The Paperwork of Homelessness

This Saturday, Joe and I volunteered at the LA Veterans and Families Stand Down. “Stand Downs” are days when service providers gather in one spot to give care and supplies to veterans, a vulnerable group that makes up about 11% of the US homeless population. They’re named after stand downs during times of war, when both sides would lay down their arms and anxieties for a brief rest.

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The LA Stand Down was held in the hangar-like Los Angeles Convention Center. Filling an entire parking garage, the stand down was ready to provide care and goods to over 2,500 veterans. Among the services were mobile dental clinics, veterinarians, affordable housing providers, ophthalmologists, cots, hairdressers, a job fair, donated clothing, childcare, hot food, a trailer of showers, tai chi, massages, acupuncture, and the camaraderie of fellow veterans and volunteers. Perhaps it goes without saying, but this was all accompanied by a lot of lines to stand in.

Joe worked with the Legal Aid Foundation all day. Not quite a specialist myself, I floated throughout the event offering assistance as it was needed.

I started out registering the veterans so they could be let into the event. By making access contingent on filling out a long set of questions, the organizers clearly signaled how important this information was to providing aid. In user experience design, we call this process “gating.”

The first time I heard someone tell me they had been homeless for two years, it was a bit of a punch to the gut. I scrambled to smile away the tear welling in my eye and get it together.

I guess it’s one thing to know homelessness exists, to walk past people who clearly exhibit the signs. Intellectually you know when you pass someone sitting on the street or walking through subway cars asking for money that they’ve lost their homes and must have pieced something together day after day to have gotten to this point. But sitting across from someone at a regular old folding table, talking and laughing with them, and hearing them tell you to your face that they’re homeless is a strangely different thing. The context collapse somehow makes it harder, to either turn away from it or to write it off, the way you train yourself to do in order to keep going and not crumble with sadness each time you pass someone you can tell is living through homelessness.

I usually perceive homelessness on my own: through reading signs, literal and symbolic, and choosing whether and how to engage. I rarely hear the words “I’m homeless” because I rarely talk to anyone who is, and when I do, it’s on my terms, with the shared understanding that they are homeless and that I am stopping my day to talk with them because they are and I feel bad or want to feel like a good person or have too many sandwiches or something.

To take someone out of the context of asking for money on the street and to put them across from me at a table, working together to fill out a form, well, it just felt too normal and the guy felt too relatable to allow me to fully believe he was suffering from something so terribly. I guess despite knowing this was an event for homeless veterans, I had been harboring some weird, hopeful illusion that things weren’t that bad, that maybe this guy would just be in danger of losing his home. He was too real, too immediate to imagine going through all that. So here I was, about to break into tears with the shock and misery of it all.

But, I figured, if someone can handle being homeless every day for over two years, you had better be able to sit there and not fall apart at the mere thought of it. Anyway, this really wasn’t about me and my education on homelessness (despite its very much giving me that anyway). This was about getting these people what they needed with efficiency and kindness. So I smiled and continued, “Where did you spend last night?”

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And yet, I thought, on top of the indignities of being homeless, now we’re adding a 20-page form? I wondered how many times each of these people had to run through these same questions, all just to try to reach what they needed.  Questions ranged from probing (in the last 30 days, how many times did you drink alcohol?), to insensitive (are you required to register as a sex offender?), even to potentially triggering (did you lose your house because of abuse or trauma?).

Any time you make getting the approval of someone else a condition of getting something people want, you’re creating conditions for people to perform. While you have to assume the questions were included because they directly affect the type of housing each person will be eligible for, it felt a little too much like a prodding, uncomfortable exam, and I saw the each of the men I worked with strive to perfect their story to appear as the most deserving, sympathetic veteran ever.

All swore up and down that they hated alcohol, that it was evil and they never touched the stuff. Of course none of them ever did drugs. None had any diseases or disabilities that would make finding housing difficult. No one owed money or had mental disorders. All in all, the way each of them had me fill out this form showed them to be much cleaner, surer applicants than if I would look if I filled it out honestly for myself.

The one exception was from a 25 year old guy who, along with his two sons, was living alternately with his mom and friends. After confiding to me how massively hungover he was, we had to laugh together at the question over how many days he had drunk in the past month. I made it clear it was up to him to tell me what he wanted to put there. “Two days,” he said, doing the quick calculus of what answer would fall between credible to me and safe for whomever these forms were headed to. And how many of those days did he drink more than five drinks? “Uh, one,” he said. “Last night.”

I wasn’t there to drag the truth out of anyone. If you were a mid-twenties veteran with two kids, living out of friends’ houses, tell me you wouldn’t drink more than two nights a month.

Besides that man, everyone else was living in month to month shelters. Most had term limits, so they knew where they would be sleeping for the next month of so, but had no idea what would come after that.

The longer they had been homeless, the more familiar with the system they were. The most experienced guys had case workers whose numbers they had memorized, were familiar with and had every form I asked about, and were charming in a way I can barely manage even after a full life’s sleep in my own bed. They were planning longterm: one guy had moved from Boston to Los Angeles after it became clear he was in it for the long haul because it was warmer here and there were more jobs; he was in a class to become a truck driver. His kids lived out here too, though I couldn’t get out of him why he couldn’t live with them besides his not being on good terms with his ex-wife. Looking at the genial man across from me, I wondered what I didn’t know. What’s the point of having kids if they don’t stop you from becoming homeless in your old age?

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Perhaps what surprised me the most, however, was that no one was willing to accept group housing. They were all living in temporary group housing situations already, so I guess it didn’t seem worth it to leave unless they really and truly could expect their own home waiting for them.

This all got me wondering about the point of the military. It’s kind of a stopgap for people who grow up in poverty: two years of salary, food, legitimacy, and camaraderie. But none of these guys had even seen conflict. They had just been sequestered in Louisiana in “the worst base in the country,” or in West Berlin, where they had “tons of fun.” But after? This megalith the US spends more on than all other countries spend on their militaries, combined? Well, seems like it spits these people back where they came from, and while it’s not prison, it’s an almost equally abrupt transition. Maybe these guys, poor anyway, would have ended up homeless even without a two year blip into the military. Or maybe getting your world turned upside down in a warped parallel of college (with realer consequences and different norms to adapt to but without the degree) is too jarring a change for people to slide right back into life after. The armed forces are the closest thing we have to a universal employment program, but what comes after seems like the opposite.

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