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Societies have a funny way of walling off undesirables. Lepers were secluded in lepers’ colonies. Japan is particularly uncomfortable with people who don’t fit cultural norms, such as the mentally ill and the destitute. It was really shocking the first time I saw someone begging in the subways in Tokyo in 1991 because it was so…unJapanese….at least then.
In America, which still is deeply invested in the myth that anyone who isn’t rich and successful just didn’t work hard enough, being unemployed is particularly stigmatized. This protracted recession has produced a new underclass that isn’t discussed much: the long term unemployed. Oh, sure, it’s acknowledged as a statistical phenomenon, and maybe you’ll see a sad story in the New York Times now and again, but for the most part, the desperation of people who once had work, and really might never again have paid work, or at least not for more than $10 an hour, is not as widely discussed as it should be. Even before the bust, if you were over 40 and lost a decent paying job, your odds of finding any work, let alone work that made reasonable use of your skills, were slim to zero.
It’s revealing that Gawker is now up to volume 15 of its weekly series of “Unemployment Stories” and we see nary a peep from the MSM along these line. When I was a kid, I recall how a documentary about poverty in Appalachia galvanized opinion that Something Needed to be Done. And my childhood reaction appears to have had some foundation; that show influenced President Johnson’s War on Poverty. So keeping unemployment an official but depersonalized problem takes the urgency out of addressing it.
And if you have a long enough run of unemployment and can’t afford to pay for shelter any more, and don’t have family or friends who will take you in, your choices are terrible. There are reasons most homeless in New York City live on the streets rather than go to shelters at night. One of Lambert’s readers recounts her experiences when she felt she had no choice other than go to a homeless shelter. And this wasn’t in New York; Lambert doesn’t know her story, but his impression is that she is from the South, say North Carolina, and worked in publishing or academia.
Hoisted from comments at Corrente, “There are poorhouses today. They’re called homeless shelters.”
They’re as punitive and pitiless as the old style ones.
In my late fifties, with no prospect of reemployment, I recently had my first experiences with two of these.
I’ve worked all my life and been my only support all my life. It was my preference to do this, rather than derive any part of my upkeep from the wages of the person I slept with. My “crime” was doing this while female. Since sex discrimination has become legal again, I was forced out of a profession that’s been redefined as historically male, and have not been hired for female entry level positions due to my age and “overqualified” background.
I did everything I could, including backpacking into legal sites in the state parks in the mountains here, to keep from going into a shelter, but in the end could not even afford the gas to drive the fifteen or so miles round trip to the park from where any prospect of work existed. (“Obamaville” tent villages are not possible the way Hoovervilles were – the times are so much more pitiless that almost every city has ordinances against such places, and where they’re allowed, they’re controlled to the point of being worse than the shelters. The infamous “tent in the woods” near any urban area is out of the question for a woman unless she attaches herself to a homeless male for protection).
The shelter itself was physically considered to be one of the best in the state. It administers most of the charitable and many of the government resources for five counties. It is new, the fixtures are more than adequate and the meals are very good. A major problem was precisely the punitive “poor house” attitude: the Calvinistic view the women who administered the shelter had towards those who needed its services (and those women’s freedom to spend their time this way depended on the high wages of the men -they- slept with). Residents must line up to take a breathalyser test in the common area when coming in in the late afternoon, everyone must be inside the shelter by 6:00 p.m., no one is allowed out after that time without written permission, and everyone is locked out of their rooms at 8:00 a.m. on weekdays and 9:00 a.m. on weekends. Women’s rooms had four permanent beds and lockers, but usually had two more folding beds crammed into the walkway at the foot of the beds. The men’s rooms were larger but had eight residents.
All the shelter’s maintenance, from cleaning to cooking (when that was not done by church or other charity groups) to grounds-keeping, was done by the residents through required “chores”. Every resident was required to “volunteer” for one or more such chores every day or be made to leave. I did not mind at all doing part of the upkeep, but did mind the indentured labor aspect of being made to do it. In addition, administering such requirements became part of the petty abuse the more vindictive of the regular staff considered one of the major perks of their job.
