Homeless in America: A Case Study in the Importance of Social Security

When I lived in Hawaii, I stayed in an eco-village that also functioned as a youth hostel. There were 60 people of all ages sleeping in different camps made of pallet wood under tarps. It's the jungle, and the weather stays about a steady 75 degrees. You don't need walls in Hawaii. This was the cheapest, most rugged group living situation on the side of the island. The commune had an open-door policy.

There was a woman staying in my dorm, who had been homeless or moving in between housing her entire life. Her mother was involuntarily taken to a mental hospital when she was age 2, and she had been in the foster care system ever since.

She was passed around from home to home until she turned 18. She had no family. She had a difficult time holding down work. She started sleeping in national parks, living with activist communities. At the time when we met, she was in her mid 40s. She was still on the run.

I always really liked her. I could see she wanted to have close connections, and had been betrayed by almost everyone. But she was still always willing to try to be open again. I noticed she talked to herself a lot. When I talked to her, I realized I was living with one of the smartest, most creative people I've ever met.

I learned a lot about myself in the process of connecting with her. We have such different backgrounds.

I saw that in my desire to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the type of person my fellow YUPPIES make our business and nonprofits around helping so we can feel better about ourselves, just how difficult and humbling it is to sit and face the amount of hardship that people who are born into massive adversity endure without shutting them down.

She said she was in a better situation than most homeless women, because she stayed out of the system. She refused to get institutionalized, even if it meant sleeping on the sidewalk, because if she stayed in government shelters, she had to take psych meds. She had to be diagnosed with a mental illness. She had to hand over her brain and her freedom. The mental health care system of the past was so inhumane, it killed her mother, so she declined. She had no bank account. She had no driver's license. I once saw her picking up food out of the dumpster for lunch.

She was in the process of filing for disability. It took her 3 years to get accepted. It was a good day when she got her first check.

I interviewed her for my radio show. As I listen to it, I notice how I often I talk over her. Like I get what she's about to tell me, even though I have no idea the kind things she had been through. But I know on some level that she's been through so much that I can't understand that it makes me nervous.

When I ask her to tell her story, she tells me she doesn't want to tell her story. So many terrible things have happened. She's had to move so many different places, she can't keep it all straight. All her story does is bring up old pain. She's in Hawaii trying to leave her story behind her. She wants to use her voice to talk about systemic change, and the politics behind just how impossible the system makes it for people like her to build a life in this country.

She wasn't a dead beat. She was not a drug user. She spent her days in nature, making clothing, and studying spiritual scriptures. She seemed to be at peace with God and her position in life. Now all she wanted was to a place to sleep and food to eat so she could write her book. She got harassed often on the streets. I remember the day she fought back and had to hide for a week from the police.

I watched her get kicked out of most places. Or she left. Pretty much everywhere she went eventually. She had a low tolerance for other people's bullshit. Sometimes I do think she may have been imagining things. But I never said anything, except "fuck em if they can't take a joke." I wanted her to be able to trust her perceptions in a world where everyone rejected them.

She is a deeply shaken and still a deeply lucid person. She has a great sense of humor and I always knew that she would have my back if I needed it. In a heartbeat.

And you know what? She hated the law of attraction. We were living in a community of neo-hippies, and she had to hear everyday the idea that somehow it was her fault that she was in the position she was in. Everyone she tried to go to looking for enlightened community and connection would tell her this.

I eventually learned that I couldn't do much for her in the long term, without making her financially dependent on me. I realized it was her job to empower herself given the resources available. I couldn't fix her situation without controlling her destiny in someway. She had to realize that within the reserves of her soul, she had everything that she needed to create a life worth living. We all have to do this. No one can do it for us, and I think she did. She does.

She was struggling, but the struggle was all she's ever known - and on some level she knew she was whole and complete regardless. She didn't give up. Ever. And she knew how to walk away from disrespectful people and unhealthy places.

She didn't want hand outs, though she'd take em. What she really wanted I think is a companion. She wanted choices. She wanted consistency. And I thought that maybe my commitment to being someone who she could perhaps learn to trust would help her open up to the idea that tomorrow might not be like her past. Over the course of a year, we built a friendship.

In that relationship I was coming from a place of economic privilege, but she never judged me for it. She just wanted the world to stop judging her for being in the situation she was in.

We ended up helping each other, but not in the way I originally intended. She helped me learn to shut up and better listen. She helped me see my pulls to paternalize or pity those "less fortunate" than me. Every time I caught myself acting better than her in some way, I told her that I saw what I did and she thanked me. She thought I was cool for noticing and didn't take it personally.

She also helped me understand that social security programs are there keeping amazing people like her alive, so that those of us who are born having to overcome great odds can have a chance at a peaceful life.

You may never know what life is like on the streets until you walk in someone else's shoes; though I've found that often the people who I may ignore or fear because of what their existence brings up in me, actually don't want me to relive what they've been through. They just want a place to live and food to eat, and to feel connected in a larger community. To be different and equal. And to be happy.

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