As a former homeless person, I am understandably very dismayed at a lot of the political rhetoric that passes for a discussion of homelessness in the United States and elsewhere. One of the first things that a conservative politician will say, which is never far from the tip of his or her tongue, is ‘why can’t the homeless people just get jobs?’
For one thing, a lot of these people fail to realize that plenty of homeless people do have jobs. In fact, plenty of homeless people sleep indoors and have cars and gym memberships. I once knew a woman who slept in her car and then drove there to work. She kept her gym membership because otherwise, she would be unable to shower, which would eventually get her fired, putting her in a worse position. She technically qualifies as homeless and lacks a permanent address, and her experience is not one that politicians are going to acknowledge.
Plenty of people, especially young people, are essentially living in the homes of their friends, going from one place to another in what is called ‘couch-surfing.’ Many of these people have jobs. Their jobs are simply so poorly paid that they could never hope to be able to afford to pay the rent on even the cheapest apartment or house, which is why they don’t. They don’t get better jobs because usually, there are no jobs to be found. In some cases, the jobs that are available demand more experience than they have or could ever hope to earn.
However, there are some homeless people who do fit the stereotype. There are homeless people clad in dirty and mismatched clothing who do not have any place to sleep indoors, and who beg for money and food and spend as much time at the shelters as they can. In answer to the question most people are going to have upon reading this, I have been every type of homeless person I have named here.
I have tried ‘couch-surfing’ even though I never called it that. It’s an unstable way of living and your unofficial hosts can kick you out at any time. I have lived in my car before, although I did not have the benefit of a gym membership and I did manage to get myself fired. They didn’t mention the exact reason they were letting me go, but it didn’t really matter at that point. I have also been a person who was literally sleeping in the streets. I know what it’s like to beg for food with a series of signs advertising your need.