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“Get a Job.” An idiotic way to Simplify Homelessness

 

“Get a job” is such an easy response to homelessness. Wow. The simplicity of judging someone when they have no fucking idea behind the Sharpie tragedy now scribbled on cardboard. I don’t give a shit who you are—most people don’t dream of searching for a warm shelter or begging for money.  There is a story behind every struggle, hardship and pain. There is also a story behind every victory. The real question is–how and why did these people end up in the situation that they are in today? It’s so much easier to put a label of “lazy” on a homeless person.

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I’ve heard people say, “My mother worked 3 jobs to survive. My grandfather came over here with two bucks in his pocket. I work damn hard for my money, and they should too.” Well good for you. I’m so happy your family was able to triumph over hardship. I’m a surviving, single mom without child support, and I still have empathy for those who live under the freeways. I’m also aware of how easy it could be for someone to become homeless. 

My mother died at the young age of 47. Even though I did have a couple of distant family members sprinkled about, I (25) was left to my own devices. At the time, I was self-medicating to keep my head above water and my wrists away from razors. I was completely devastated, and my bipolar depression was in full motion. The newspapers piled up outside my door. Dishes filled the sink, showers were a thing of the past, and food tasted lifeless. I struggled with severe agoraphobia (fear of going outside), and I thought I would every time the sun hit my face. Death seemed to be an option, and at this point, I couldn’t see any other option. I had been completely consumed by my illness, my loss and my desperation. I no longer had control over my unbalanced brain, lack of motivation, or feelings of hopelessness. 

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I was drowning in my pain. After 6 months of grieving and living off insurance money, I decided I would look for employment. Previously, I had been struggling with an opiate addiction to deal with my mother’s debilitating, recurrent breast cancer. Of course I wasn’t working at the time. I couldn’t even care for myself. Six months after her death, I scored an interview with the Salvation Army as a public relations advocate. It was a dream job. I could work for an altruistic organization and finally have a paycheck in my hands. The next day I was told to be at work at 9:30 a.m.(or I thought). Apparently, the woman had said 9. I showed up late and was let go immediately. I was devastated. Why didn’t I remember the time right? This woman thought I was a total slacker and told me, “If you can’t even get here on time, how can I rely on you for other tasks?”

I tried to explain to her that my mother died, and I had been struggling with short-term memory loss. She half-ass listened and calmly said, “Sorry Shawna, but those issues are not my problem, and I wish you the best.” At the time, I couldn’t believe this woman’s callousness. After all, this was the fucking Salvation Army. This organization employees countless homeless people, and prides itself on giving second chances, holiday donations, and warm shelters. Looking back, I can see this woman was just protecting her sanity and organization. However, I soon realized, “If I can’t even keep a job with the Salvation Army, how the hell I am going to work for any organization?”

Of course, I was just being lazy. Right folks? I should have tried harder! I must have not cared enough to be on time. Obviously, this was not the case. If I had a card board sign it would have read, “Mother Died. Suicidal. Looking for a hug and a couple of bucks.” Amazingly enough, I scored another interview with a supply company. I would be stuck behind a desk taking orders for a large, office supply store. However, during the training, I was not able to absorb any of the information. After I decided to return to psych meds, I discovered one of them contributed to my short term memory. What would I do now? I didn’t have suicidal ideation, but now I couldn’t remember a damn thing. I was devastated, and I decided to apply for medical social security. I thought I would be one of the unfortunates on disability the rest of their life.

My home and sanity were at stake. I knew I’d have to get my shit together, or I could possibly lose my home or life. Fear set in, and I was dwindling in my insurance account. To me, this was the closest I had come to homelessness. Of course I had friends to crash on their couch, never the less, I become very aware of how easy it might be to lose everything. 

Even though couches were available and I had the support of psychiatrists and counseling—what if I didn’t have access to those services? Not everyone has the means to do so. I know there will be arguments out there about financial assistance, job fairs, etc., but the real question is…why do people end up this way? What was the breaking point? When did their hope diminish? How many of us take the time to listen to their stories? 

The reason why people feel comfortable saying “get a job” is because they have one. Either that, or they’ve never experienced hard times or they are made of wax—molded by the societal judgments of other assholes. It isn’t just adults that hold stigmas about the homeless population. 

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This Halloween, a group of NAU students dressed up as homeless indviduals. I couldn’t help but think these kids were born from judgmental, higher-income families—either that or had never been exposed to any kind of hardship. I felt so heartbroken seeing these young, impressionable kids with such disgust and hatred in their hearts. Not to mention, I’m pretty sure mommy and daddy pay for their car, tuition or other expenses. What the fuck did these kids know about a homeless Vietnam vet who struggles with PTSD and diabetes? They knew nothing, and yet they felt completely comfortable posting their pic on Instagram. Too bad I can’t mention the statements listed below the IG pic, because they were put in their place by the the 3rd comment.

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The best part of being a mom is raising compassionate, intelligent humans. In fact, my oldest has a particular affection for the homeless, as he has made many homeless friends on the bus and downtown. “They just want someone to listen to them, mom. So I bought him a couple of tacos.” That is how change happens. My son listens to their stories, and shows compassion for people different from him. Unfortunately, the lunch money he provides comes out of his own lunch funds. We’re working on that one. Do I get angry that he gives a couple of bucks or food? Absolutely not. He’s an intelligent, safe young man who knows when he needs to eat a sandwich or can go without one. Maybe he is also learning how it feels to have an empty belly. Through compassion and experience– humans can learn to be kind and open.

So the next time someone comes up to you, give them some spare change. I hate to say it, but I’ve even donated cash when I know it will be used towards whisky. In all honesty, I’d still give them money. Why? Because they are going to get that whisky anyway. Shit, I’d want a whisky too. I used to carry AA pamphlets in my car, but then I realized I was wasting my time knowing that someone must be willing on their own to attain sobriety.

I can’t imagine how terrible it must feel to be a part of an invisible community. No one wants to talk to you, and most often, will avoid contact at all cost. I think it should be mandatory that everyone works at a soup kitchen at some point in their lives. It might make them see a different perspective on life, as well as the discouragement, hopelessness, and fear that comes with being homeless. Not all homeless are drunks. A large majority of the homeless population are mentally ill or trauma survivors. The point is—we don’t know. We don’t know anything about these people’s backgrounds or traumas. So let’s be humans. Let’s be kind. Most importantly, let’s be open-hearted.

 

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