This post was
triggered inspired by seeing a discussion on Facebook about how people who receive food stamps ‘don’t look or act like they should to be on food stamps, so they must be lying about being poor,’ and the inevitable direction such discussions take.
There are so many wrong assumptions in that kind of statement that I don’t know quite where to begin. What the hell — maybe this could be a good time to try “Write what you know.”
So… True story:
This was back in the winter of 2001. I was at the downtown public library in the city where I lived at the time, reading up on history and other interesting things. A little before noon, I packed up my notes and prepared to leave. As I stood waiting for the elevator down to the ground floor, a woman wearing a library employee name badge came up and stood next to me, also waiting for the elevator.
I think she mistook me for a fellow library employee, either because she recognized me as a friend of the guy over in References or because I was ‘dressed the part’: good jeans, white button-up shirt, shoes that weren’t obviously sneakers. Long hair, but pulled back in a tidy braid. Library employee or grad student, but definitely a ‘respectable person.’ At any rate, she felt comfortable expressing her annoyance/disapproval of someone else there in the library because something about my appearance caused her to think I’d agree with her.
“They shouldn’t even let them people [sic] in the library. It’s not like any of them can read anyway.” (Yes, this is an accurate quote; I still remember exactly what she said.) At my uncomprehending look, she went on, “Those homeless people — you know,” and indicated a half-dozen men and women sitting over in Periodicals reading newspapers.
I said nothing. Nearly a decade and a half later, I still feel guilty for keeping quiet.
What I wanted to say was, “I’m homeless, you heartless bitch, so take your preconceived notions and shove them.”
*waits for anyone who wants to unfollow blog in disgust to do so*
Okay, I assume if you’re still here, you want to know what happened next…
By the time I was out of the library, I was shaking and ill because I was so angry and afraid. I feared if that library employee — or just about any others — found out the truth about me, I’d be barred from using the library ever again. After all, I had no way of knowing that her attitude toward “them people” wasn’t the prevailing one, and plenty of reasons to suspect it was. The library was my refuge, as it had been before I became homeless, too; I couldn’t afford to lose that. And I was so angry. How dare she assume that homeless people are invariably illiterate, that homeless people can always be identified by slovenly and ragged appearance, that homeless people have no right to read a newspaper in a public library? But I was a coward, and I didn’t speak up.
I’m still a coward, apparently, because I’m not posting this on Facebook; I’m not butting into a discussion to shout “Not all poor/homeless people!” at total strangers.
What I want to say is, “How is this fair?? Poor people are told they don’t deserve assistance and it’s their fault they can’t get better jobs — or any jobs — because they don’t dress well and don’t have the necessary job skills, but if they do dress well and have good job skills, they’re told that they don’t deserve assistance because obviously they’re not poor. Poor people are told to educate themselves if they want to get decent jobs, but if they get a college degree, they’re told it’s their ‘wasting money’ on education that caused them to be poor, and it’s their fault for not being satisfied with less than a living wage.”
(“Ain’t none of them kids gonna do nothin’ but go work at Walmart’s anyway,” said the assistant principal at a high school where I taught, so there was no point, in his view, in encouraging students from low-income households to do well in school. My argument that poor kids need education even more than rich kids do, and that the parents’ income is not an accurate measure of a child’s intelligence or ability to learn… fell on deaf ears, to say the least. I had no idea what I was talking about, this assistant principal said, because I had a college degree and thus had no idea what poor kids are or are not capable of. What I wanted to say then was, “I was a ‘free-lunch kid’ all the way through school, and I graduated high school with highest honors. I attended university on a full academic scholarship. If you believe ‘poor kids can’t learn,’ you are telling it to the wrong person!” Goddamn uppity art teacher — who did I think I was, going around sayin’ that kids from poor families ain’t stupid and lazy?)
Y’know, the people who ran that homeless shelter (sadistic shitheads, every single one of them, but that’s another tale for another time) were honestly surprised that I didn’t own a cell phone. “I can’t afford one, for starters,” I said, “and you may have noticed that I’ve got bigger financial priorities right now.” (Yeah, wrong answer — or at least the wrong words. I was homeless; I wasn’t supposed to know ‘big words,’ much less use them in conversation.) So saying that anyone can tell a stranger isn’t actually poor because she has a phone… What the fuck?? Perhaps — I know this would violate the worldviews of some people, but I like to think that none of my blog followers and readers are among them, because you all seem like such intelligent and compassionate individuals — poor people need telephones so they can apply for jobs. Perhaps they need phones so they can keep a job if they get one — if the boss wants to call you to come in to work on your day off, and he can’t reach you because you don’t have a phone, guess who doesn’t have a job anymore. I read a statistic just yesterday that said around ninety-three percent of Americans own a cell phone. It’s a bit of an aberration not to have one, downright un-American, by the way some people react when I say I don’t have a cell phone because I don’t need one. Perhaps poor people own cell phones because spending thirty dollars a month for the most basic service is better than not being able to call anyone if the family car — old junker that it is — breaks down by the side of the road on the way to work or taking a child to a doctor’s appointment.
Perhaps it’s not anyone else’s place to judge — especially anyone who has never been in that situation — whether or not a stranger deserves a roof over their head and enough to eat and maybe even a little bit of medical care every once in a while so they can, y’know, be healthy enough to work and be self-supporting.
That’s what I wanted to say.