The Peril of Being Homeless, Disabled, and American

July 13, 2013

For two years I’ve been homeless, and I’ve talked about this here before. I’ve been couch surfing, I’ve been staying at my sister’s while I watched her kids, I’ve been occasionally crashing other places when I could. I’ve not had privacy since February of 2011, and I’ve had trouble doing anything productive. On top of this, since at least December of 2010 I’ve had a disability that has destroyed my joints, causes seizures where I throw objects, seizures where I lose total muscle control (and collapse) without warning, loose consciousness for up to half an hour, loose focus for no apparent reason, and have lived in constant pain and fatigue. I used to work with computers but I can barely type without taking frequent breaks to rest my fingers and stretch my knuckles out again. I’ve been fighting with social security to get disability support but, due to my poverty my entire adult life, I have no medical records of my actual problems. However, my girlfriend has offered to pay my rent in a house I’m renting a room. It’s a good place, with friends, and I found the first month’s rent to move in. However, the landlord wants a deposit from me as a guarantee that we’ll pay rent. He isn’t okay with my girlfriend being on the lease as a guarantor – he’s afraid that because I can’t pay rent, no one will pay rent. Since she’s not living here, he can’t evict her, as she is staying somewhere else. Despite the fact that the legal process for demanding payment is exactly the same. Oh, and the deposit he wants? An entire month’s rent on the whole house. Which is north of $2,000. Something I need help with.

That last part, though, is difficult. It’s difficult because we share a culture where giving is not only frowned upon, but it’s actively maligned to the point where even asking for help is stressful. Especially for someone with social anxiety that is bred in the vats of Autism and raised on the understanding that people don’t help each other through real problems. Bred from a culture that thinks it’s okay for us to shop regularly, to do things like buy expensive treats for ourselves (relatively expensive, anyway), and ignore the plight of even our friends and family when the’re in need. Fed from a cultural milieu that believes that if I don’t have the money I need, I’m not “trying hard enough.”

All of this, however, is rooted in classism and, to a lesser extent, ableism. As well as a flawed and fractured understanding of actual economics.

Let’s tackle the first two on their own, though. When we look at charity, the chief element of our culture ignoring those in need is predicated on the assumption that someone else will help those in need and revolves on conspicuous consumption and the unintended consequences of these acts. In a conspicuous consumption environment, even the rich can feel poor because they only have so many houses, and they only have so many cars. This, however, is even reflected in lower classes – getting Starbucks’ coffee every day or having the latest mobile phone or tablet. These markers of status, privilege, and rarity (in that they show refined tastes) create a basic economic need to tell our peers that we can afford these things, that these luxuries are “necessities” for us and that we can afford these spending habits. Due to our need to indulge in these things for status and contextual equality with our peers, we feel like we never have enough money. People live paycheck to paycheck seeking out ways to save money, reduce their burden, and then take that saved money and move it to consumption of goods to prove that they can save money and spend it on luxuries.

When people like me, however, come to our friends, family, and coworkers with a problem outside of our control, we encounter a wall of charity. There’s no help for us, even minuscule hep, because that money is “better spent elsewhere”. Since we, the needy, are not “sound investments” those around us who might have a small amount of money (imagine $60 or less, the cost of a new video game down to the cost of a cup of tea from Starbucks) to donate refuse to because that money is necessary for the conspicuous consumption of other goods that show that they’re not living in poverty. They can write off these feeling by saying that they can’t possibly pay for the whole thing, they can’t possibly do all of the support any individual needs, so they don’t bother helping even at the smallest level. They assume that “Someone Else” with better means, better access, and deeper pockets (and possibly more compassion and less need for investment returns) will foot the bill somehow.

These system might, in theory, work in a society with a strong social safety net. Some way for the State or a State-like enterprise (such as large-format charities like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) to provide material support to those in need. However, for those of us in America, no such system exists. In fact, the system in place has been repeatedly gutted on grounds that it’s fiscally untenable and that private charity will fill the gaps that the State “cannot afford to fill.” However, when you look at the number of children who live in poverty, the number of people who suffer from starvation every day, and the number of people that continue to be homeless, it’s clear that private charity of any kind is not picking up the slack and that the State’s gutted support systems are both unable to respond in a timely fashion and cannot provide enough material assistance to be livable. By ignoring the possibility of localized collective effort (since no one can spend all of that money all at once), we leave the needy in society (especially those who come from poverty, are working-poor, or are disabled) to suffer unnecessarily.

