THE UNDETECTABLE HOMELESS:
“YOU SHOULD HAVE SAVED MORE,” SAY THE RICH WHO INHERITED
THEIR FORTUNES OR HAVE HUGE PENSIONS
This is what I hear constantly from those who are NOT in financial crisis, have no problem in obtaining a mortgage for a second home, and have just purchased a larger yacht. I hear it in my own neighborhood and town, but this is not typical in towns neither near us nor in most parts of the U.S. What I don’t understand is why “the rich” don’t own-up to how they obtained their wealth. (Caveat: actors and other ridiculously-paid celebrities.) Certainly, our teachers, police force, firefighters, small business owners, and local family farmers do not make salaries that create wealth. They earn only enough to pay for a normal lifestyle, but in the 2000 era, normal isn’t normal anymore. Aside from property taxes, utility bills, food, clothing, gas, house and car insurance/maintenance, and health care are rising beyond what anyone expected. Saving? After paying all of the monthly bills, including the necessary credit card(s), what is left to save? I have transferred personal stories from my recorder to these pages, and you will read why longtime workers and homemakers have lost not just their jobs, but homes and families.
Remember that (3) … exemplifies parts of conversations deleted, and (4)….means that the storyteller has moved to a different topic. Some of these interviews are hours long, and I have to do some compacting! I do not attempt to translate/mimic patois or accents. I don’t do it well, and the material is what is important.
Edna is 57, lovely-looking, and very intelligent. I met her in one of my favorite places for interviews: Starbucks. I mean the ones with comfortable chairs, no rushing-one-out, and some privacy, not the “stand and drink” coffee shops in the middle of a grocery store. Edna was already seated and had a newspaper spread out on the table in front of her padded armchair. I had been watching her off and on for two days after I noted her SUV was parked in the far part of the large lot with a great deal of space between her vehicle and other shoppers. She went from library to grocery store to Wal-Mart to Starbucks – with a large Nordstrom’s bag, doubled, with clothing showing beneath some tissue paper. She only headed for her SUV at night when all of the stores closed. I knew that her movements suggested that she was one of “my” undetectable homeless women. I sat at the next table and put my book where she could easily see it. “Shadow Women: Homeless Women’s Survival Stories” provides a clue as to my interest. I started to chat with Edna about a news story, and we ended-up talking seriously about how many people were losing their homes due to the housing crisis.
“I was laid off from my job after 19 years as a photographer- travel writer for an international magazine. It’s been a couple of years now that I’ve been seeking the same kind of job – or something where I can use my skills. I wouldn’t succeed as a computer or bookkeeping person, so my scope is narrow. I had to use my IRA and savings, even though I know it shouldn’t be touched. Heck; I’m over-qualified for work behind a camera shop counter, and the salary wouldn’t be enough to pay for a room and all of my bills….Oh! I didn’t tell you that I had a real house for many years, and it was only after my husband died of cancer that the bills mounted-up and I got behind in my mortgage payments. The company sold my mortgage to another bank, and suddenly there were questions about my ability to pay. Long story short, I finally lost my house to the new bank….A lawyer once told me it was illegal, but no attorney would represent me….
My daughter lives about 2000 miles away, and I call her occasionally. I don’t want her to know my situation. She’ll worry and feel obliged to ask me to live with her – and we don’t really get along that well. It’s better off this way. She has her own problems with step-children….
Now I’m working day-to-day on commission, and I get a small disability check. Uh, I fell off a cliff shooting an eagle’s nest with the young just hatching. Anyway, that will move me into Medicare in a few years, and at least I’ll have a better chance to travel to another part of the country for cheaper housing….I need expensive medicine now for diabetes, and I will not [her voice raised] go for a Welfare check and Medicaid or whatever they call it! They’ll make me sell the few expensive things I inherited from my mother [I noted a beautiful bracelet] and give me a pittance for a crummy room in a bad neighborhood. I’d rather go my own way and try for a future ruled by ME….I was lucky that I had paid off my SUV when I was flush. It isn’t new, but it’s roomy and runs well….” [She crossed her fingers.]
Edna’s story is similar to many other women who had steady jobs for years but because of a husband’s illness, all of their savings were depleted. Janette is 61 and awaiting a Social Security check so that she can move to senior housing in a large city. She was employed as a bartender and part owner of a tavern for 10 years until it closed. Then she found a job as a clerk in a plant, but that is now outsourcing jobs. While her particular problem with her husband is not typical, the facts of losing her home are. While she feels that she can obtain senior housing easily, I know that it is difficult and there are long waiting lists. I met Janette in a large mall where she went from wing-to-wing and I just followed her until dark. She went into a van and the lights went out.
