The more arrogant and fearful among us believe that a great gulf separates the middle class from the homeless. Their attitudes shield them from the reality that many of us exist one or two paychecks removed from poverty and life on the streets. Life is not the economically secure world of our fairy tales.
I, too, used to believe that people who were homeless achieved this state through their own shortcomings. I no longer believe this. Five years ago, my husband and I found ourselves without jobs and with two children to feed. We had returned from a stint with the US military overseas with very little accessible savings and the naivete to believe that jobs were easy to come by. We soon learned the sorry and sad truth: jobs in America are not a dime a dozen even for qualified, college-educated candidates. To aggravate the situation, I broke my leg soon after returning to the US and was unable to work for six weeks. But for the grace of God and the generosity of my parents, I would have been living in a homeless shelter with my husband and two children. Even today, I shudder to think where I would have been without the strong support network of my family.
In many instances, the homeless in America are people just like you and I, but without the support network of family and friends to turn to in tough times. I'm currently working in a homeless shelter. The money is lousy but I am working here to feed my soul and provide shelter for those without a support network. Some of the homeless are the residents of our stereotypes: the uneducated, the abused, and the mentally ill. Others, in other circumstances, could be living the American dream in suburban America. One of our residents is a woman of about 60, who was comfortably secure until the death of her husband removed her from her idyllic home. With no children and little savings, she rapidly became homeless and subsequently a resident of our program. The women who live on the "third floor" are required to find jobs and work to become self-sufficient. Most of the residents do have full time jobs, but it's tough to survive on a minimum wage job in the 1990's.
Other residents of our program have been damaged by life at the most basic level. They don't possess the skills or morals to make it on their own. One of our current residents is a young mother. At 21, she's the mother of three children and a product of foster care. Her life has been spent being shuffled from home to home. Amazingly enough, she is an excellent mother and is slowly gaining the skills she needs to function. Another young mother isn't so lucky. At 18, her own mother is only 34. As a product of a teen pregnancy, she learned early how to use men and the system to survive. She believes the world owes her a living and refuses to accept responsibility for her own life.
Our program is a transitional program designed to help women learn the skills they need to function in the real world. Sadly, many of today's homeless need more help than our shelter can provide. Since working at the shelter, I've encountered numerous women who've been abused by men, their families, and the system. They've developed ways of coping that don't dovetail with living in a group setting. We've had women lose touch with reality and who have to be removed from the premises by force.
As staff members, our attitudes range from compassionate to cavalier. We all care deeply about the women who live here and our reasons for being here are as varied as the stories of the women themselves. Our director is a product of the welfare system who raised five kids while struggling to get ahead. Her life was coming together when she realized her husband was abusing drugs and she kicked him out. She cares passionately about the women on the floor, but they refuse to believe it because she administers tough love and tells them the truth about their own shortcomings. Another member of the staff gave up a successful career in the public sector to take on the trials and tribulations of working in our program.
I'm an idealist at heart who believes that one person can change the world. It's difficult at times and I've cried over women here who I thought were sincere in their efforts to change. At times, it seems hopeless as we remind the residents again and again to do their assigned chores. They hate us sometimes and accuse us of being jailers. All of that pales in comparison to the success stories. Although they may be few and far between, they remind me why I started working here. One of our residents, a young woman of 18, grew up in a hopelessly dysfunctional family. Her mother was abused, and this young woman continued the abuse by dating an abuser. She was spoiled, and had been raised believing she was better than anyone else. Her refusal to look for a real job and her continued affection for her boyfriend almost got her evicted from the program. Two of our staff members went to bat for her and she was given a reprieve. Two months later she has a good job and is saving money for an apartment. Best of all, she's begun to see that she has choices in her life.
I don't mean to paint a picture of our program as a hell-hole filled with depressed and psychotic women. At worst, it's a bickering dormitory full of premenstrual women and at best it's home. Above all it's a place where women can feel safe and allow themselves to dream.
The next time you pass a homeless person or think about the shelters in your town, remember that a small quirk of fate could put you on the welfare doles or out in the streets.
Lori Enos is a writer, mother, teacher, and human becoming. She currently writes for the Champaign News Gazette and Bridges Career Explorer on a regular basis. In addition, her first book, The Portable Coach, is now available through Hardshell Word Factory.
E-mail Lori at
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