In short, we sacrifice our friends and family who are in real poverty in order to continue buying the newest iPhone and maintaining our coffee habits.

Since this is the cultural context we all grow up in, we learn to see asking for help as “begging”, no matter the situation, and that begging is the last act of a desperate person and something to be shamed. We judge people on their own conspicuous consumption habits (despite relishing in them ourselves since “we can afford them”) and ignoring that these same social pressures are on those in need. As well, when we treat modern luxuries that have become social necessities as something that can be sacrificed (such as decent housing, access to the internet, televisions, computers, or refrigerators) we unfairly ask those in poverty to live as if the world has not advanced in the last fifty to a hundred years. To live a life that we would never accept. Instead of understanding that these “needs” that have been created by our modern economic context are true necessities in modern living we ask those who cannot afford to participate to simply live further in poverty. Further into a system and lifestyle that separates those in need from the greater economy and reminds them that they will never be “one of us”, but always “one of them.”

The core driving this is the assumption that those in poverty can just “work harder.” That those of us in need could find a job if we wanted, could afford the things we need if we just tried harder and worked through whatever momentary frustrations that everyone deals with. This ignores the reality of those in poverty, however, and those who are disabled because we simply do not have the resources available to us that those who are not in poverty do. We frequently do not have family to turn to, we frequently do not have access to the educational resources many others do, we frequently do not have access to reliable or helpful medical services, and we frequently do not have access to the nutritional resources that can keep us from being exhausted by daily work. For those of us who are disabled, we have an even longer list of things we don’t have access to (such as, in my case, the ability to walk, stand, lift, type, or even sit in certain places without extreme pain for any length of time). These barriers make it difficult, if not impossible, to participate in a good economy where jobs do exist, and make it nearly impossible to participate in a bad economy where jobs have failed to materialize.

When we use the term “classism” to refer to structural inequality based on social class (that is, filial income, educational history, access to training, access to individualized assistance, access to basic support networks), assuming that anyone can “go get a job” is oppressive. When we use the term “ableism” to refer to structural inequality based on disability or limitations due to health complications, assuming that anyone can just “go work” is oppressive. Generally, assuming that those of us who are in need can just “work harder” is a folly of understanding the actual nature of the job market and is participating in oppressing and marginalizing those who need our help the most.

These issues are compounded by other aspects of classism and ableism, such as the very reason I’m in need of so much help. The deposit I am being asked to provide is, specifically, because I do not have any income myself and I will not have any income until Social Security sees fit to give me an income. A process that, for some people, takes years. While I have someone who can pay my rent, and who is willing to and accept the legal responsibilities of doing so, I am still being asked for what is known to be an odious amount of money to ensure that, just in case I can’t pay, the entire house has rent. Despite three other people than me and my girlfriend being on the lease. Despite the fact that I have a guarantor with a job and the willingness to accept the burden of paying.

This is why I turned to the internet, and my friends and compatriots on the internet, for help. What I have received, for the most part, has been platitudes and well wishes as well as some sharing, but few are directly helping me and even fewer are actively encouraging anyone else to. Once, so far, someone has actually maligned me for needing help that was outside of what he believed to be justified. Since I am not homeless and in need in the specific way that he feels is appropriate, since I have not sacrificed things that are essential necessities in our social context, I am not trying hard enough. I am not disabled enough, nor am I impoverished enough. Since I am obviously not living in a condition that is actively worse than living in a developing nation, I do not deserve help in his opinion. I have not earned what, to most people, would be basic dignity (a place to sleep, basic privacy, a place to safely store belongings) by not degrading myself as far as possible. Despite how fruitless such degradations would be.

