Homelessness and Respect, Part Two

(Names have been changed to protect privacy.)

I retired in January, and almost six months passed before I heard from Jack. In mid-June, my phone rang, and an unknown number popped up, so as usual, I let it go to voicemail. When I played the message, I heard a raspy female voice identifying herself as Vicky,  Jack’s wife, asking for my help, my financial help. They were, she said, on the verge of being thrown out of the motel and needed money to pay off their room fee debt. Could I help, even a little? I had been dreading receiving such a call. It fulfilled my spouse’s concerns about being taken advantage of by a homeless couple. Still, I felt I shouldn’t turn my back on Jack and Vicky. I had not forgotten Jack during the months I had not seen him, and I wondered why their financial situation had gotten worse. At the time, I considered myself a Christian and routinely asked myself what Jesus would do in challenging situations. I was convinced he would not turn his back on Jack and Vicky.  I called Vicky back and arranged to meet them in the motel parking lot. When I arrived on a hot June day, she hobbled out of the motel toward me, reeking of cigarette smoke. She was as thin as a rake, had long, full, dark-grey hair pulled up in a ponytail, and very few teeth.

“Where’s Jack?” I asked after we had introduced ourselves. I had made a point of telling her I wanted to see them both. 

“He’s inside,” she responded, “too embarrassed to come out. He didn’t want me to call you, but we had no choice.”

“Go ask him to come out, please.” So, she did.

Jack appeared with her a few minutes later. Hands shoved in his jeans’ pockets; eyes cast downward.

We chatted for a few minutes before I handed over the hundred dollars I had settled on giving them. They thanked me profusely. Vicky said she knew my birthday was coming up soon. That felt a little scary, but I must have told Jack my birthdate years ago, and he had told her. She said she was good at remembering stuff like that and that hers was in September. We figured out that we were the same age. Jack was about seven years younger. I told them they couldn’t make financial requests a regular thing because my income was less in retirement. I didn’t mention that my spouse was opposed to me giving them any money. She promised they wouldn’t. I asked for a receipt from the hotel documenting their payment, so Vicky went in and handed over the cash, returning a few moments later with a receipt on hotel letterhead, and I went on my way. On my birthday, I received a voicemail from Vicky wishing me a happy day.

That summer, the department of highways decided to change the traffic pattern at Jack’s intersection, making it a traffic circle. This change had a dramatically negative effect on his income. For a couple of months before construction began, police started enforcing “no panhandling on state highways” laws and forced him and others off this turf to prepare for the work crews. Jack had to find a new intersection. He chose one about a mile away, further from the motel, with less traffic and, therefore, less lucrative. So, he had to work even longer hours, and Vicky started helping. She could hardly walk from leg and hip problems, and her COPD tired her quickly. She had to take a taxi from the motel to the intersection, which added an expense and cut their profits. They fell further behind in their payments to the motel and asked again if I could help. I felt between a rock and a hard place.

I had been bringing them food, toiletries, cookies, and other treats I made, as well as handing out ones and fives, but I felt very uncomfortable about this second large financial request. So, I consulted a friend who does a lot of social justice work and, as an economist, understands the systemic roots of homelessness. She was sympathetic but had no simple solutions. However, she had two suggestions—connect them to housing assistance resources and consider a Go Fund Me campaign to raise money for them more broadly. Neither proposal was uncomplicated. I knew nothing about housing resources and expected the learning curve to be steep. I didn’t even know where to start, and I knew doing the research and making the right connections would take a lot of time. Nevertheless, Jack and Vicky’s situation was urgent, and there was no other route to permanent housing.

As for Go Fund Me, the mailing lists for their campaigns come from one’s personal email contact list. I would put my reputation and trustworthiness on the line by soliciting funds for a homeless couple. What if they misused the funds I raised? I risked embarrassment, at the very least.

I was nervous, but I presented both suggestions to F and D, who were not enthusiastic about the potential success of the first, but relatively comfortable with the second. I learned they had been in the housing assistance system for a long time, encountered barriers at every turn, and were disillusioned and frustrated by the bureaucracy and the people who operated it. They were hesitant but ultimately okay with asking my friends for money through Go Fund Me, even though it would compromise their privacy by displaying their circumstances and pictures on the internet. Nevertheless, they were desperate and felt they had no other choice.

Jack had developed a painful hernia by this time and needed surgery. That provided the specificity required for fundraising. I launched the Go Fund Me campaign with a goal of $2,000 to pay the motel bills so Jack could take time off to have the surgery and recuperate. Money started coming in, not pouring in, but there was a steady stream. I was encouraged and humbled by the trust and generosity of my circle of friends and others I didn’t know, who were moved by Jack and Vicky’s story.

We raised about $1,900, and I withdrew the funds from the account and handed them over to Jack and Vicky, who promptly gave them to the motel and provided me with a receipt. But Jack did not have his surgery and continued panhandling. They were further behind in the payments than they had let on, and he had to keep walking and begging to avoid eviction. I was frustrated and annoyed at both of them for not being upfront with me. The situation was unsustainable, their source of income was drying up, and both were getting physically weaker. We had to put more energy into finding permanent housing.

