Meghan Daum, in her NYT book review “New Memoirs Show How the Other Half Lives” (October 10, 2016), included a review of my book, Catching Homelessness, along with J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis and a much earlier memoir by a Southerner, Wilma Dykman’s Family of Earth: A Southern Mountain Childhood. In her review of my book, Daum assumes that I lost or gave up custody of my son and that I must be under a “gag order” because I do not write more about my son or my first marriage. Neither of these are true.
The truth is I maintained joint custody of my son, maintained a good relationship with my ex-husband, and I raised my son full time from the time he was ten—once I had a stable job and home for him here in Seattle. He now is finishing his PhD at the University of Washington, is happily married, and is an amazing father to my first grandchild. They are all very much a part of my current life. So yes—an uplifting story (in the end) and also a complex story. My life is not a neat and tidy Hallmark Moment sort of life. It is messy and complicated and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
This all came back to me this past week through a podcast interview with Janet Perry for Nonfiction4Life.
“Most of us live homeless, in the neighborhood of our true selves.”
—Rachel Naomi Remen
A few years ago, while working with Public Health– Seattle & King County on a medical respite project for homeless youth, my own homeless shadow resurfaced. I was in downtown Seattle at the YWCA women’s shelter, waiting inside the front lobby for the rest of our group to arrive. We were scheduled to have a tour of the facility to see how they ran their medical respite program. I’d taken the city bus and had purposefully dressed down in jeans, a sweater, and a raincoat. It was late afternoon, raining out- side, and I saw soliciting, pimping, prostituting, and drug dealing happening on the sidewalk in front of the shelter. The members of my medical respite group were buzzed in the front door. At the same time, a homeless woman resident walked up to me and asked, “Did you stay at a hotel last night on Aurora instead of here again?” Aurora Avenue is one of Seattle’s main prostitution areas. I looked up at her in alarm. “I’m sorry. You must have me mixed up with someone else. I’m not staying here, I’m just visiting.”
The people in my group overheard this interchange. Later, they teased me about it, saying how preposterous it was. I was a university professor, for God’s sake! There was no way I could be homeless, much less a homeless prostitute. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that my cover had been blown, that I’d been found out, that my homeless shadow was showing. You were homeless—why? What was wrong with you? Those are the questions people ask me—or want to ask me—whenever they discover I was homeless. Coming out of the closet about my own homelessness was never an option for me. It could derail my career, hurt my family, and marginalize me even more. It was largely why I had moved across the country to Seattle, to escape the memories of having been homeless in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia. But standing there in the YWCA shelter, I recognized the irony—and the hypocrisy—embedded in my reaction to the woman’s question. Here I was an outspoken advocate for people who were homeless, while secretly judging them, and by extension, judging myself.
Homelessness is exhausting and soul sucking. Homelessness has marked me. Like the star-shaped surgery scars on my belly, the body harbors secrets. Homelessness is a type of deep illness, a term coined by sociologist Arthur Frank for an illness that leaves you feeling dislocated, an illness that casts a shadow over your life. That shadow never completely goes away. At some point it was time to acknowledge my homeless shadow, time to remember.
When people discover that I have not only worked with homeless people for the past thirty years but have also experienced homelessness as a young adult, the number one question they ask me is, “So what should I do when I see a homeless person on the streets—what can I possibly do to help?” In fact, while working today at the University of Washington, a longtime and well-known health journalist asked me this question. So, for her, and for all the other well-intentioned people out there with the same or similar questions, here is my list of “Simple things you can do to help the homeless” followed by a list of my favorite resources for finding out more about homelessness:
Respond with a smile and a kind word—even if it is “No—sorry” when you are asked for a handout for coffee, a meal, or spare change. There’s nothing worse than for a person to be ignored.
Carry fast-food restaurant certificates and flyers with local resources to give to the homeless when they ask for food or money.
Buy Real Change or whatever your local homelessness/poverty issues newspaper is—if there is one in your area.
Support an agency that provides services to the homeless, especially agencies that also work on upstream solutions to preventing homelessness, such as low-income housing or job-training programs. An example is Habitat for Humanity, whose vision is of a world where everyone has a decent place to live.
Be informed and become an advocate for local community solutions to homelessness and poverty, as well as state, national, and international ones.
Consider joining advocacy organizations, such as the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
The following organizations are all well-respected sources of up-to-date information and resources for individuals, groups, and communities to learn more about homelessness and what to do about it.
I personally do not give money to anyone asking for spare change. That is a choice I make, not because I am concerned people will use the money for drugs, alcohol, tobacco or anything else I may consider unhealthy choices, but because I have decided to use my money to support agencies I know and work with and which provide direct services as well as advocacy. I do make sure that I try to make eye contact and say a polite, “No, I’m sorry, I can’t” whenever anyone asks me for money. And I do intervene nicely but firmly whenever I witness someone belittling a homeless person with derogatory comments like “Just get a job!” Such aggressive, judgmental comments should not be tolerated in a civil society.
During a recent cross-country car trip with my family from Seattle to Washington, DC, I recorded impressions of the state of homelessness from a traveler’s perspective. We spent time in the following major (and not-so-major) cities: Seattle, Washington; Boise, Idaho; Salt Lake City, Utah; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Austin, Texas; Houston, Texas; New Orleans, Louisiana; Atlanta, Georgia; Richmond, Virginia; and Washington, DC.
The face and interface of visible street-based homelessness change radically from place to place. The demographics of rough-sleepers vary by location, with Seattle, Salt Lake City, and New Orleans having the largest proportion of teenage and young adult ‘visibly homeless’ people. Atlanta, Georgia, Richmond, Virginia and Washington, DC had the oldest and the highest proportion of African-American people who are visibly homeless, on the streets.
Boise, Idaho had very obvious ‘anti-homeless’ city ordinances and police enforcements on the downtown streets. Salt Lake City had the most visible apparent efforts to reach out and help homeless people–with downtown restaurant people giving free meals to some people pushing their belongings around in shopping carts–sidewalk rest/restroom/community pop-up areas that seemed tolerant if not friendly to everyone. I realize it is the headquarters of the Mormon church (and state) and that there is most likely a darker, more complicated flip-side, but I also would be unfair not to report some of the positive attributes that I experienced while there.
I took photographs and wrote notes (and Instagram ‘reports’) throughout my cross-country trip, focusing on health and homelessness. I left postcards of my forthcoming book, Catching Homelessness: A Nurse’s Story of Falling Through the Safety Net(Berkeley: She Writes Press, August 2016), on various community boards in coffee and bookshops (and gas stations) along the way. Here is a (more or less) chronological slideshow of my ‘postcards of homelessness’ impressions across America: