Privileged thoughts on homelessness

Like many urban areas, the price of houses in metro Phoenix has skyrocketed in the last couple of years, and the price of rent has followed suit. 

Before the current spike, minimum wage wasn’t a living wage and a lot of people were working multiple jobs to make ends meet.

Given all of this, it’s not surprising to see a significant increase in homeless people. Downtown, tents are end-to-end on 9th Avenue. Encampments dot the dry Salt River bed. Tents popped up along some of the canals. Panhandlers at more corners than usual. There have always been visible homeless people. There’s never been this many homeless people here, at least not in the nearly 20 years I’ve lived here.

Beyond the tents—and wondering what those people are going to do when the overnight lows are in the 90s—I’ve noticed that people are taking a lot more stuff with them as they move.

Taking a walk on the canal near my house, I passed a woman who was pushing a cart full of things and had another she was dragging behind her. We exchanged hellos as we passed each other. Maybe a quarter mile later, I said hello to another woman pushing a cart full of stuff. “Hi! Just helping my friend move!” she said as she went on her way.

Everyone should have a friend to help them move.

I assume she was with the first woman I passed.

The exchanges made me wonder about the spiral that leads to homelessness.

At what point is it inevitable?

For how long do you see it coming? Or is it always a threat running in the background?

What do you take with you? 

What do you do with anything you don’t take with you?

At what point do you start stealing shopping carts?

I can’t imagine what that moment is like, the moment when you walk away from shelter with a shopping cart (or two, or three) of your stuff.

What filled those three carts?

Again: assumptions. There’s probably some clothes and bedding. Extra blankets in the winter.

I wonder if there were sentimental things in there. 

Is there a tipping point between keeping things that are emotionally hard to sell and deciding to sell them?

What about things that have some resale value but not enough to make a dent in their problem? Where’s the line between keeping and selling those things? Are they likely to be stolen anyway?

Is trying to sell stuff to have cash even a thing at that point?

Do people already own tents, or is one of their actions of preparation to buy or otherwise acquire a tent?

Maybe the answers to these questions are obvious and it’s a glaring spotlight on my privilege not to know the answers.

It’s definitely a spotlight on my privilege not to know the answers, never to have needed to start to figure out the answers. Even in my most economically disadvantaged point in my adult life, I wasn’t close to being homeless. If I had been, I have enough friends in stable living conditions that I could have stayed with people, even if it was a week here and a week there. People gave me money, gave me stuff for my sparse apartment, gave me job leads.

What if all the people I knew were struggling just as much as I was and we couldn’t help each other? Or someone had space available but they weren’t a safe person to live with? Which is more unsafe—sleeping on the street or in a dangerous person’s home?

What do the people in the Salt River bed do when it rains?

How do you dig yourself out of that hole? The first thing every job application asks for is your name and address. You need to be clean and groomed and have clean clothes.

How do you get money if you literally have nothing?

If you get some cash, where do you keep it?

Others have written in greater detail about the tyranny of poverty, how everything is more expensive the less you have.

Where do you go from zero?

I know enough people who are struggling to pay all of the bills every month (and I have some NSFW words about the role of medical bills in that struggle). People who already have jobs and houses and utilities.

What do you do when you have less than that? How do you save two-and-a-half months’ rent to get a place?

No answers today. Only questions.

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