Older Americans Retiring to Homelessness
How America's Homeless Population is Growing
When most of us think of the homeless, we think of images of that annoying panhandler, a drug addict, an alcoholic or a criminal, rather than a family with children or a forced into retirement senior that can't find work in these truly difficult economic conditions and can't afford a conventional home.
Those of us that have never experienced homelessness ourselves are often quick to harshly judge these persons as if they are wholly to blame for their current circumstances, when there is often a multitude of problems that contributed to their dire circumstances.
Circumstances such as offshoring of American jobs, disabilities or mental illness, massive job layoffs, natural or man-made disasters, loss of homes or retirement income, financial or medical catastrophes, many are also victims of sexual or violent crimes that left them traumatized to the point of no longer being able to function in normal society, as well as other previous dysfunctional family or living situations all contribute to the current rise in homelessness.
Other causes are brought on by the individual, such as criminal or bad employment history, drug and alcohol addictions, personal choices and circumstances that cause emotional or mental distress to a degree that makes living a conventional lifestyle impossible. Yes, even laziness can be a factor for some, but probably not most. Many have experienced what would have been short-term homelessness, have had all their personal documents; such as state identification and social security cards lost or stolen that compounded their frustrations and the sense that the person was trapped in a vortex that is inescapable.
The story below is a short glimpse into the life of just one individual that chose to build an unconventional home to continue living in a society that he could no longer afford in retirement.
Would it be too much to ask to befriend just one homeless person that may or may not be able to recover a normal and productive life, with help from someone like you. Someone that could listen to the story of what happened to their life to bring them to the place they are at now, or bring them a good meal, or give them a ride to get their id situation straight, or assist them with getting the social security that they are qualified for, if only they could navigate the paperwork necessary to acquire it.
In helping just one homeless individual, you may find that your own humanity was enlightened and restored more than anyone else. If you can't bring yourself to reach out to an individual, maybe consider giving to an faith-based organization that truly cares and works to restore people that need to know that they still matter. Grace Mission Church in Tallahassee, Florida is just one such organization and can be reached at http://www.gracemission.net/
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Retiring to the Outside
James Horton is a 65-year-old, semi-retired Vietnam War combat veteran, who like many veterans is homeless. Unlike most of the homeless, James has chosen to live this unconventional lifestyle.
Horton says his experience as a veteran consisted of two tours in Vietnam, and three times being recalled to active duty to quell disturbances by the Ku Klux Klan and the Skinheads in North Carolina and once to do covert operations in Argentina. Other than mentioning these incidents, Horton didn’t want to discuss details or elaborate further on veteran activities.
Horton stands 6’2” tall with a slender, muscular build that attests to his lifetime of manual labor. Even his casual attire of jeans, t-shirt and a flannel-shirt all point to his life as a hard-working blue-collar individual.
Although James is a clean and well-kempt person, his wild and wiry handlebar mustache gives him a modern-day hillbilly look.
Sturdy thick framed glasses and serious conversation contrast that grizzled appearance and give hints to a lifetime of self-education. That’s also revealed with his soft-spoken and thoughtful insights on a wide variety of subjects.
Everything is fair game for conversation, including current events, politics and even religion, unless someone’s conversation gets too loud or demeaning. It’s then time to change the subject, per James’ house rules.
In addition to James’ experience as a veteran, he’s a skilled journeyman press operator, having retired after twenty-seven years of experience in this field.
“Most people would never choose to live outside of modern conventional housing due to the many perceived difficulties, but those are balanced out by simplifying life. This is simply getting rid of what society tells us we need or should want, for those things that really are necessities,” Horton says.
“Living like I do isn’t for lazy individuals, it’s a lot of work to camp or live outside like this,” Horton says.
Originally born in Sylva, North Carolina, in the Great Smoky Mountains of Western Carolina. Tallahassee has been James’ home for over fifteen years with an ex-wife and adult child also living in the area.
“Although I had a good retirement income, the IRS gets most of that in a settlement over past taxes for my retirement settlement and inherited lands that were later sold. What I get now isn’t enough to keep decent housing, pay previous family bills and still eat on what is now my small retirement income. I had to make some tough choices and change my lifestyle to adapt to the difficult times,” Horton says.
James describes his religious beliefs as being a strong believer in the Judeo-Christian God as depicted in the Bible without having any firm attachment to any particular denomination. His Christian views are the reason for his reaching out to help others navigate the difficulties of living home-free on the outskirts of Tallahassee society.
Mikey Baker and Mike are two individuals that James kindly offered his hospitality to, when they were seeking a place to stay outside of The Shelter or Hope Community.
