Thursday, May 26, 2011

Just Ignore the Roof Over Her Head

Despite clocking in at over two thousand words, this post is going to be shorter than it should be. It is, however, also longer than it should be in the sense that it shouldn’t exist at all. Not where I am posting it. You see, I’ve been trying to build a personal brand for myself and run a successful copywriting business, and I have honestly taken up the advice of the douche-bag real estate agent in American Beauty: “In order to be successful, you must project an image of success at all times.” I use this blog to advertise myself to prospective clients, and so I try to keep it free of mentions of my economic hardship, or any personally negative feelings that aren’t expressly directed at current events or social trends. (I should probably also aspire to keep it free of usage of phrases like “douche-bag.")

But last night there was an article on the front page of Yahoo! titled One Woman’s Fight to Rejoin the Middle Class, and it evoked such a response from me that I knew I couldn’t neglect the impulse to make it the subject of my blog. The story profiles a young woman named Brianna Karp, and consists mostly of excerpts of an interview with her. The first question that’s posed to her is simply “What happened?” In her answer she explains that she lost her job (we could have assumed that) at age twenty three, but that she continued to do temp work to keep up with her rent (oh), and had a few thousand dollars in savings (wow!). But after another bad turn or two, she was forced to abandon everything and move into a trailer that she’d inherited from a dead relative, and… And, well, that’s about as bad as her story gets.

That’s. Not. Fucking. Homelessness.

But it would be cruel of me to cast aspersions on her story simply on the basis that she didn’t have it as bad as she conceivably could have. So as I read it, my heart went out to her as a fellow human being and as a person in a situation that I’m not far from, myself. I took her seriously as she explained about the laptop she’d retained, and about getting internet access from Starbucks while using a five-dollar per month Starbucks card, and about her network of friends, and the popularity of her blog.

It wasn’t until later in the article that I kind of felt compelled to turn on her. I’ll simply post the entire relevant section as a block quotation and add some strong emphasis to the portion of it that bothers the shit out of me:

What was your lowest moment?

Going through a breakup with my fiance. It ended badly with me waiting for him at a train station, abandoned in the snow in a blizzard. We met on Twitter. He was my first follower. He lived in Scotland and grew up privileged. He had a really good job and got laid off. He couldn't support the house he was living in and they finally foreclosed. And he wasn't close with his family. So he put everything into a suitcase and ended up homeless. Then he started a website about homeless people, and discovered my blog.

We visited each other and made plans to get married. I scraped up enough money to visit him in Scotland -- surprise him -- over Christmas in 2009. I got a surprise of my own. There was a woman staying in his house. I was shocked. He said, "It's not what it looks like, I'll get rid of her, but meanwhile, you can't stay here." So I stayed in a little hotel in town, spent all my money, and after a couple of days, they both packed their bags and left. The only contact with him since then was a two-line email saying, basically, "I can't explain."

The next question from the reporter? Not a question: “That sounds devastating.” Well, that kind of hard-hitting journalism is exceeded only by Yahoo’s decision to run this story in the first place. It sounds devastating, does it? Because a vacation to Scotland, no matter how hurtful the experiences while there, sounds pretty goddamn nice to me. Fortunately for me, I am not presently homeless. Unfortunately for me, I don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of “scraping up enough money for a trip to Scotland.” And nobody with any legitimate right to describe themselves as homeless could possibly have access to that kind of money, either.

The audacity required to describe your situation that way when you have any disposable income whatsoever is mind-boggling disingenuous, and it does a terrible disservice to actual homeless people, made far worse by the impulse to give national media attention to these stories of fairly modest financial difficulty.

But make no mistake, the impulse here is not to portray anyone’s hardship, or to bring attention to important issues of social justice. This is nothing more than a human interest story, and the reason the interview was conducted was because of the recent publication of her book, which emerged from a magazine internship that was offered to her because of the attention given to her blog. I won’t name the title of that book here, lest I contribute to any potential popularity or a misconception of relevance.

These are the only stories of homelessness that we get to read about in major media: the kind that make you feel good in retrospect, the kind that purposively suggest that the subject of the tale overcame temporary setbacks through good old-fashioned Protestant fortitude and American ingenuity. These are the kinds of stories that make us feel assured that we don’t have to do anything, that nothing is wrong with the status quo, that homelessness, while awful, is a patch of bad luck that passes and doesn’t even have to deprive you of certain things, like your laptop or your trips to Starbucks.