This is the outcome of treating people as consumer investments, and the idea that if you give anyone money, you have a say in how that money is spent and what their allowed dignities are. That if someone is in need, they must be in need in the way that you deem appropriate before they’re allowed to be considered human and given basic respect. However, in order for me to be judged for spending my money poorly I must first have money to spend. In order for me to have the option of being dignified and operating as a complete person in the social context we are in, I must have the basic resources that everyone else has access to. Before I can be judged for losing my home of my own choices, I must first have a home within my ability to maintain that I can lose. Otherwise the game was rigged from the beginning – I was never allowed to be a person, and no one was ever going to respect me. I am not even the worst off – I have had ways to keep myself sane and alive for the past two years and I have someone who is going to help me pay my rent and ensure that I don’t starve until I can find more permanent solutions to my own income problems. There are others out there that have it much worse than I do, and in need of much more assistance than I am, who are facing even larger problems from the world around them (such as institutionalized racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, or xenophobia). These are groups of people who have been taught their entire lives by the society around them that the are inherently worth less than the average middle class American, and that their struggles are of no import to most of us. They aren’t deserving of our help, especially if someone like me isn’t deserving of help at all.

This very structure, however, ignores the very components of market-driven economics that make capitalism work when it’s successful – there should be no poor, and their should be as few rich as possible, as a strong middle class is constantly consuming. They’re buying from each other, giving each other living wages, producing goods, using goods, and making the wheels of industry turn. In order for a store to have products to sell, it must have customers to purchase them. Those customers need to be making enough money to pay for basic needs as well as consuming products on their own outside of those basic needs. The larger this system is, the more specialized it gets, the more money everyone needs to be making in order to ensure that everyone can still create those jobs as necessary. The rich do not create jobs, the middle class does.

Further, an understanding of history shows that the “Welfare State” does not create dependency but instead ensure that there is always economic participation. This creates jobs, this creates conspicuous spending, and over time eliminates the underserved and impoverished classes in any economy. It is not Welfare that destroys economies but austerity and the rich. Even Milton Friedman supported the idea of a negative income tax, or essentially paying the poor to no longer be poor, in order to keep the wheels of industry turning. This is because one person making $3,600,000 cannot consume as much as 100 people making $36,000. The single millionaire will not buy 100 houses, and 100 cars, and 100 new sets of appliances, and clothing for 100 people, and food for 100 people, and 100 sets of individualized electronics. They will not pay the taxes of 100 people or eat at 100 restaurants for lunch or rent 100 movies every weekend. So long as the economy is rooted in consumption, the only way to ensure that there are jobs for people and that there is money for corporations is to ensure that there are people who can consume. The poor, in this model, are drains so long as they do not have money to consume. It is, in essence, basic economic sense that the best way to eliminate the poor as drains on the economy is to simply give them the means to no longer be poor. To make them equal members of society and to ensure that they can consume as well as anyone else. This will create jobs and ensure that there is new tax revenue and that those who are in those classes who can find work will find work. Eventually, those who are employable will be employed.

When approached with the option of personal charity, it is important to examine your own consumption and your own priorities before writing off the option of participating in said charity. Especially if it’s someone of value or worth to you, especially if it’s someone you care about, consider the context and their needs compared to your habits of consumption. Frequently you’ll find that you do have a few dollars you can spare now, and you know even more people that can spare a few dollars. This turns a large problem into a collective effort of several small problems, shifting the weight to the shoulders of many who can bear it together. This collective effort in turn not only benefits the life of the one person who needs it, but also the dozens of lives that their consumption effects. We are all in this together, and none of us accomplished anything entirely on our own – we did not build our own houses, grow our own food, pave our own roads, build our own cars, manage our own education, do our own science, construct our own computers, or even develop our own language. We have inherited and benefited from generations of collective effort before us, and with some collective effort on our own we can ensure that there will be systems that benefit us all in the future.

Do not simply write off the poor as bad investments – realize that anyone spending money in a capitalistic system is a good investment, and that simultaneously you are helping someone avoid the horrors of institutionalized oppression that would rather see those people starve and disappear. If you want to help someone in particular, I’m still raising money so I can not be homeless, so I can’t help but suggest that you start here.

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