As Kossacks who are regular readers of my series of posts on becoming homeless know, I am writing a book on both my experience and the broader issue of why America cannot - or, more precisely, will not - fix this national disgrace. We have far too many individuals and families who, usually through no fault of their own and not because of anything they did, cannot house, feed and take care of themselves. Because I value the opinion, thoughts and ideas of my fellow Kossacks, I've decided to post the prologue to the book, which I've currently titled Suddenly Homeless: One Man's Role In An American Immorality Play. I'd appreciate your reaction to how the book starts out. Don't feel you must be kind, and feel free to give me your reaction either as a comment or via a private K-note.
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Last night in America, on its streets and along her alleyways and deep in the forests of the richest nation the planet has ever seen in its multi-billion year existence, almost one million of its citizens went to sleep without a roof over their head. Some quarter-million of them were children, and half of the kids were under the age of six.
Over the course of the past year, 10-million different people were homeless for at least one night, including 1.6-million youngsters.
Most of the men, women and children who spent last night in a shelter or group home, in their a car or an abandoned structure of some sort, under a bridge or inside a tunnel, in the corner of a bus shelter or in a park or out in a field, had been getting by. They weren't rich but they did have jobs at one time, a home or apartment, paid taxes, celebrated birthdays, got together with friends, and thought about their future. Essentially, many were solidly middle class not so long ago. Then, a series of unfortunate and usually unforeseen events cascaded out of their control – the loss of a job, the closing of an office or factory, an illness, sometimes a divorce, whatever. In the blink of an eye they'd lost everything, becoming one of the country's throwaway people with no place to go, no money to get there, and nothing to do or eat once they arrived.
They had come from all walks of life: Accountants and truck drivers; health care workers and middle managers; factory hands and lawyers; clerks and teachers; cab drivers and journalists; farmers and cops; entrepreneurs and day laborers; sales people and waiters; construction workers and techies.
Some of them had multiple university degrees and some dropped out of high school. They included people who were married, divorced and single. Last night's homeless included straights, gays, bisexuals, asexuals and some whose genetic code played a cruel joke on them so they were born transgendered.
Most were born in the United States; some came from elsewhere. Of the immigrants, the vast majority arrived legally but some snuck across the border because they had hoped to secure a better life for themselves and their family. Instead, they found disappointment and disillusionment but didn't have enough money to go home.
Many had grown up in stabile, loving homes; others were raised in what must have seemed like a scene from a bad Hollywood horror movie. Some were blessed with families and friends who tried to help while others were left totally alone. Most had been living perfectly ordinary lives until things went to hell while some, like the central character in a Greek tragedy, were cursed with a fatal flaw that helped contribute to their downfall.
Their ranks included Democrats, Republicans, independents, tea party supporters, conservatives, liberals, Communists, fascists and people who had never voted or held a political opinion in their life.
They were white, black, brown and every other color of the rainbow.
Veterans made up 76,000 of them. They were the men and women who served their country selflessly – sometimes in the line of fire – only to find that the country paid them back with selfishness as it mouthed the words "Thank you for your service!" but wouldn't give them so much as a place to live after they were discharged.
In other words, they were as diverse as the nation itself.
I should know. I was one of them.
How on earth did this happen to so many people?
When and why the problem began – at least in its current form – is the subject of considerable discussion and debate. In the hallways and coffee shops and pubs where people involved actively with the issue gather following a day's worth of meetings at conferences and seminars about homelessness, after a few beers had been drunk, the conversations sometimes turned to pinpointing the moment when the country changed from a land of plenty for everyone to a place where a sizeable chunk of people no longer had a place to live.
"It was the Bush depression that did it!" insisted a mouthy activist at one such session, speaking first as usual.
"No, no," claimed another who lobbied Senators and Congressmen on behalf of the poor and needy, usually on a shoestring budget that couldn't compete with the well-heeled tax less-spend less lobbyists who plied Washington representing the rich and comfortable. "It was the Bush tax cuts in 2001 that created all that debt so Congress stopped trying to fund shelters and job programs."
The third, a pale woman who ran a shelter in a medium-sized city, interrupted her colleague to insist that it began the moment when Newt Gingrich was Speaker of the House and forced President Bill Clinton into getting rid of traditional welfare, instead letting states use the block grant money that took its place for anything they wanted. They usually wanted to use the money for anything other than helping the helpless.