Giving media attention and career opportunities to someone like Brianna Karp bothers me personally and deeply, because I have known many people whom I take to be like her. That is to say, I have had encounters with plenty of people who have chosen of their own accord to adopt a lifestyle of leisurely homelessness. They are all insufferable to me, and in most cases my reaction to them is simultaneously condescension and jealousy, though these two responses result in not a bit of contradiction.

I met a young man in a Buffalo park last summer who hitchhiked from town to town, played a ukulele on the streets for tips, rented a room for which he somehow paid twenty-five dollars a month, preached loudly of anarchism, and could be seen in the city’s few commercially viable areas panhandling by holding signs that bore messages like “traveling and awesome!” After getting used to him being a fixture of the cityscape, I had occasion to have a conversation with him once, in which he confessed to me that he was thinking of settling in Buffalo for a while, and that he and a few friends had discussed buying a house and starting a co-op. When I asked him whether he had the money for that kind of investment, he spoke the word “yeah” as he probably would have if I had asked him whether he was currently breathing.

My jealousy in cases like these is that I would give anything for their life experiences. The disdain comes of knowing that what prevents me from doing so is that I have a strong sense of shame, and wouldn’t be willing to take upon myself any situation that made me feel that I was exploiting others or not taking responsibility for myself. And more than that, it is enormously important for me that I have a career, that I give something meaningful back to the world around me. And so if I ever were to become homeless for a long period of time, it would be genuine, depending on my running out of money first. By contrast, the kids that I’ve encountered around here are just people who have detached themselves completely from society while retaining all of its advantages. That is the very opposite of the miserable situation that afflicts so many Americans today.

And yet I’m sure that of the many, many homeless people living in Buffalo, the young man I just described would be among the very first to be asked to write a book about his experiences, and to be interviewed by a major news outlet. His clear ability to step out of his circumstances means that in the public consciousness, all the positive aspects of his life outweigh those that reflect badly on him as a person.

Where are the interviews with homeless people who don’t own trailers or have savings accounts, who aren’t offered multiple jobs, and who can’t afford fucking plane tickets and hotel lodging? You know, the actual homeless. Focusing on the high class homeless, the homeless in name only, the young, the well-connected – it trivializes the actual problem, the horrible, debilitating, long series of tragedies that puts a person on the street and forcibly strips him of every bit of his value as a human being.

That damage is made obvious by just scrolling down after reading the story. As is usually the case with internet news, the reporting may be horrible, but the comments section is unquantifiably worse. And in this case, the ignorant, self-righteous crap that largely dominated the discussion was an attack on the homeless writ large, driven by the familiar assertions that a person becomes that way as a result of bad decisions, and remains that way because of a simple unwillingness to work, or to accept something less than their dream job.

The underlying problem is effectively the same on both sides of this issue. The same myopia that allows Brianna Karp to unjustifiably identify herself as a homeless victim of circumstance drives other people to express disdain for the real problems of others. Unless they have an extraordinarily well-developed sense of empathy, people tend to believe that their own experiences are the baseline for human experience in general. I cannot tell you how many times I have encountered people who suggest that if I’m not happy with where I live, I should take a chance on moving. After all, it only requires, what, two thousand dollars? Well I don’t have that much money. I never have. And yet there are scores of people surrounding me every day who have never had less than that amount of money. We may be working the same jobs and paying the same rent, but if you started out with those sorts of finances, even if in the form of a graduation gift from your parents, you are that much farther ahead in terms of financial security, and you have that many more options open to you.

By the same token, the world is full of people who have always successfully obtained jobs when they’ve been looking for them. For far too many of these people, it is simply inconceivable that others may have a profoundly different experience, and due to no fault of their own. I’ve encountered that repeatedly, as well. When I was forced to come back to Buffalo, my NYU diploma already aging, and I encountered someone with whom I had gone to high school and related the direness of my employment situation, I was met with the question, “Well, are you sending out resumes?” She asked this with a matter-of-fact tone that suggested that that might have been a step in the process of searching for a job that I had just plain forgotten.

