Zoomed In: What Life in Poverty Can Look Like

By Kelley Kidd

Recently, my coworker, a Jesuit Volunteer Corps Member, and I went out for drinks after work. We met two people who overheard our angst-ridden assessment of menu prices and asked us what we do. We informed them that we both work as Case Managers at Miriam’s Kitchen, a homeless services organization in DC of which we are both proud to be part. Upon hearing this, one of the two said, “Now, in my mind, what you two do is enabling.” Claire, master of the development pitch, told him about the realities facing the homeless population that make our work less about enabling and more about empowering.

Claire talked about the prevalence of mental illness, PTSD, and veteran homelessness–all factors that many people tend to overlook. People facing mental illness and a life on the street are not victimized by their own laziness. They often face a world that is intensely inhospitable and then blames them for their ability to function within it, because without help they are unable to take care of even their physical needs, much less apply for benefits or pursue employment. Veterans, who make up about 13% of the homeless population, return home without a support network and have to navigate unaffordable housing prices while often facing PTSD. The model, she explained, where everyone who is poor must be lazy simply does not apply.

Instead, what we see every day in my work with the homeless shows me a picture of poverty in which our society creates precisely enough for the poor to survive, but nearly always in a state of stress and scarcity. Those who encounter hardship struggle against astounding odds to escape poverty.

I am relieved to say that the DC Mayor Vincent Gray has just approved $4.7 million for this year’s budget to go towards eradicating veteran homelessness in the District by 2015. This has been a long, hard fight, but it is only the beginning, and I want to tell you why it’s worth it.

A day in the life of someone experiencing homelessness, generally, includes:

  1. You never sleep: When you’re stressing out about where your stuff is, it becomes really hard to sleep. If you stay in a shelter, your sleep schedule is dictated for you by shelter hours, and you can’t know who’s around. If you stay outside, you face the brutality of the weather, and you still can’t know who’s around. Anywhere you go, people don’t really let you sleep. You are tired, constantly.
  2. Scheduling feels like doing a word problem: It takes a whole day to accomplish essential daily activities that many people could do in an hour, because you must travel across the city to access all your basic resources. Your shower is one place, your food is another, and your toiletries are at a third, and all of those places have precise hours. You have to structure your day in precisely the right order and do things at precisely the right times in order to get it all done. And after that, it becomes exhausting and difficult to fit something else into the day.
  3. “Just apply for a job” isn’t so simple: If you do manage to carve out spare time, you face limited Internet access at specific times of the day. If you want to apply for benefits or jobs, you operate within the constraints set by the library or a case manager. The kind of leisure many people take for granted becomes limited, because your case manager probably isn’t going to loan out their computer so you can read Buzzfeed.
  4. Limited Connectivity: On a related note, you have to navigate the world’s shoddiest system in order to obtain the free phone offered to people who receive public benefits Even if you manage to obtain one, which can take people months, your ability to contact people is still limited to 250 minutes. If you want to recertify your phone, you will probably spend most of those on hold unless you have access to another phone.
  5. “There’s no such thing as free lunch:” Though meals are available, you have little to no agency about what time you eat, or what your meals are. Lunch in particular is remarkably hard to come by.
  6. Life without leisure: The moment when you come home from this kind of exhausting day, close the door, put your stuff down and then forget where you put it simply isn’t an option. If you are not hyper-vigilant around the location of your belongings at all times, they will almost certainly be stolen. Downtime, if you have it at all, is not a time for relaxation.
  7. Loneliness. Your support networks have likely given up on you or you operate with a mental illness that creates a barrier between you and those around you. You have probably lost friends or family to the streets. Everyone is doing their best just to get by and looking out primarily for themselves. The strangers who walk by you on the streets are afraid to make eye contact with you, and so you feel invisible to the general world. The places you can go to feel like you matter are few and far between, and they face their own barriers to providing that unconditionally.

Collectively, living with homelessness entails an endless barrage of stressors, disheartening feedback, and barriers to making changes to your situation. The idea of poverty as a direct result of laziness is a drastic oversimplification of an endlessly complex and challenging life.

We at Miriam’s Kitchen try to support people in finding a place where they can feel dignified, where they can belong, and where we can help them make the changes they want to make. For humans living in this constant exhaustion and stress, overlooked by everyone around, I think it is more than worthwhile to offer them a little bit of kindness and acknowledging their value as humans. We do our best to meet people where they are, and help them get where they want to go, because sometimes people genuinely can’t do it alone. I want to exist in a world where that is the standard, not the exception.

Kelley Kidd is from Knoxville, Tennessee, attended Georgetown University and is a Case Manager at Miriam’s Kitchen.

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