Lent is a time for works of mercy, both corporal and spiritual. The traditional call to almsgiving made me think about the situation of the homeless in the United States.
I recently reconnected with an old childhood friend of mine named Mark who is homeless and has been so for most of his adult life (he is my age, late 30's). Mark lives in the Pacific Northwest as a transient with no real possessions except some clothes, a backpack, and his dog. I asked him if I could interview him about his experiences as a homeless person and pick his brain about things he would like people to understand about the homeless in this country. He graciously agreed.
Below is my interview with him. Please note, Mark and I are of completely different worldviews.
USC: Thank you for being willing to talk about this.
MARK: I am an expert. I have answers, ha. I'll try to answer the best I can, but keep in mind everyone's situation is different.
USC: To start off, how did you become homeless? Was it due to circumstances or was it a lifestyle choice?
MARK: I prefer the term transient, as originally I left my hometown and all that behind because of trouble with the law. Got myself a greyhound ticket to Portland, Maine, to meet a girl I met online. Stayed with her for a while until we all got kicked out, that was when I became a full-fledge squatter, and started hitchhiking around.
USC: Many people say they won't give homeless people money because they are afraid they'll spend it on booze, so they give food instead. Would you rather receive food or money? Explain.
MARK: Honestly, most homeless people do spend quite a bit on alcohol and drugs; some people are homeless because of their addictions, getting arrested for possession, losing everything while in jail. Others start using once they become homeless to cope with the feelings of hopelessness and depression. So I understand why people are hesitant to give out cash. While receiving food is nice, believe it or not a lot of those homeless hippy types are vegetarians so a bag of burgers is kind of a slap in the face. My recommendation is if you don't want your cash to go towards drugs is, gift cards. But here's something to consider: Giving homeless people money instead of food can save their lives, especially in the winter. Shelters can cost money. Being able to sit in McDonalds and sip a Coke for an hour while you warm up costs money. In some cities public toilets cost money, to use or just sit in to warm up. Giving a homeless person money in the winter can save their life. Food is easy to come by. Money, not so much.
USC: What are the biggest challenges you face as a homeless person?
MARK: The number one struggle being homeless is getting sleep. Gets cold at night, and if you're just camping out you take the chance of getting rolled on by jackers and police. Constantly being sleepy makes it that much harder to improve your situation. Shelters are sometimes available in bigger cities, but are stinky, overcrowded, and can be sketchy, to say the least.
USC: In America, there is a prejudice that if a person is homeless he/she must have done something to "deserve" that situation. In your experience, why are most homeless people homeless. Is there a single main cause?
MARK: People's stories are different. I choose this lifestyle. But probably more than half of all homeless people have some type of mental health issue, not to mention all those returning vets. Nobody "deserves" to be homeless.
USC: West coast regions like San Francisco and Seattle have been making news for mandating minimum wages of $15 and $16 an hour. The argument is that these higher minimum wages will help the poor. Have these increases affected you in any way?
MARK: What people need to realize is that every time the minimum wage increases, so does the cost of living. That's why there are so many homeless people in those cities, the simply can't make ends meet. Also, when they raised the minimum wage in Seattle, McDonalds cut their dollar menu. This hurt homeless people because of lot of them depend on the dollar menu for food. Higher minimum wages don't really help us.
USC: People will say that the homeless should "just get a job." Why can't the homeless just get a job?
MARK: Who says homeless people don't have jobs? I've been homeless while working full time. The cost of living is so high. Many homeless people do have jobs. Some also work temp jobs or side hustles to make ends meet. Just cuz someone is homeless doesn't mean they don't have a job.
USC: How important are religious facilities in assisting the homeless? This may include thrift stores (Salvation Army or Vincent de Paul), but also shelters/food pantries, soup kitchens. How big a difference to religious organizations really make in helping the poor?
MARK: A lot of churches help tremendously, I've found the Baptists help the most. Sally's is pretty good, but other organizations like Goodwill don't help at all, they accept free donations and turn around and sell them for profit. Google the CEO's salary and you'll see.
USC: Politicians spend a lot of time talking about fighting poverty. But from your point of view, what would actually help the homeless most?
MARK: Politicians have many different views, depending on region. Tends to be places with more temperate climate that "fight" homelessness, which translates to arresting people for vagrancy or trespassing. Other places, like northern states, or where I'm at here in Washington have a different approach. This last winter, here in my town, the city approved a designated area for a homeless tent city, right behind city hall, which I find appropriate. We also have a lot of resources, the Opportunity Council was actually the group that helped me find my first job here, taught me how to make a resume, supplied hygiene supplies so I wouldn't show up to the interview smelling like a bum. YMCA helps with showers.
USC: Cities often speak of "combating" homelessness but in reality try to simply make life difficult for homeless people. Have you ever experienced this?
MARK: Like I said, it usually means arresting people for vagrancy or loitering, putting bars around ledges to stop homeless people from sleeping there, ordinances against panhandling, and stuff like that. Cities don't combat homelessness. Most of the time they want to combat homeless people by driving them off.
USC: What is something you would like people to understand about the homeless?
MARK: What I would want people to understand about homelessness is that not all of those people are bums, many have just given up. How frustrating is it to apply for a job and you have no address or phone number to put down..? And also, I don't think people of wealth see the difference between "making a living" and "not dying for 2 more weeks"