Homeless for the Holiday–A Thanksgiving Reflection

by J. Blake on December 12, 2011

Warm socks. That’s what I’m thankful for this Thanksgiving Day. Family? Of course. That practically goes without saying. But in a much more immediate sense, I am thankful for warm socks–warm socks, a sleeping bag, and a car. These are the things that will make the 24 hours that mark November 24, 2011, bearable.

As Thanksgiving rolls in at midnight, I have already settled in for my first night sleeping in the car. Officially homeless for one week, I did manage to scout a couch for myself and my two children during most of it. Now the children are out of town for Thanksgiving & I have run out of options. I cannot get on the waitlist for a shelter until at least Monday. Even then, family shelter waits, I’m told, are 4-8 weeks. I thought a motel voucher would see us through a week or two, but discover that I utilized this, with no specific memory of doing so, when I left a domestic violence relationship in 1995. “This is a once in a lifetime benefit,” a County worker had explained. That sunk in with a thud–my most promising “gap” option, gone.

A 99er as of several months ago, I have finally hit complete financial bottom. During my unemployment, I’ve returned to school, looked diligently for work, done some contract work, and became a licensed foster care provider—taking in five foster children during the course of the past year and a half. I took this very seriously—a calling, a new career, an opening to follow my heart—even though it deeply impacted every aspect of my life and my family. It’s what I cared about. It’s the hardest work I’ve ever done. It’s far from economically lucrative.

In the final analysis, I had to admit I was stretching myself too thin, without helping our economic situation in the slightest. Basic survival had to take precedence. At the end of October, I reluctantly said goodbye to fostering and began packing up the townhome we could no longer afford. Focus is needed to get us back on economically steady ground. I’ve helped no one if my own are not solidly cared for.

Now–cramped, but safe and warm– I sleep fitfully through the night and revel when 5 a.m. rolls around. Coffee shops open at this hour and I waste little time getting myself to one. At 8 a.m., I receive a text from my teen, telling me that she is thankful for all I have done for her and her brother, she is thankful for having such a strong mother to look up to, she is thankful for ME. It’s a sorely-needed reminder that though the “how” may be elusive right now, the “why” remains firmly intact.

Through the early morning hours at the coffee shop, a few unexpected angels flit in. They all know me to some extent or another. Some are aware of my work with the children, all are aware of my basic decency. They offer coffee, and to keep their eyes and ears open for rooms. One gives me cash for a night at a motel when the kids return, explaining, “That’s what people do.”

At least, that’s what angels do. Many others prefer not to look at all. While I’d like to be seen as a whole, competent human being who has hit a glitch in the road, I’m increasingly aware of being viewed by some as just plain needy. It’s in their short, curt greetings. It’s in the flatness of their I’m-sorry-to-hear-that’s. Far easier to assign me some fatal flaw by way of explanation and dismiss me with a distanced pity, than to look too closely or too deeply. In doing so, one might just uncover the unbearable—someone who works hard, cares much, thinks intelligently; someone much like themselves—homeless in America.

I was a professional single mother, a project manager, who had worked my way up and purchased my own home. Yet, it’s been a downhill economic slide since 2008—the necessary move; the less-stable, lower-paying job; the loss of my house; the layoff and, ultimately, the termination of unemployment benefits—until ta da! Rock-bottom, I’ve arrived!

A month ago I lived in a 3 bedroom town home in an OK neighborhood; a year ago I lived in a 3 bedroom house in a nice neighborhood; 3 years ago, I lived in a cozy suburban home I was proud to call my own. It’s the right journey; I’m simply traveling in reverse.

I exemplify the Occupy message—a walking testament to the fact that one can work hard, live a value-centered life, and still fail to meet basic needs. In America, economic infeasibility is akin to nonexistence. Yet, it seems a fate undeserved. We grit our teeth as those who break the rules continue to slide by—like our felon cop, Alvarez, who will see a $40,000 annual pension at retirement while I’ll be lucky to see $6,000 in Social Security if it still exists in 20 years. Bad behavior pays off, human caregiving is penalized, injustice prevails; and as more of us find basic economic well-being beyond our reach, it is increasingly more difficult to accept. This is the prime reason we are seeing the momentum and numbers behind the Occupy movement: on this backward journey, I by no means travel alone.

My Thanksgiving meal was a cold sandwich from Von’s, purchased with food stamps—more dry roll than egg salad. For my very elderly parents, far away and of limited resources, knowledge of my circumstance casts a pall over Thanksgiving.

A walk around La Jolla Shores does remind me that if you’ve got to be homeless, heaven isn’t a bad place for it. But, as I marvel at these gorgeous multi-million dollar homes, I wonder—what’s it like to never have to worry about where you are going to lay your head? A 3-story home that spans block-to-block is familiar to me. I’m aware that the owner purchased the $3 million home next door as a wedding gift for his daughter. Nice people, undoubtedly. But, what’s it like to have so much space and still need more? Then again, I am aware this same man lost his wife to a terminal illness in recent years. I consciously circle my mind back to hope and gratitude for the struggles I am NOT facing.

At 9 p.m., it’s too early to settle in for another night in the car. I’ll wake too soon and too far away from morning. Still, I’m exhausted and the day is closing, so I search again for the spot I parked the night before—untrafficked enough to be inconspicuous, trafficked enough to be safe. I stop at a store to brush my teeth, and then I pull out my sleeping bag, read under the light of a streetlamp, and try to sleep. It’s early and reasonably warm. There’s no need yet for my socks.

By midnight, I’m fully uncomfortable. By 1:30 a.m., I wonder if it is possible for me to sleep anymore. By 3:30 a.m., I am cold enough to need those socks. It won’t be long before I’m again thankful for 5 a.m. As for now, I’m just thankful for warm socks.

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Georgia Saunders December 18, 2011 at 4:56 pm

Hi Jean. Your story really moves me. I remember sleeping in the car. We lived that way for more than three years, my Bf and I. We parked at Walmart and were able to use bathrooms there all night – until police finally ran us off.

All those feelings you describe about the way people see you – been there, for sure. I only recently got off the streets through a housing program, so I don’t have any money to send you to help. I now have bills to pay and barely keep up with them. But I want to offer my moral support, anyway. It’s important not to let anyone make you internalize the negative views of yourself.

Best to you. Please come to my page and let your presence be known. There are some nice church ladies among my fans. You are welcome to post your story and a link to this blog over there.

J. Blake December 19, 2011 at 8:04 am

Thank you and bless you! Moral support matters as much as anything during these tough times. I am hoping that we don’t end up like this long term, especially for the kid’s sake. Your three years sounds like an eternity!

I appreciate your presence online. I do think it is very important to help put a face to the homeless. And, in my case, a face to the 99ers. It is the best way to be reminded that there is human dignity in us all, even those of us who are facing struggles.

I will definitely visit your site & I am glad to hear that things, even if still a challenge, have improved in your world! 🙂 I wish you many blessings!

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