Thursday, May 22, 2008

Why are people homeless?

Why are people homeless? Is it the economy? Bad luck? Illness? A series of stupid decisions? The selfishness of relatives who won’t take them in? The greed of corporations who lay them off from good jobs? Landlords who are quick to evict tenants in order to raise rents even higher?

Friends and I have been debating the situation in Santa Barbara, where homelessness is so bad that the city has 12 overnight parking lot shelters for people reduced to living in their cars. Including one for women only.

It seems that some people in our society have no support system that can come through for them in bad times. Or maybe they are constitutionally unable to get along with others. Otherwise, why is a 67-year-old mother of several grown children living in a car? What’s wrong with this picture?

Homeless people living in cars usually have jobs. But what they don’t have is enough cash in reserve to rent an apartment, or enough steady income to keep it. Shared living situations are the obvious solution for homelessness. They shouldn’t even be so difficult, given that most homeless people have pared down their possessions and thus could easily fit them into one bedroom of a shared home. (Some have more possessions stored with friends, but they’re able to live without them and can continue to do so.) But for various reasons, shared living conditions are pretty much intolerable to many Americans. The successful TV series “Kate and Allie,” in which two divorced women with children shared a New York City brownstone (a town house), ran from 1984 to 1989. But it apparently did not spark a national movement of house-sharing by single mothers. Which is a shame, because blending families to acquire larger and better housing and reduce each family’s costs makes great economic sense.

But can people live together anymore? Today we’re seeing stories about how college students no longer know how to share dorm rooms because they were all raised to have their own enormous rooms at home instead of sharing a bedroom with a sibling. Siblings sharing rooms was an improvement over sharing a bed, which was common for centuries. Today, that’s almost unheard of. The question about adults sharing living space is a real one. Do people know how to share anymore? Yes, we hear about immigrants and gypsies living ten to a room. But if your family got off the boat a century or more ago, are you predisposed to expect vast private living space? Even despite the reality that you cannot afford it?

There is plenty of statistical information available about homelessness. We know that it usually occurs because of health issues or job loss. What interests me most about this particular report is how violently my friends responded to the article about these homeless women in Santa Barbara, a very expensive town in which to live, but one which, nevertheless, they won’t leave. Some said these women were being stupid, that they should move to Nebraska or somewhere else where accommodations are cheaper. Housing in California is historically very expensive, thus making this a situation in which the homeless have very little likelihood of recovering if they stay. Others said the relatives of these women were neglecting their duty. Why else would a mother of three grown children have no couch to sleep on? And all of us showed our fear that homelessness could happen to us.

One of my friends has been homeless, and that friend had the least patience with the woman who kept two big dogs in her car all day. That friend felt that stupid decisions led the woman to an even more stupid life in a car, when presumably the dogs could have gone to a better home, possibly even been sold, thus providing income for the woman (or at least less outlay on dog food) and stability and humane conditions for the dogs. And meanwhile the woman herself is living in an unstable situation under conditions that aren’t good. But another friend pointed out that big dogs sent to shelters are the most likely to be euthanized. Selling one isn’t very likely, either, given the sheer cost of feeding a large dog. The woman would have to give the dogs away, and friends with limited income or living space themselves would find it hard to accept such a gift. But why have two big dogs in the first place?

People make stupid decisions every day (and certainly on the face of it, owning multiple expensive pets is one of them), but don't end up paying for them in this extreme way by losing the very roof over our heads. But we fear it could come to that. Still, do we change anything about our lifestyle, hold back anything in reserve in case of bad times, resist spending up to and over the limit? Not usually. Even the dog issue is increasingly an example of bad judgment. How many people in economic trouble also have multiple pets? Not just one, but many? Where’s the good sense in acquiring them? Where’s the true kindness?

Our country used to be full of miserable little shanties, tiny shacks where poor people lived. Dogs weren’t pets there. They were warning systems and blankets for cold nights who got rewarded with scraps or had to feed themselves by scavenging. Life in shanties was unsafe and unpleasant. But at least people had a roof over their heads. Today, zoning laws have forced most of those shacks to disappear. In most states, you must at least have a trailer and running water and so on, and many localities have banned trailers. So poor people face a very uphill battle to attain housing, because its cost is so disproportionately high compared to their income. But then, most everybody from limited financial circumstances faces this challenge. I'd agree that paying too much for rent was crazy, except that that is exactly what people always do unless they are wealthy. The rent on my first apartment in New York City was more than 50% of my take-home pay, for instance. I’m not even sure why the landlord rented to me, except that I was young, just getting my start, and probably would increase my income soon enough. Which I did. Apartments in New York City are notoriously expensive, and there are no rules about the percentage of income rent can be the way there are about mortgages (not that those rules mattered during the recent real estate greed party, where people bought houses on which they couldn’t even afford to make the first payments). People insist on living under these conditions anyway, because it’s a city of great opportunity. I am not sure why Santa Barbara has a similar hold on Californians.

In discussing the plight of these women, we obviously veered into blaming them. That’s typical of our country, the “can do” nation full of energy and opportunity. We always wonder why people can’t get themselves out of a jam. The question is, are we showing heartlessness by blaming them, or are we trying to show the way out of their fix? Getting rid of the expensive dogs is a fix. Moving to a less expensive locale is a fix. Making nice with friends or relatives who might take you in is a fix. But once life moves you into your car, can you ever move out?


happytails said...

Let the woman keep her dogs, they are the only things that are giving her unconditional love, loyalty, comfort, and security.
If you want to help go to Feeding Pets of the Homeless at and donate cash or go to San Roque Pet Hospital at 3034 State St. in Santa Barbara and donate pet food.

EilisFlynn said...

Well, I would imagine the dogs, esp. large ones, would be blanket and security. My sister has small ones (Yorkshire terriers), multiple ones, for the same purpose ... and frankly, she really can't afford them, either.

Hopeful Lily said...

Me again. The October, 2008 issue of the AARP Bulletin has a story that follows up this homeless woman's plight. Evidently a friend gave her a place 100 miles from Santa Barbara. But obviously, only desperation could make her move out of that city. And she had to leave her part-time job and her friends to get this new home.

Facing unpleasant choices seems to be getting increasingly common in our current economy.