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Surviving the Streets Third Time's the Charm
In this tough economy we all have to consider the kinds of sacrifices we're willing to make. Like shopping for clothes at a thrift store instead of a major retailer, or buying a cheaper brand of coffee over your usual Maxwell House.
Now, we all know the job market is competitive. We've all had to experience losses in hours, cuts in pay and probably a few good ole' fashioned pink slips, or terminations as they're now called. Laid off is no longer a part of upper management's vocabulary, it seems. We no longer get fired, but we sure don't get laid off anymore-I digress.
However, there is another eventuality that we all have to consider. Something a lot of people dread and even more people are all ready experiencing firsthand. That possibility, however dreadful the word may sound is, life on the streets.
I'm not talking about dealing drugs, living in life in the fast lane, or what have you. I'm talking about everyday people like you and me. People who played by the rules all their lives and for whatever reason have fallen on bad times. It could happen and it has happened.
Are you prepared for this? Do you know where to go? What if you don't have family nearby or for that matter, family further away but unable or unwilling to take you in? Heck, maybe you're problems started with your family as so often happens.
Now books have been written about how to pull off being homeless. Studies have been done by people who pretended to be homeless for a time and actually seemed better off than people with a steady job and apartment. This article, however, is not about remaining homeless. If that is your choice then I do not judge you, however, there's nothing in this for you.
I have been homeless. Three times. Once when I was just ten years old with my mother and again, later, a few years after high school and after finishing the Job Corps program. A program that promises to help it's graduates find a job and a place to live but doesn't deliver on that promise, of course, but you can read my article on Job Corps to learn more about that.
That first time I was homeless wasn't easy. But it was made much easier by the fact that my aunt's husband worked for the department that gave the shelters in Burlington their funds. So with his help I was guaranteed a bed at the Cots Weigh Station.
It took a month of filling out applications and getting interviews until I landed a job as a dishwasher at Coyote's Cafe, Mexican restaurant with the best corn bread in Burlington and cooks that made Taco Bell's fare look authentic.
During that time I was required to meet with a case manager once a week, whom I had to show pay stubs and deposit slips to prove that I was putting most of my money into the bank.
I'll explain some of the more interesting stories of that time in greater detail in a later article, but before I do that I would like to fast forward to October of 2009.
About month after quitting my job in Burlington my mother invited me to stay with her, my stepfather and my little sister for a short time while I got back on my feet. This brought me back to my hometown of Bennington, Vermont where I pounded pavement until I was hired at K-mart as a part-time cashier and electronics department associate.
Unfortunately, before I could put much money in the bank I had a falling out with my parents, which I will not go into. Needless to say it left me back where I swore I would never return to: the street.
Fortunately my brother and sister-in-law, whom I had helped out a couple of times while I was living in Burlington were still in town. They couldn't give me a place to stay but they gave me a bag full of canned food that lasted me a few weeks. And they gave me the contact information of the Bennington Coalition of the Homeless.
The Bennington Coalition of the Homeless, like COTS of Burlington, was actually comprised of a main office and a number of shelters scattered throughout the county, none of which had a bed available at the time. Getting on a waiting list would have been pointless. And at any rate a bed wasn't my biggest priority. It was a shower and clean clothes so that I could keep my appearance and hygiene acceptable at work.
I had a break through with the Thatcher House. They didn't have a room available but I could sleep on a cot in the living room until a room opened up or until I found a place. It was better than nothing so I jumped on it.
There were only two staff members I met there. One, the director and the woman who told me that I would be sleeping on a cot was an gray-haired woman in her late fifties who clearly enjoyed the comforts of three meals a day and a couple snacks to boot. Her clothes were clean and didn't appear second hand in nature and my first impression of her was that she had never experienced a day of difficulty in her life. And while first impressions can me misleading, I'm rarely ever wrong about my assumptions. It just takes awhile for the subject to prove me correct.
Remember, I've had experience at this point of being homeless and I was in a shelter before. I generally know the ins and outs and my main focus was to get a place of my own before too long and get out of there. With a job you would think that would have been easy enough. And you would think that having a job, I'd have been given some kind of consideration at a homeless shelter, where about 90 percent of their clients are generally jobless for one reason or another.
I definitely pounded pavement on my days off. I answered ads in the paper, checked out apartments and filled out credit checks. My references weren't a problem since I had rented from a legitimate landlord for over a year and my job history includes time working at an airport, which required an extensive background check before I was hired.
Three weeks of sleeping on a cot and I was actually about to move into my very own apartment. I took three weeks to find a place and all I needed was to get the rent and the security deposit together, which the other lady, a woman I shall call Ms. Gautier, told me I could get with the help of the homeless shelter. All I needed to do was speak with Helga.
This is where Helga and in deed many people who work as staff members of homeless shelters show their true colors.
