by Jack Bragen
[dropcap]P[/dropcap]eople don’t seem to fully realize how dependent we are on technology and modern infrastructure. Being prepared for the world has come to mean simply having your cell phone, car keys and debit card handy. When the infrastructure fails even momentarily, in the event of a power blackout or an earthquake, we realize how difficult it is to survive.
Think of how unsettling it is when a flat tire on the freeway strands us at the side of the road. Or, think of a train, the Amtrak Coast Starlight, that makes its way from the Bay Area farther north, through miles of wilderness, up to Oregon. Imagine being forced to get out of the train, and being stranded in the wilderness, with no people around for countless miles, and the ground covered with a thick layer of snow. The goal would be to get “back to civilization” — meaning, back to being taken care of by society’s technology and infrastructure.
Imagine what it would be like to be suddenly stripped of our cars, our houses (with indoor plumbing, heating, air conditioning, refrigerator and television), our cell-phones, our computers and our money that buys practically anything we need. If we were stripped of all these amenities, our survival would be imperiled.
When we are without the comforts of technology and subject to the elements, life becomes so much harder. Suddenly, the sun and the wind and the cold have the power to make us suffer. When we are hungry, we no longer have a big refrigerator. If we need to go anywhere, the only available transportation will be our feet. Even simple errands become difficult and time-consuming because it takes so long to walk across town. Homeless people know this very well from personal experience.
If we become homeless, we find that, suddenly, the police aren’t here to protect and serve. Instead, they have become the strong arm of the law that tells us where we can’t be, the same arm that might be raised to beat us. It is the same arm that could punish us by taking us to jail for panhandling, trespassing, and disorderly conduct. And jail is not the place where we want to be.
Homelessness is equivalent to life outside the infrastructure. It means we don’t have technology to take care of our needs. It is a hard existence. No one in their right mind chooses the distress and hardships of homelessness over the much easier and more comfortable existence that the “inside” of society offers.
However, once you are homeless, it is a very hard circumstance to get reversed. Few business owners will hire a homeless man or woman to work in their company. Finding such a benefactor would be harder than finding a needle in a haystack. Yet, it is unrealistic to expect someone to “get a job,” without first taking other steps on the narrow road back to society.
You would first need to get some type of transitional housing and establish a mailing address. You would need to have someone take phone messages for you and deliver them to you in a timely manner. You would need a place to shower, wash your clothes and shave. You would also need access to a computer and an e-mail account, since very few jobs now don’t include computer literacy.
Homeless people are those who have fallen through the cracks of society, for any number of reasons. They may not be able to work full-time and, may have been turned down for disability benefits. In the case of being unsteadily employed, it leads to having a poor credit rating as well as a poor rental record. A good credit record and a big pile of cash are two things needed to get into an apartment.
If you have no choice but to rent in a destitute area, then you could be subject to the physical dangers that come with a drug-infested neighborhood. In such neighborhoods, you could be harassed or attacked by criminals. This makes life more difficult if you are trying to fight your way back from homelessness.
Fear and danger are no strangers to homeless or poorly housed persons. Someone who has survived hard situations in the past, but who has come out of this experience, may suffer from post-traumatic stress for years afterward. When we see a person who appears homeless or down and out, we should not scoff at them. “There but for fortune go you or I.”
Struggling for Survival in Low-Income Housing
by Jack Bragen
[dropcap]A[/dropcap]s a writer and as someone with some affluent relatives and friends, people may assume that I would never have to deal with low-income housing situations; and in my presence, they may feel at ease to criticize people who live in such housing.
In a writing group, a woman bemoaned her fear that low-income units would be built near where she lived. In the same spirit of meanness, she was insulting towards the work of writers in the group.
After living in several very difficult housing situations, my wife and I finally found an apartment five years ago where we don’t face harassment and a high-crime environment. The landlord even installed a new air conditioning unit so I could get through the hot summer months.
In the most recent bad place where my wife and I lived, a couple blocks away from the “drug area” of downtown Martinez, I was forced to stand my ground against people who seemed extremely threatening. We had next-door neighbors who held incredibly loud and rowdy parties every night. I witnessed that neighbor, along with another man, beating up a third man.
A random partygoer knocked on my door at four in the morning to try and get a cigarette. I didn’t give in despite his gangster-like look and manner. I said that he should go to a gas station. I called the police on these tenants and I complained to the landlord. They were evicted.
At the same building, we had other neighbors who weren’t much better. A man was drinking hard liquor on the porch. The son had recently been to juvenile hall. He and another kid in the building used a cactus for target practice with their guns; the noise was maddening.
I don’t know if it is worse to deal with the snobbery of the rich, or the obnoxious and threatening escapades that can happen in low-income properties. When a disabled person is living on SSI and SSDI, it can be very difficult to get into a good housing situation in which a person is neither threatened nor harassed.
A good credit rating has become a matter of survival. At one time, it may not have been a big deal to have some bad debt on one’s record. Now it can make the difference in your ability to rent in a good area.
When forced to live in a bad area, your life may be in the hands of violent criminals who prey on impoverished renters. I will never forget the feeling of fear I had when dealing with people who I believed might pull out a weapon and shoot me if I said the wrong thing. Or the fear that I could get shot merely for being in the wrong place.
Safe, clean, accessible, affordable housing ought to be given to persons with psychiatric disabilities, across the board. Instead, we are left to struggle with the hardships of surviving in housing in which few people, if given a choice, would dwell. This dilemma forces many disabled people to remain institutionalized, which can be a dismal way of living.