These programs house just over three hundred of the homeless in temporary or transitory housing programs. Although these are good programs, many of the participants have serious mental issues, while others persist in criminal behaviors such as stealing or violent attacks on others. Many of the areas sexual offenders are housed there for lack of other places they can go, because of restrictions on where they can live.
For these reasons, many homeless people refuse to go to these homeless agencies for a place to get off the streets. That’s basically why they are currently staying in a tent out in the woods, according to Baker.
“Tallahassee police often charge homeless persons with crimes such as trespassing, loitering or sleeping in public. Big city ordinances like these are used to specifically target the homeless, so they can either be locked up or pushed out of town,” Barker says.
According to the Big Bend Homeless Coalition’s 2014 report on homelessness in the area, there are over 800 people homeless in Tallahassee. Twenty percent of those are seniors, another twenty percent are families, forty percent are disabled in some way, and twenty percent of those sleep outside.
Jeff Franks was the former director for the Big Bend Homeless Coalition for several years. Franks is also an ordained minister and director of Connections, a faith-based outreach to the homeless.
“Government programs do help, but everyone doesn’t fit into the rigid format of some of these programs. Also government programs usually overlook the vital role that faith can play in helping people to make right choices and needed changes to effect lasting lifestyle change,” Franks says.
Mikey Baker is a 43-year-old man, who has been chronically homeless off and on for almost 15 years, living on the streets of Tallahassee. Working low wage jobs started Baker’s plight into homelessness. Baker then lost a leg in a train accident and is currently living on a small disability income that makes it impossible to maintain affordable housing without assistance.
“James Horton is a intelligent guy and basically solid-gold. He goes out of his way to help guys like me to survive out here,” Baker says.
Baker readily admits to his bad habits of smoking cigarettes and marijuana, as well as, drinking alcohol moderately. The latter two vices, he insists are to self-medicate to deal with his chronic pain and current difficulties in life.
Many judge the homeless harshly for their bad habits and sort of overlook their humanity. In reality, we all have bad or detrimental habits in our lives, according to Baker.
“Staying wherever you can find for a night or two without being attacked by criminals or harassed by the police gets stressful,” says Mikey.
Horton’s decision to live his unconventional lifestyle came as a result of realizing after the recession in 2008 that job security, the stagnant economy, even retirement checks were all subject to disruption. Since food, energy and rent prices all have been rising dramatically, the security of life’s necessities was no longer ensured on a limited income.
Skills in construction and maintenance are quite evident upon visiting his dwelling place. Using materials salvaged from construction sites, Horton has built and established a dwelling on what is currently unused land outside of the city limits with permission from the landowners. Horton’s neighbors compassionately agreed to allow him to obtain electricity and water from their properties to give him these modest conveniences.
“With permission from the landowners, the police can no longer harass me for being here. As long as my neighbors are at peace with me, I’m alright,” Horton says.
First of all, Horton’s main dwelling is surrounded by an 8-foot high privacy fence with a solid-wood gate that can be locked, while he goes to work. Once inside the fence, the enormous elephant ears and other plants that have thrived there are ample evidence of the care and planning that he takes with his “home.”
The main living quarters are a thirty by twenty foot enclosure with lattice-work, windows and a tin roof. A small bedroom with a real bed surrounded by shelves lined with books on an abundance of topics reveal his main hobby of reading for learning and entertainment. The rest of the area includes a small kitchen with a three-burner propane camp-stove, a mini-fridge, a pantry and a sink with running water.
With an outside shower and latrine, personal necessities are all taken care of for a regular, if somewhat, unconventional lifestyle. Many homeless don’t have even the few modern conveniences that Horton has managed to construct with time, hard work and ingenuity. The place has somewhat a feel of being in a hunting camp cabin, roughing it without forsaking any necessary amenities.
There’s even a small work-shop with tools for fixing the bicycles that are used to get to work and pick-up camp supplies.
Beyond the outside social area that has a patio table with five mismatched outdoor chairs, a dozen chickens free-range for bugs, in addition to their regular feed. Getting a dozen eggs everyday helps with being self-sufficient with food staples.
“Being self-sufficient and not imposing on family or friends is a trait that Americans have largely forgotten,” Horton says. ‘Since I’m a Vietnam veteran, the Veterans Administration has offered assistance in getting housing, but I’d rather be out here.”
There are as many as three to five million homeless persons in America, most of them are good people with a few that are bad. It’s important that we show some compassion, as they are all human beings, many have made wrong choices in life, while some have extremely broken lives. Until we have walked in their shoes, let’s not judge them too harshly. Homeless Coalition statistics indicate that as many as forty percent of Americans are only one missed paycheck or emergency from being homeless too.