“My husband took out a third mortgage without my signature, and I didn’t even know about it until the bank sent us notices. I was shocked, but he was a falling-down drunk and half of what he did I didn’t know about….He lost his job because he punched his boss after that guy told him to sober up or get out. He can’t find another job now. Guess why!....Bankruptcy was facing us, and I sold what I could, like good furniture and paintings and silver before an inventory was taken, and I’ve squirreled the money away to live on. It isn’t much, but it will keep me going….My divorce came through just last week, and I’m relieved…..
I move around from a large campus to a huge mall. I like the atmosphere at both. They’re so different that I feel like I have two lives and don’t get bored…
I can just about live on campus. I found a spot to park that is reserved for a professor who is on sabbatical and no one has noticed my van. That was my husband’s gift to me so that he could go fishing. I just drove it away and I don’t know if he even knows it’s gone!….I can spend the days in any big auditorium and I enjoy learning about whatever I choose….The Food Court always has leftovers that kids leave when they are late for class, so I haven’t had much trouble eating enough. I buy vitamins and hope for the best!....I had four kids, but they all left home as soon as they could because of my husband’s violent behavior when he was drunk. I don’t know if I’ll ever see them again since they don’t keep in touch….”
I’m not in a good spot, but at least I don’t have to deal with my drunken husband. And I do enjoy the university lifestyle! It’s fun for me to be around crazy kids most of the day!”
I met Frank while we both had to wait for car repairs at a dealership. We sat for awhile and then he asked me a question and the chat began. He has a 4-year-old van which he lives out of, and he had no problem with sharing that detail. I told him MY story, and that really opened-up the conversation. He must be in his late fifties.
“I’m a real fool. Education didn’t help when I saw a business opportunity that couldn’t fail! It all happened so fast that I felt like I was in a tornado and swept up in the middle of it…..I had had a good career at GM, the plant closed, and I was using money that was supposed to be saved for retirement. Of course, I was sure that I could get another job at another plant since I was what was called middle-management, but I got scared when I saw the money disappearing so quickly, and fell for what I saw as my own business….I couldn’t pay the monthly mortgage, and after three months, the bank said they could sell it themselves, and there it went….A neighbor was selling his nice van and gave me a good price, so I used the last of my savings and moved in….My wife has MS and she took the (3) kids and went to live with her mother way across country. I haven’t seen them for maybe a year. I guess that’s the end of that marriage. She’ll find someone who can take care of her….
So, I saw this ad on TV for buying silver commemoratives of the Twin Towers. I heard silver. I heard never to be offered again. I heard unique. I figured if they could sell them at about $40, I could buy a lot of them and sell them on eBay for less and still make a bundle. So I did buy a lot of them and naturally you are right. I couldn’t sell them at a lower price. In fact, only a few sold at all. Silver? Sure. Silver leaf. Never to be offered again? Apparently I was the only one who believed that! And, they are Liberian currency, never to be used even there! Boy, I was stupid! It’s just junk and I should have been smart enough to know that. After all, I was middle-management!!!....I became depressed and soon on so many meds that I couldn’t perform at any job. I just slept a lot….
One night I was just plain taken to a bingo game by an old widow pal, and she listened to me complaining and told me to shut up and use my brain. I had the van and some purpose in mind -- probably to get my family back – and my brain wasn’t completely drained….I found a closed house out in the sticks and quietly moved in with no electricity or water. I live either in the van when I travel to hunt for some job, or stay in thehouse….I think I’ll be OK now, but I miss my family….I have an interview as a substitute teacher at an inner city school where no one else wants to teach, and I’d just forgotten that I had the M.A. in Education when I was 23. Maybe I can do something for the really unruly poor kids by telling them how I made mistakes and am coming out of depression. Something has to motivate them. I hope it’s me….”
What were these typical homeless people supposed to save? Even when it is possible to save from earnings, what would it get them, home-wise – or even in a rented room with all of the usual bills to pay? One has to have a LOT of money to live on these days just to keep up with the basic necessities. The government – local, county, state, and feds – isn’t interested in PEOPLE’S LIVES, just gaining more money from property that has already lost value. In too many cases, corruption among the “ruling group” means taking more in taxes from the community because they have squandered it for their own purposes. I don’t really want to dig further into that well, but we all know our politicians and their favorite “causes.” AND NOW WE HAVE THE FINANCIAL INSTITUTIONS’ CORRUPTION TO ADD TO THE USUAL BAD FAITH HOUSING AND EMPLOYMENT PRACTICES….
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