, more than one third of people who are homeless are not jobless. They work long hours, sometimes more than one job, even more than two or three jobs at a time. Housing is too expensive and there aren’t enough developments to house all the people that need housing. Even if there were, the average wages for the average worker cannot cover mortgages, or even skyrocketing rental costs.
The housing problem compounded in California when yearly firestorms became the norm, forcing people to leave established living accommodations. As a teacher, I worked with families displaced by fire. Some lived out of their cars, more fortunate ones found safety with family or friends. Others, unable to find work in California, left the state, abandoning their old lives entirely. These were the lucky people.
The rest careened into homelessness and took to the streets, or the edges of parks, or under overpasses of highways. People of small towns and rural areas, areas with limited job availability especially develop an attitude of looking down on the displaced citizens that hover in their areas. The typical response I heard was that the hardworking taxpayer shouldn’t have to subsidize lazy vagrants.
Then Covid-19 hit. Stimulus packages were not enough and came too late. Workplaces were shut down, people lost their businesses, mortgage holders weren’t compassionate enough because their own livelihood was compromised. Homelessness was no longer an issue of “you just have to work hard.” I wonder, do those angry people bemoaning their taxes still feel the same? Are some of them now living on the edges of society, possibly still working hard, still paying taxes, living under makeshift tents on the edges of town?
Covid-19 gave most of us time to realize our good fortune is largely due to luck. Having or not having is often a matter of who you know. It’s almost always a matter of what color am I?
As early as the 1970’s Federal investment in housing was threatened. In the 1980’s there was already an unwarranted number of families with children considered homeless. In 2008, financial crises created foreclosures forcing people to give up their homes and take rentals instead. Unfortunately, affordable and safe rental construction could not meet the demand of displaced homeowners. Rents rose, but working class wages did not. By the time Covid-19 was a pandemic, rents were too high for most people working full time year round as minimum wage workers. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in a survey completed in 2019, 82.3 million workers 16 years and older, represent well over half (58.1 percent) of all wage and salary workers in the United States. These are people struggling to maintain shelter. Six percent of white households are extremely low-income renters. (2,3,4)
For people of color, the statistics are bleak. “Twenty percent of Black households, 17 percent of American Indian or Alaska Native households, 15 percent of Hispanic households, and 10 percent of Asian households (compared to the white households), are extremely low-income renters and are often locked out of affordable housing due to systemic and structural racism and decades of racist policies.” (1)
I think about other single mothers like myself. What are those statistics? Over 85% of homeless families are headed by women, specifically, by single women with children, and domestic violence is a principal cause of homelessness among single mother families. (5)
Reading a statistic such as this raises the ugly face of my own fear. My fear was real. I was afraid of homelessness, however, that fear was as irrational then as it is now. I always had people who cared for me. I had places I could go. I am white. Job opportunities, even in this rural area, were presented to me, largely because of who my family knew. There was no way I would find myself on the street.
Even now, as a retired person living on barely adequate retirement wages, when the fear stops me in my tracks, the truth is – I remember that money is adequate. I have shelter. I have water. I have food.
I will never know who that huddled person in front of Starbucks was. I didn’t stop to ask their story. Where was that person’s luck? Did my callousness leak some of it away? Were they as terrified of me, as I was of them? Were they huddled under the mound of clothing in defense and shame? Could I have alleviated part of that shame for one transitory moment if I had stopped to smile, at the very least? Could that one moment have made all the difference in the world for that one person?
December 31, 2019 was a lost opportunity. Today, as I rewrite this article, terror washes over me again as I remember being a single mother of two very young children. My heart crumbles as I remember the person I left behind at Starbucks. Before my fingers touched the keyboard, I sat on my bed sobbing. I lived on the brink of disaster, that person lives the disaster.
I have to own that terror and let it go. I also have to own the pride that covered it up and made me callous. Yes, I worked hard, but I was fortunate. I was presented with opportunities that I was in a position to grab; opportunities that a great many of us don’t have.
In the future, will I find, at the very least, the courage to smile if I have nothing else to give? I need to look behind the pride that covers my near miss and move forward one encounter, one opportunity, one story at a time.
Aurand, Andrew, Dan Emmanuel, Dan Threet, Ikra Rafi, and Diane Yentel. 2020. “The Gap: A Shortage of Affordable Homes,” p.13. Washington, DC: National Low Income Housing Coalition. https://reports.nlihc.org/sites/default/files/gap/Gap-Report_2020.pdf.
Chetty, Raj, Nathaniel Hendren, and Lawrence Katz. 2016. “The Effects of Exposure to Better Neighborhoods on Children: New Evidence from the Moving to Opportunity Project.” American
Economic Review 106 (4). https://scholar.harvard.edu/hendren/publications/effects-exposure-better-neighborhoods-children-new-evidence-moving-opportunity.
Gowan, Peter and Ryan Cooper. 2017. “Social Housing in the United States,” p.1. Washington, DC: People’s Policy Project. https://www.peoplespolicyproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/SocialHousing.pdf.