The debate went back and forth for a while until, from the far end of the table, one so-and-so who'd only worked with the homeless for about a year and had been quiet so far, spoke up over the buzz. "Excuse me," he said, shyly, before repeating more insistently, "Excuse me!" After waiting a moment to get people's attention, he gained confidence as he spoke. In no uncertain terms, he declared that America's homeless problem began on February 6, 1911. "That was the black and windswept night when Ronald Wilson Reagan was born in Tampico, Illinois, as backwater and backwards a town as you can find anywhere. What his first cry set in motion was a chain of dire events that led to him creating a political philosophy that ruined the United States for the next 40 years!"
Although that specific conversation probably never took place, it is a reasonable facsimile of many that did, including a few that I sat in on as a reporter. Like a good number of the nation's 21st century social ills, its current homeless problem can trace at least some of its roots back to Reagan's distorted view of how government should work, and what it should and – just as often – should not do to help people unable to help themselves. Its roots can be traced back to the days when he did the rubber chicken circuit giving speeches for corporate America before running for office, was honed during his eight years as governor of California in the 1960s and 1970s, and became refined national policy once he'd by-gosh and by-gollyed his way into The White House.
What Ronald Reagan did when he was living in the Governor's Mansion in Sacramento was to sign a bill that did away with what, at the time, were called "insane asylums" or the more polite "state hospitals" or the colloquial but demeaning "loony bins." Except for people who had been found to be criminally insane and those who a court had decided were a danger to themselves or others, every manic-depressive, schizophrenic, bi-polar, Turret's sufferer and anyone else with a mental problem that resulted them in being confined found the gates of the snake pits unlocked one morning and standing wide open. They were free to walk away.
The governor, whose wife had yet to discover the joys of orange hair tint or suntan in a bottle that she had him glop on each morning under the mistaken belief that it made the craggy old man look younger, created the situation because he saw it as a way to cut state spending. Republicans in the legislature loved the idea of saving money and doing away with a bit of California's numerous social programs. But liberal Democrats bought into the idea, as well, because they found value in mainstreaming otherwise harmless people who had mental disorders and, frequently, were confined primarily because they embarrassed "normal" folks – which often meant their family members. Neither side – Republicans because they hated any government program that cost money, Democrats because they didn't think far enough ahead – set up the means of finding a place for people who, in many cases, had spent all or much of their adult life in institutions so they knew nothing about how to take care of themselves.
Unfortunately, neither side has done much since then to correct an issue that escalated thanks to the laws of unintended consequences, other than to give lip-service to changing course.
The homeless problem in America simply grew and got bad, then was made worse by a lack of funding during the 1990s and, eventually, desperate after the housing market collapse in 2006 and onset of the Lesser Depression (to use Paul Krugman's sad but descriptive phrase) in 2008.
Thus, America ended up with millions of people who had no home, no food, no place to go and no money to get there – often through no fault of their own.
~ ~ ~
Partly, this is my story. After what many people would consider a delightful childhood, a successful career and an accomplished life, I ended up homeless, penniless, hungry and without much hope. Believe me, I would have much preferred not to have experienced first-hand what being homeless does to someone and then use it as the foundation of this book.
But mostly, though, it is the story of a massive problem this country has shown little willingness to confront and fix. It is told through the eyes and experiences of other homeless people – men, women and children. It ends with a prescription of how to fix the problem – and for less money that the country is spending now to keep people in shelters.
I deliberately avoided stories of people who were homeless because of a drug or alcohol problem, or because of a mental illness. I did this for three reasons. First, they represent a relatively small number – fewer than half – of the total number of people who are homeless. Yet these are the images the news media shows us of street people. As a result, the nation has developed a distorted view of the scope of the problem and who it has affected. Second, while I can sympathize with the demons facing an alcoholic, I cannot empathize with them, and not many other people could, either. It is much more accurate and realistic to talk about those who had gone from a relatively normal, middle class existence to ending up on the street due to circumstances, happenstance and bad luck. Anyway, there are a lot more of those than there are the kind of people most of us think of when we hear the word "homeless." Finally, it struck me that the news media had done an awful job of telling the real story of what it's like to be homeless in America. Moreover, print and broadcast journalists – to say nothing of our representatives in Congress – have done little to examine what can be done to fix the problem so that most people have a way off the street, and how little it would cost especially given what is already being spent.
Welcome to America in the second decade of the 21st century.
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