I just thought I should say that to save you all the trouble, because I suspect if you keep reading those of you who don’t already feel that way may start.
I’ve spent the past few weeks of my life immersed in homelessness. It all started when I capitulated to an editor’s request to pose a homeless person and write about my experiences panhandling. I did, and the article is (with permission) included in a prior post.
Then another publisher, one I hadn’t worked for before, asked me to write a piece for his magazine. And the first editor asked me to hop on down to tent city and write about that. Yes to both.
So I spent about an hour and half talking to the tent city residents. They were, you know, people. Not like me, not in many senses, but people. I want to be clear on this: I did not identify with them, not like I expected. There was no “hooker with a heart of gold” story. These were people dealt a series of bad breaks who, for whatever reason, couldn’t deal with it. It was heart rending to talk to these people, and I left… depressed. Sad.
So some of you are nodding your heads, thinking depressed and sad sounds just about right. But here’s the key to why I felt that way: because there is no answer. We don’t have a solution to this problem, nothing is going to make it go away. Help is and for a very long time has been available to those who seek it. I’ve written about those success stories, too, long ago. People can pull themselves up. But many of the people I talked to cannot. Or will not. I do not know which. And that, to me, is sad. A waste of a human life, because the way these people live is no way to exist. I saw no joy in their faces, no happiness at simply being alive. Of course, I don’t see any evidence of these things in lots of people who have very nice homes, but I’m getting off-topic here.
I write my followup for ˆThe Gabberˆand start working on the other piece, all the while following this story in the ˆTimesˆ. But the more I read, the more I get upset. At the homeless people, at their mentality, at St. Vincent de Paul, but not -NOT- at the city of St. Petersburg.
Any other reporter would have gone into tent city and walked away with empathy. I went the other way. I didn’t feel sorry for these people; I instead have grown angry at their sense of entitlement. The daily paper of record said that social service agency offered rent vouchers of $550, but tent city residents complained that $550 won’t even get two weeks in a hotel.
That’s when I started to get angry. No, it won’t, but it WOULD pay my mortgage for a month. Granted, I don’t live in the best neighborhood, but I still prefer it to William’s Park or a tent on a vacant lot. A letter from tent city residents, published in (where else?) the daily paper of record, says that roughly 60% of the people in tent city work full time.
So let’s assume you make $5.50 an hour after taxes and you work 40 hours a week. That’s $220 a week, take home. Let’s assume you can go to a soup kitchen or get food stamps and can feed yourself. Let’s do the math of a budget: $65 for water (no way one person uses more than that in St. Pete, my bill isn’t even that much), $150 for power (again, an estimate), and $600 for rent (that’s reasonable, trust me). Let’s assume you don’t get anything at all in the way of a rent voucher and you have to pay that all by yourself. $815 a month in expenses against your $880 in income. No, that doesn’t include gas or a car, but for minimum wage you don’t travel far. You can get a crappy job anywhere. You take cold showers, you don’t use power you don’t need, you go to a food pantry, you make it work. If you’re that poor, you can get help. Especially for power and water. But let’s not forget that a lot of places take Section 8, government assistance for housing. Yes, it sucks. The places are often crap. But- and I’m only going to say this once- YOU ARE HOMELESS. SOMEONE IS OFFERING YOU A HOME. Jesus, I want to know when someone’s going to offer ME $550 towards living expenses. YOU HAVE TO WANT TO SURVIVE ENOUGH TO DO IT, AND YOU CANNOT BLAME OTHERS IF YOU CANNOT.
And if it still ain’t enough? Well, get a second job. Or a third. That’s how it’s done, folks. I, like most people I know, am three checks away from homelessness. But I don’t want to be homeless, so I am not. It really is that simple. People do not do what they don’t want to do. I know it isn’t easy, but it can be done. I have talked to homeless people and people who have been homeless, and the two attitudes are separated by this: the ones who aren’t homeless anymore ˆdidn’t want to be homeless anymoreˆ.
It’s not that I don’t sympathize, but… come on, bitching about rent vouchers? Complaining that St. Vinny’s won’t try to change the law so you can stay somewhere you don’t own or rent? Suggesting the Mayor Rick Baker lacks morals because he won’t overrule City law?
St. Vincent de Paul should have looked at the law before they set up a tent city.
Help isn’t always in the form you expect it and the successful human learns to take it however it’s offered when they need it.
Mayor Baker responded to the criticism with this wildly valid point:
“I do not support the concept of ‘drop-in shelters’ that provide no structured programs geared toward independence and continue for an indefinite period of time. These facilities become attracters of people from other places because of the free shelter – a no-responsibility opportunity. In the two weeks after the illegal tent city opened downtown, our overall downtown homeless count saw a 30 percent increase, and the prospects for it growing were significant. This week, city and county officials, along with social workers, are meeting with the remaining individuals at the tent city to identify alternative arrangements for those who are willing to work toward independence.”
That much is true; the city sent people down and St. Vinny’s tried to help, too. But people have to be willing to change. The whole tent city thing sounded way too permanent for me, and I applaud any effort that encourages people to better their own situation. But survivors- true survivors- will find those agencies on their own, they will not wait for help to come looking.