A wizened woman sat cross-legged on the pavement in Athens, GA- a plastic cup in her hand. She bowed low as I passed, ìPlease help me, sirî she moaned. Broke and living in my car myself... I snapped my eyes forward and hurried past. ìSorryî, I muttered. Three, four five steps- and then I stopped. I let out a slow, deep breath. My hand fished around my pocket. I grunted to myself, turned around, hurried back, and dropped a quarter in her cup. ìGod bless youî, her eyes lit up with gratitude. I nodded and walked away.
Then there was the crying man in Bangkok. He sat on his knees and tears poured from his eyes. As I approached he put his hands together in the position of prayer (a ìwaiî) and bowed his head to the sidewalk.... hands outstretched. I reached into my pocket, but this time I had no change. Only bills. I kept walking but guilt gnawed me with every step. Thirty paces more and a thin mother with a baby confronted me--- ìplease sirî she muttered and opened her hands. I sped faster.
ìNobody Knowsî is the name of a Japanese film about four children who are abandoned by their Mother. They live together alone in an apartment and do all right for a while, but slowly their remaining money runs out. Then power is turned off. Then the water. They scrounge expired food at the local convenience store. They get water from the park. They survive; but bit by bit their health and appearance degrades. Itís both a gut-wrenching, and surprisingly hopeful movie. Gut-wrenching because ìnobody knowsî what is happening to the children. Nobody notices. Nobody cares. Nobody understands their experience. Hopeful because somehow the kids survive despite all of that.
When I watched the movie, I thought of the slow degradation most homeless people suffer. People who often start, just like the children, as clean, bright, healthy people; but some tragedy sets disaster in motion. This may come in the form of a car accident, for example... a common initiator of homelessness.
Some are immediately thrown out of work, out of an apartment, and out on the street. They lack resources and family support and are one accident from the street. For others it is a slow process. A gradual dissolution of a formerly stable life. One by one the pieces fall away: health, job, mental state, spouse, family, friends, apartment, car. It may take weeks, months, or years.
Stan is the good example. He was a client of mine when I managed a transitional housing shelter. He had a solid work history- ten years as the manager of a construction company. One day he came down with a strong flu he could not shake. His health deteriorated and he was admitted to the hospital- where he was diagnosed with HIV. Stanís employer learned of the diagnosis and fired him. He lost his paycheck and insurance coverage. Medical bills piled up. Eventually he was released from the hospital, but his health was not what it used to be. He turned to his family for help, but when they learned he was gay, they too turned their back on him. Stan decided to sell his house and move into a cheap apartment. He lived off of the money for a year, while he fought off the hospitalís bill collectors. During this time, his mental state worsened. He became severely, clinically depressed. He had lost his job of ten years, his family, and his house. Convinced that no one would employ him, he became a recluse- venturing out only to buy food. After a year, the money ran out and Stan was unable to pay the rent. He begged the landlord for extensions, but four months later he was evicted. He had no one to turn to and no where to go.
He went to a homeless shelter run by a Christian church and was offered a bed. He stayed for two weeks and began to gather hope. The shelter staff assured him they would help him find work and subsidized housing. His spirits lifted. Then he told them he was HIV positive and needed medication. The staff turned cold and hostile. A week later he was ejected from the shelter.
Stan ended up on the street. Subjected to the harshness of homelessness, he grew weaker. Four months later he was back at the hospital, suffering from pnumonia... nearly dead. With treatment he again rallied back to health. He was referred to our program by the hospital and accepted. That was how I learned his story.
It is a common story. The particulars are different from one person to another. One flees an abusive spouse and ends up on the street. One is injured in a car accident. One is laid off and cannot find more work. One suffers a schizophrenic break. Yet one by one,... one way or another, the strands of the safety net are cut. Eventually, they fall through.
The beggars you see on the street were not born there. Every one of them has a story. Every one of them has suffered and struggled. I know this because I was a social worker who worked with homeless people for many years. I know this because I chose to live homeless myself. Both experiences helped me see the people behind the concept. And both experiences helped me realize that it could be any one of us... at any time.