'Where Do The Homeless Get Those Fancy Clothes?'

There's a lot of pent-up anger emanating from the middle class as these troubled economic times linger on. Much of it is directed at government at all levels. As partisan politics prevail, while the people's problems await solutions.

And there's also plenty of resentment -- most of which is aimed at the super rich, as the gap continues to widen between the wealthiest of our citizens and a diminishing middle class. But some of that resentment is reserved for those at the bottom of the economic ladder -- including the jobless and the homeless.

To those who have jobs and housing -- but who struggle to make ends meet -- it often appears as though the jobless and homeless may actually be better off. And that thinking is understandable, because in the America of 2012, the jobless and homeless do, indeed, sometimes look better than their middle class counterparts. And there is a reason.

The appearance of those less fortunate was the topic of conversation a few days ago at a bus stop in Gainesville, Florida, where I live. It came about after a "dressed up" young lady was eager to tell all who would listen that she had just come from a job interview and had high hopes. She divulged also that she was staying in the local shelter and was desperately looking for work so that she could in turn look for housing.

After the young lady had boarded a bus, two women still waiting expressed some resentment -- about the homeless young lady's attire. One of them said, "She's homeless and she dresses better than I do." Then she asked, "Where do the homeless get those fancy clothes?"

That lady actually seemed to be envious of someone who is jobless and homeless. But she needn't be, for the jobless and homeless seldom acquire a nice wardrobe, or "fancy clothes." If the attire looks new, looks stylish, looks good -- it's almost certain that the clothing was purchased before there was joblessness or homelessness.

Shortly after our economic collapse became the Great Recession, some well-dressed ladies in Palm Beach, Florida -- who also just happened to be jobless and homeless at the time -- showed me how and why the down and out can dress, and look, so good.

I was making the rounds in Palm Beach County, promoting my book, when I received an additional request to speak during evening services at Westgate Tabernacle Church. The pastor, the Rev. Avis Hill, said that his church was assisting a growing number of homeless people, and he thought that perhaps relating how I got through, and came back from a long homeless period, might provide some encouragement.

Westgate Tabernacle Church was doing it all -- providing nourishment for both body and soul, as well as a place to clean up, and a mattress on the floor on the coldest of nights. The congregation was a mix of regular longtime churchgoers, homeless people, and homeless advocates.

When I took the podium to speak that evening, the church was nearly full. My appearance was in no way responsible for the impressive attendance, for only a few members of the church staff knew about the last-minute invitation. I was told that such a large gathering was typical -- with as many, or more people seeking refuge, as those seeking a church service.

I was well into my talk when it hit me. I suddenly became aware of something surprising about the audience, and I remember a brief, awkward pause as I surveyed the folks before me.

I was supposed to be addressing a group that included a lot of homeless people. But I wasn't seeing many people who had the homeless look. That evening's talk, and the mixing and mingling that followed, was when I learned that among the many other changes -- mostly bad -- that the Great Recession had brought, was in the look of homelessness.

Until that night, I had the same mental image of homeless people that most other people had -- unkempt, with clothing that is tattered or torn or faded or ill-fitting. Whether housed in shelters, or living on the street, the homeless rarely looked well-dressed, and almost never looked stylish.

What changed my thinking were the conversations I had after my talk. I spoke with a dozen or more people, young to middle-age, who looked like a million bucks, and yet confirmed to me that they were homeless. This particular evening, most of those I conversed with were women, and their stories were much the same.

Before the economy collapsed, they were gainfully employed by some of Palm Beach County's most successful businesses. But they had set themselves up for financial disaster should they ever suddenly lose their jobs. That possibility was something, however, that seldom occurred to them.

Meanwhile, they allowed themselves to become vulnerable. Little or no cash reserves. Credit cards that were, or nearly were, maxed out. High end housing. Numerous discretionary expenses and bills.

When the Great Recession took hold, and the massive layoffs began, there was little time to prepare for the pink slips that followed.. Most of the suddenly jobless were left with unemployment insurance as their only income, and that didn't come close to covering their living expenses.

Eventually they faced eviction notices. Friends and family who were still employed often already had someone doubling up. Leaving town for work elsewhere wasn't the answer either, because unemployment had exploded nationwide.

Then, for many, an automobile became home. And for some, that's when they turned to Westgate Tabernacle Church. They slept in their cars at night -- or on a mattress in the church when it was cold. Come morning, they freshened up in the church, and then went out into their day looking for jobs that weren't there.

But they looked great. They looked well-dressed and stylish, in attire purchased *before* they became jobless and homeless.

The Great Recession came on so forcefully and so quickly that overnight it left countless people with very little -- except for some really nice clothes.

And because of that, there is no longer "a homeless look" that applies to all.