People are full of rationalizations for why other people become poor, desperate, homeless, and hopeless. They tend to rely on blaming the victim, and implicit in the assumptions held by people who don’t want to bear even a modicum of responsibility for their fellow human beings is the notion that the systems that run the world are by their very nature perfect, and that people who don’t benefit from them just aren’t using them properly. It is evidently much more comforting to retain that assumption despite all evidence to the contrary, rather than acknowledging the plain fact that sometimes the world is just fucked up.

Some of the rationalizations of victim-blaming optimists continue to astound me every time I hear them. In the comments section of the Brianna Karp story there were countless people who made the ridiculous claim there are always more jobs available than there are people to do those jobs, and that anyone, at any time, could get a job at McDonalds or Wal-Mart if he really wanted to work. I wrote a response to one of those commenters, and I will paste it below and let that be my last word on this topic for now:

NO. I am sick to death of these assertions that there are always jobs available if people are willing to work, and that there are more jobs than there are people to do them. That is complete and utter bullshit, and no one has any right to assert it, especially if they've never been jobless or financially desperate.

The fact that places like McDonald's and Wal-Mart are always hiring doesn't mean that they hire everyone who submits an application. If they did, there wouldn't be an interview process. Do people honestly not realize that qualified applicants are rejected for even the simplest positions?

Think about it. Estimates vary about what the actual peak unemployment rate was, but I think everyone can agree that we got to at least somewhere near ten percent. Do you really think that McDonalds and Wal-Mart have jobs for one out of every ten Americans? If you do, your grasp of mathematics probably makes you the perfect candidate for just such a job.

And that brings me to my other point. If you believe that everyone can always get a lowly job of some sort, consider what your qualifications are. Do you have a Master's Degree? A Bachelor's from a top-tier university? Have you ever tried to walk into a fast food restaurant or big box retail store and ask for a job with that sort of background? Probably not, because if you had, you likely wouldn't be running your mouth. Those of us who have been in that position are used to being told that managers are uncomfortable with hiring us because they'd feel obligated to max out their pay scales and even then they'd be afraid of us leaving for a better job.

Corporations of that sort are always hiring because of a high turnover rate, but they're aware of that fact, and their hiring policies reflect a keen interest in employee retention. Consequently, they don't hire everybody, and they often turn away the more qualified applicants.

In short, you have virtually no capacity for empathy if you think that, whatever the problem is, it's the fault of the person experiencing it, because they haven't explored enough options, because they're too stubborn, too proud. You have no idea how little pride is available for people who experience real poverty and hopelessness.


Anonymous said...

I know more than a few like BK When you fail to show up for work and fail to pay your rent: you tend to lose your job and your housing. Her parents bailed her out ostat first but erred in expecting her to have learned the lesson & do better at the showing up for work and to act like an adult roomate instead of a child. Perhaps writing this indicates BK finally gets it and will live like a self reliant grown up from here on out. But I doubt it. I predict she'll end up in a sad situation again soon enough.

Anonymous said...

Judging by this amazon review, it looks like you might be right about Miss Karp:

Her story aside, this is a really wonderful piece on homelessness and the fact that you can't just pluck a blue collar gig off of a shelf. Barbara Ehrenreich would be proud.

Kathryn said...

Awesome post, thanks. Hey, so you're from Buffalo? So is Dick Peligro (I followed the link from his blog).

Dick Peligro said...

As someone who has endured bouts of unemployment while holding a Ph.D., I was very gratified to read you extremely cogent, well thought-out, and very well written piece on BK. I particularly enjoyed the way you hold up the ignorantly glib remarks that one in that position has to suffer through.
I've been desperate enough at times to apply for fast-food jobs, and you're exactly correct (as an unusually honest McDonald's manager told me) as to why highly qualified applicants don't have a prayer of getting such jobs, no matter how willing they are to work at them.
Your reality check vis-vis the simple arithmetic that explodes the commonplace, unthinking assumptions about jobs just waiting for people is also spot-on. A thoroughly gratifying read, and a very worthwhile blog overall.

Pat said...

I totally see all your points. One of the confusions is that there are a lot of different definitions of homeless. Immigrants who live 8 or 12 to a room and sleep in shifts are technically not homeless, though their circumstances may be hellish. A handsome young dude with a guitar might be technically homeless, but he can usually find a place to crash. I too have met professional panhandlers who tend to work the trendy places like Santa Monica and Venice Beach. They bear no relation to the mothers with several kids, not only homeless but hiding out from some violent jerk.