I Am Not a Myth

"Homeless people should be rounded up and put somewhere off the streets," said the woman I met in a local park while she was walking her dog. I asked her what made her think that homeless people aren't people like everyone else and where it was exactly they should be rounded up and taken to. She shrugged and said that most of them don't want to get off the streets or are on drugs. I asked her if she was a social worker or had worked with homeless people, and of course she said no. I then asked if she realized she was speaking to a homeless person who has never been on drugs, has no mental health issues and has worked two jobs to the point of stroke. Suddenly she had nothing to say and her face was a shade of red I've never seen before.

I've come to expect this kind of self- proclaimed expert knowledge on homeless people from the non-homeless about as much as I've come to know the arrogance of service providers who seem to think they know what's best for people without homes, even though they've never been homeless and are out of touch with today's day-to-day realities of getting by without basic necessities. Whenever there is an unpleasant element to society, people act like "out of sight, out of mind" tactics will solve the homeless problem. Homelessness is a symptom of a much bigger problem, so you cannot pretend that ignoring it will make it go away. It's easy to look down on another person when you're standing on a platform of privileges they don't have. Having access to basic necessities in today's world is becoming an out of reach luxury for too many people, and just having a job won't create enough of an escape velocity out of poverty. You can have higher minimum wages but what good does that do if the cost of living keeps going up?

The reality I see every day is unaccompanied homeless youth living on the streets by any means necessary because they may not be old enough to apply for any kind of benefits usually offered to adults and when I say "by any means necessary," I mean anything from drugs, prostitution, theft and panhandling. I see elders who can't afford rent anywhere on the Social Security checks they get, so some are in tents in "unauthorized" camps or living out of their vehicles. Some just wander from place to place with a backpack and sleep on buses or in libraries. I see single parent families bouncing from motels, friend's couches, their cars or on foot. Then there's the vets, the terminally ill and disabled folks who can't get the help they need, when they need it.

I get a kick out of people who only see one kind of homelessness and are quick to say that all homeless people are the same. The reality is that too many with mental illness and other issues are allowed to go homeless because they get seen as difficult to help. Well, if you can't get help and you need meds, counseling or other things, how are you going to be able to function? Mental illness is a condition that isn't cured instantly by just popping a pill or getting counseling. Without wrap around services and supportive housing, homelessness is often the result.

The reality I live is endless forms to fill out, indefinite waiting lists, no availability and not fitting the criteria of certain programs. I've lost count of all the jobs I've applied to but remember that I don't hear back from them except for the few who have sent me auto reply notices that my resume was received. I've learned that dealing with DSHS (Department of Social and Health Services) has been a big joke... on me! I've become accustomed to the looks of disbelief from people who didn't know I was homeless or that I had a mini stroke while homeless. I know what it's like to run out of gas and be stranded on the side of the road for more than a day because I didn't have the money to keep going. I've lived through winters in an old beat-up RV with no heat and have had pneumonia twice. My kids and I know what it's like to run out of gas in a parking lot of a Kmart only to have two police officers show up with a bogus story that someone called 911 and said we were camping there even though we had only been there for 20 minutes, and put their heads through my car window to threaten me with arrest while my girls watched from the back seat. What they didn't know was that a friend of mine was already on her way with gas money and she was a Seattle police officer!

I know what it's like to skip meals on a regular basis to make sure my kids ate. I know what it's like to be instantly judged by preconceived notions of homelessness other people have in their heads, and so do my kids. Not having regular access to showers or laundry services means a "polite" phone call from my kid's teacher. My ears have become deaf to suggestions from people to just call this number or that when I know damn well they haven't. I can always tell when people make unrealistic expectations, because they have no clue what the reality of homelessness is once you've been in it for a few years like I have, and I've also learned to be wary of offers for help that sound too good to be true.

While the woman standing next to me is going on about not wanting her tax dollars being wasted on people she sees as less than and expounding on all the myths of poverty she has in her head, I smile to interrupt her and say "I'm sorry but I am not a myth and neither are the people you look down on."