With a great deal of cynicism about the process, Vicky gave me all the information she had collected about housing assistance, all their personal data, their social security numbers, and the contact numbers of some of the social service people they had dealt with over the years. I started making phone calls and waiting for callbacks. It was slow and discouraging. When I did get a callback, I met with cold skepticism from the social workers. Yes, they knew Jack and Vicky and their complicated situation. They said it was hard to work with the couple because they often didn’t show up for appointments, answer phone calls or submit the necessary paperwork in a timely way. But sure, they’d meet with them again if I could get them to an appointment.

I confronted Vicky about their failure to meet the requirements for housing assistance. She angrily showed me the other side of the picture. Sure, they missed appointments. The Section 8 housing voucher they were seeking must be in Vicky’s name because Jack had a criminal record and was ineligible. (I didn’t ask what he had done, and she didn’t offer that information.) Vicky was often sick and found it very hard to use public transportation to appointments. They couldn’t afford taxis to the housing office, which was miles away. They didn’t return voicemails because they didn’t have the money to add minutes to their cell phones. And the social workers didn’t answer voicemail messages either, she retorted. They had no permanent address, so they had mail delivered to the addresses of friends or relatives who sometimes lost it or took so long to bring it to them that they missed deadlines. They were afraid to have it sent to the motel because they suspected the front desk clerk often opened or threw away renters’ mail. They had been working the system for years and were discouraged and disillusioned. Ironically, it seemed to me, to get housing assistance, one needed all the advantages housed folks have: a permanent address, a phone that was always active, stability, good health, a reliable income, and trustworthy friends. Jack and Vicky had none of these. The system didn’t work for them; to me, it seemed backward, convoluted, discriminatory, and broken.

Nevertheless, as they say, we persisted. I started sitting with Vicky to complete paperwork and began driving her and Jack to appointments. At times I got frustrated with Vicky and with the social workers. We’d have a crucial meeting, and Vicky would be too sick to go, or we’d get the paperwork back after weeks of waiting with a demand for more information. Why hadn’t they asked for such and such in the first place? I learned that Vicky had been on several housing lists for years, but nothing had ever come through. Jack and Vicky said the system was unfair. Other homeless acquaintances had gotten housing more quickly and then broken the rules by allowing friends or family to live with them or by living elsewhere and sub-letting the Section 8 apartment. The system was susceptible to fraud. That made all the social workers jaded.

Amid all this, I started getting criticism from, of all places, a member of my church. She had heard about my involvement with Jack and Vicky and living in the neighborhood where Jack panhandled, she believed she had seen him and Vicky at their intersection. She felt that I was incredibly naïve about homeless people. She insisted that all the panhandlers at that particular intersection were addicts who used the money they collected to buy drugs, and she was sure Jack and Vicky were tricking me. She was only trying to protect me, she protested. I admitted to myself that she might be right. Jack and Vicky had told me of acquaintances who had died of overdoses—women and men who went to rehab, got clean, and then OD’d as soon as they were back on the streets. Jack and Vicky did not look, talk, or act like addicts, but how could I be sure? And yet, I told myself, trying not to be judgmental, even if they were, did they not deserve secure housing? How could they ever escape from addiction unless they had it?

My spouse was also suspicious and afraid that I would be drawn into a bottomless pit of need that would consume too much of my time, energy, and resources. Her concern was not unreasonable either. That sort of thing had happened to me before, most recently with my job and our church. We argued about the situation constantly. Feeling out of my depth and unsure about so many things, I tried to walk a fine line between genuine caring and effective involvement and a healthy distance—reminding myself that I should do what I could but not feel responsible for the whole situation.

As fall progressed and the weather got colder, Vicky got sicker. She had to stop panhandling and stay indoors at the motel all day. Jack’s hernia became more painful, and he shuffled more slowly back and forth at the intersection. I felt a kind of desperation, but they seemed resigned. Winters had come and gone before, and they had survived by putting one foot in front of the other. “One day at a time,” Jack would say, or “It is what it is.”

Then one day, Vicky called to say that she had received notice of a hearing at the local housing office. Her case was to be heard by an arbitrator who would make a recommendation to the housing authority. Could I drive her? We made plans for me to pick her up, and we arrived early to get advice from her housing counselor about what to say at the hearing. We were both nervous, feeling as if everything hung on this brief opportunity to be heard. Vicky, who knew she could be offensively outspoken at times, might say the wrong thing and turn the arbitrator against her. 

Four of us—Vicky, the arbitrator, the counselor, and I gathered around a large table. The arbitrator asked Vicky a series of questions about her current homeless situation. The social worker made a bland statement about Vicky’s worthiness. The arbitrator turned to me last and asked why I was there. I responded that I was Vicky’s friend and advocate. She wanted to know a little bit about my background and whether I was likely to continue to help Vicky. I assured her I planned to stick around.  

At the end of the hearing, the arbitrator explained the next steps and when we might hear from the housing authority, and then wrapped up by saying, “Does anyone have anything final to add?” We all looked at each other, and then, shocking myself, I said, “If Vicky doesn’t get housed very soon, she is going to die this winter.” Jaws dropped around the table. No one else said anything, and the arbitrator gathered her files and got up to leave. 

Outside the room, the counselor, Vicky, and I discussed how the hearing had gone. The counselor took me aside and told me that my final remark would probably make or break the case, depending on whether the arbitrator judged it a stunt or the truth. Great, I thought I may have ruined Vicky’s chances. Back in the car, Vicky thanked me with tears in her eyes but admitted that what I had said about her possibly dying scared her. It scared me too. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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