Below is the letter I received from Helga, with my remarks in bold print:
I am writing to you regarding your stay at Thatcher House. It has been here approximately three weeks and you have not made an effort to pay any rent.
Two points. 1: Helga and I did not discuss rental terms. If she had asked for rent I was more than capable of paying it since I had a job. So she has nothing here.
Secondly, paying the rent for what? If I worked late and therefore arrived at the house late, I had to wait until the residents of the house were done watching TV in the living room to go to bed. Since my cot was situated in the living room this was a bit of hassle, being dead tired and having to wait for ex-cons and people living there on house arrest to decide what time I could go to bed.
Anyone willingly pays rent for that luxury should have their heads examined.
You have also had ample opportunity to speak with me regarding help with a security deposit and first month's rent and you have not done this.
The first time I met Helga was the second night I came to Thatcher House. We spoke briefly and we both understood that I was having a rough time. But I had a job and I knew it wouldn't be long before I found a place.
But Helga, being so busy elsewhere, was rarely ever there again after that afternoon. She was there in the afternoon a when I was at work, but never early in the morning and not late in the evening. On the rare occasion she did show up during the day it was to talk with another resident which I could have waited out, had I not needed to go to work.
I know this sounds like I'm conveniently trying to blame Helga. But what you have to remember is that I've done this on my own before. At the COTS center in Burlington I had ample time to save up for the rent and I was able to pay my own security deposit without the shelter helping me. If I managed to pull it off up there, why didn't it work here, you ask? Read on.
It has also come to my attention that you have turned down suitable housing in the community.
Aha. The snake sheds her skin at last.
The apartment I was telling you about was owned by a man I shall call Mr. Burns. Not because he was heartless like the Simpsons character, far from it. Burns was actually one of the nicest landlords I had met since Burlington.
Mr. Burns had actually rented an apartment to my grandmother many years back. He knew my aunts and mother, he knew Cherise from the shelter, and because we both knew people he felt comfortable with me. Burns agreed to let me rent the apartment and we kept in constant touch, me letting him know when I would be able to get the rent and security deposit together and everything.
However, my brother and his wife were also looking for a place. I asked Mr. Burns if it would be possible to share the place with them and they would pay rent and utilities as well.
Mr. Burns didn't feel right renting out a one bedroom apartment to three people, plus my nephew who was about twelve months old at the time. But he had a suitable place that would be opening up soon. We checked it out but Daryll and my sister-in-law had a problem with the layout of the place. So they decided they didn't want to move in to the three bedroom place, however as far as Mr. Burns was concerned I was still moving in the one bedroom.
So, I never turned down the housing. This, however, is what happened.
Helga called Mr. Burns. Not for me, mind you. She asked him if he had any available apartments, because she was trying to get a place for another resident who was living in the shelter. According to Mr. Burns, who I had asked about this after Helga wrote her letter to me, all he told her was that he did have an apartment ready.
Now, Mr. Burns may have been lying to cover his ass, it's true. But I just didn't get the impression that he had something to hide. He was upfront with being arrested a while back and he was too straight forward about his opinions to be worried about covering himself.
Helga took what Mr. Burns had told her and twisted it around so that it sounded like I had refused the one bedroom. My name never came up in the conversation, yet when I confronted her about the hole in her story, she shouted that she didn't have to justify herself to me and hung up the phone.
It is with regret that I must ask you to be gone from Thatcher House by Wednesday, 10/28/09.
Somehow I doubt she regrets it. A woman like Helga who can manipulate the truth and then hide behind her status as director has no regrets. People like her a convinced that they are untouchable. *
It was nice to meet you and good luck in all you do,
Bennington Coalition of the Homeless
Thanks to her, I wound up using my next three pay checks on motel rooms. Motels in Bennington aren't exactly cheap and only handful of them offer reasonably priced extended stays.
She refused to even discuss the possibility of getting help with the rent and the day I left, she gave me the biggest, smuggest grin a person could muster. I feel sorry for her kids.
And just so you don't think I'm exaggerating about this woman's dishonesty, she showed up at K-mart while I was working in the electronics department. Repeatedly she would ask me if I could get her a “special deal” on TV's, sound equipment and other things.
Did she do this when there were witnesses? Of course not. Although I did report her to the loss prevention officer and now he knows to keep an eye out for her in case she tries to scam one of the other cashiers, or continues to harass me.
I didn't post the letter to whine. I'm not trying to get sympathy for it because frankly I don't need it.
In spite of having to go the motel-track I eventually did find a place where a man was renting out a room. We hit it off quite nicely and I'm now paying three hundred dollars a month with utilities included to share his apartment.
The point is that once again I did it on my own. I was in the worse of situations and the help I received was as ambiguous as it was when I was in Burlington, but I still did it. And so can you.