Residents were required to work on a “plan” towards permanent housing with one of the administrators. Such “plans” necessarily required a job. These women reproduced the sexism of the larger society: in addition to there being more beds for men than for women, living conditions were kept as much as possible from interfering with any man’s job who has one. Their “plans” for men were much more realistic as well, in that the men had more of a chance of finding work, even when they had, as the majority there did, a prison record. Their “plans” for women pretty much amounted to: you screwed up by not selecting a good enough (or any) husband, any job is better than no job at all, no matter how ill paid, discriminatory or demeaning, and your stay limit without a job is 30 days. Their ranking for women was below men in services, respect and resources and within that ranking, women with children came first and women without children were at the very bottom.
Uncontrolled aggression from other residents and uncontained illness were the primary factors that made living there not possible. There were decent, generous, responsible residents, but not unlike middle and high school, the lowest common denominator ruled. Due, again, to the sexist ranking of the administrators, I lost the job I had found after a great deal of effort on my part and no help at all on theirs. It was a suitably gender stereotyped job cleaning bathrooms from 5 pm until 2 to 4 am at the local university’s stadium after athletic events. Any man there who had a second or third shift job was allowed complete privacy to sleep during the day; the rule was emphasized in the obligatory “house meeting” held every evening. The administrators kept letting a woman with a baby into my dorm room for trivial reasons and allowed her to keep me awake to the point where I had less than five hours sleep in forty eight and could not work. Their justification was that women with children had priority for any reason, even though that was supposed to be only an adult women’s room. They had put a woman who had just had a miscarriage into the family room, where this woman should have gone, as “therapy” and because the other woman with children did not want to share the room with another child. They dismissed my need to sleep for my job as “just shared living” (always said with a smug little smirk by the administrator) and said I could leave if I had a problem with it. I was also attacked on other occasions by two women who were later expelled for being on illegal drugs; their initial unprovoked aggression towards me was dismissed, again with a smile, as “shared living”.
Women with dangerous mental problems were also put into the regular woman’s dorm. One had kept the other women in the room terrorized before I stayed there. She also kept them up all night because she alone was allowed to sleep there during the day (due to her mental illness!), while they had to be up and out on the streets or at their jobs, as one resident was, by eight. She had been committed before for cutting up residents’ clothes with a knife; she was recommitted again just after I got there.
The official policy towards aggression and threats among residents was zero tolerance. The actual policy was to let the rats eat the other rats and to shoot the ones that came running to the administrators. The administrators had their favorites, usually those that made the class divide most evident, and the less well off and less educated paid staff did as well, usually those most expert at currying favor and those with whom they identified. The atmosphere resembled a combination between what I imagine prison must be and the type of unskilled job where the boss just above entry level uses his or her position more for petty gratification than anything else.
The justification certainly resembled those types of jobs: “You can always leave if you don’ t like it”.
During the month I was there, I had maybe four days where I got a solid eight hours sleep. I was sleep deprived and hurting the days I could not make it up in my car. I was also, as the cold season hit in September, sick most days, as one or the other of the women in my room always had some virus and residents were almost never allowed, even when sick, to stay in bed during the day.
After a month, I went to a women’s only shelter in a larger city where I thought living conditions and job prospects would be better. I think I set the record for their shortest stay – less than twelve hours. The administrators, again educated professional level women, were great, but the regular and after hours staff were worse than the former shelter’s. Residents were required not only to be out of their rooms during the day, but to tell the desk attendant where they were going during every part of the day. They were required to sign in when they got back, and -this was the worst part- to take a urine drug test every day, or whenever the desk attendant, whose day job really was as a prison guard, felt like it. When she decided I needed to be tested at the end of my first day and insisted on remaining in the room where I was to do this, I refused and was told to leave. She and the other uneducated after-hours attendant took great pleasure in making me pack my clothes into the prototypical homeless black plastic bags, leaning against the wall watching me the whole time, telling me to get a move on and making the other residents jump, obey them and get a move on too with they tried to talk to me.
Every other shelter in this region (southeast) has the same demeaning requirements, and, I imagine, the same vindictive staff and the same pack behavior from the lowest common denominator among the residents. Even without money, without hope, without prospects, I have been physically better off living in my tiny car and camping where I can safely. I was well again two days after leaving the last shelter and have gotten a glorious eight hours sleep whenever I can be horizontal and warm enough.