Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Two Paychecks Away From Homelessness

The Las Vegas Sun newspaper has done something most other papers don't bother with. They haven't just paid lip service to homelessness. They actually keep on printing stories about homeless people. In July, I wrote a blog post called "More Stories of the New Homeless" One of the stories I linked to in that post was from the Las Vegas Sun.

At the end of August, the paper printed an essay by a homeless man, Rodger Jacobs, who is a freelance writer:

I am a 51-year-old professional writer; throughout my 20-year career I have been an award-winning feature documentary producer (“Wadd: The Life and Times of John C. Holmes” and multiple educational documentaries), a trade and arts magazine journalist, a successful playwright (“Go Irish: The Purgatory Diaries of Jason Miller”), a true crime author and a literary event producer. For the past two years, I have enjoyed my role as a book and literature columnist for Pop Matters, a popular online journal of cultural criticism.

But in the larger scheme of things, my credentials are utterly meaningless. In less than two weeks, my girlfriend and I will be without a home in a town where we have no friends, no family, and apparently no safety net to catch us when we fall.

I have been medically disabled for the past eight years; my primary source of income is my monthly Social Security disability payment of $926 and whatever supplemental income I can earn within the $1,000 monthly limit, but with jobs in the freelance market few and far between in the new economy, several months often pass without additional income.

It's the story of a writer and his partner who were living close to the financial edge, and were pushed over by the ruined economy. They've faced one problem after another - and when you have no financial resources, the smallest problems can be insurmountable. Things like trying to get a picture ID, in order to get assistance from social service agencies:

A friend has offered to pay the cost of obtaining my birth certificate from California so I can get a Nevada ID card, but then there’s the cost of getting the affidavit notarized and, further, how can I obtain an ID without an address for DMV to send the card to?

Rodger's second essay was published last weekend. It focuses on the kinds of responses he got from the first essay:

The day the Sun published my essay — which was intended to illustrate how close many of us are to being homeless in the Great Recession — I had planned to spend packing. Instead, I spent many of my waking hours defending myself against allegations of sloth (“30 years of not having a real job”), hypochondria, arrogance (“Your arrogance got you where you are and will keep you where you are”), weak moral and ethical judgment, prevarication (“Writers are liars and opportunists”), alcoholism, drug abuse, liberalism, solipsism, atheism (“Christ was homeless … read the Bible … take up your cross and follow the Lord”), ripping off “the system,” a defeatist attitude, poor money management, a grifter looking for a handout, and, oh yes, I need to stop smoking, get a haircut, and “renounce (my) citizenship, become a Mexican citizen and then come back as an illegal and qualify for free housing, food stamps, and medical coverage and live off the fat of the land.” (How chilling that the last comment unintentionally invokes John Steinbeck in “Of Mice and Men,” perhaps the greatest literary defender of America’s downtrodden.)

Rodger Jacobs is disabled. He has psoriatic arthritis. Many of the angry people who responded to his essay told him to go get a job at McDonalds:

I walk with a cane, sometimes I have to use an electric wheelchair that Medicare provided last year when I was under home health care by a nurse service, and my toenails and fingernails have been eaten away by the ravages of psoriatic arthritis, leaving exposed flesh with sensitive nerve endings. I cannot help Lela pack, let alone avail myself of “menial labor” jobs that so many respondents in this paper excoriated me for refusing to do should such offers come my way.

Imagine life without fingernails and toenails and then ask again why I’m not working at McDonald’s.

The lack of compassion is troubling - but the level of anger is even more disconcerting. I suspect that the anger some people have for the homeless is fueled by their own fears that they are only a paycheck or two away from being homeless themselves.

David DeGraw, writing for AlterNet, did an analysis of the official poverty rate, as was recently reported by the Census. His methodology shows that the numbers are even worse than the official numbers. One of the most chilling aspects of the story was how many of us really are a paycheck or two away from homelessness:

In my analysis, a key metric to judge the overall economic security and hardship level of a country is the percentage of the population living paycheck to paycheck. Anyone who lives paycheck to paycheck can tell you about the stress and psychological impact it has on you when you know your family is one sickness, injury or downsizing away from economic ruin. The employment company CareerBuilder, in partnership with Harris Interactive, conducts an annual survey to determine the percentage of Americans currently living paycheck to paycheck. In 2007, 43 percent fell into this category. In 2008, the number increased to 49 percent. In 2009, the number skyrocketed up to 61 percent.

In their most recent survey, this number exploded to a mind-shattering 77 percent. Yes, 77 percent of Americans are now living paycheck to paycheck. This means in our nation of 310 million citizens, 239 million Americans are one setback away from economic ruin.

I flunked remedial math in high school (true story) - but as numerically challenged as I am, I know that's 3/4 of the population. Those of us who aren't in the top 2% are in a very precarious position. Some of us have already skated off the ice. I hope Rodger and Lena find both help and kindness.

cross-posted at MainSt/

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