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Why Are We So Bad at Talking About Homelessness?

We have to realize that most of us are not that far from bankruptcy or foreclosure. Any of us could be laid off. And then what—where would we be?

by Peter Brown Hoffmeister
Oct 22 2014, 8:00am

Photos by Sam Gehrke

I don’t know what it feels like to walk around all winter in wet shoes. I’ve never had trench foot. I’ve never had a skin infection that I couldn’t get rid of. I don’t know how it feels to hold a sign on a street corner for months at a time. I’ve never had to defend a grocery cart. My hands don’t usually split and seep yellow.

But I do know how it feels to be hungry all day, and to eat ketchup packets because they’re free. Mustard packets, sugar packets, cream shots intended for coffee I don’t have the money to buy. I do know how it feels to be cold and on the street and have to keep walking because sitting down or lying down would mean freezing to death.

I’ve slept in a hedge and listened to gunshots all night. I’ve slept under bridges. I’ve slept in a 7-11 parking lot, next to a dumpster. I’ve slept in a Greyhound bus station. I’ve slept on city sidewalk grates. I’ve slept in an alley leaning against a brick wall, pretending to be awake so people wouldn’t mess with me.

I wasn’t homeless very long, so I’m not going to pretend that I was. And even though my high school counted me as homeless for a month as a sophomore and for five months as a senior, during the periods when I was officially deemed “homeless" I was actually sleeping on a soft mattress at one of my friend’s houses—warm and comfortable, with books to read in a quiet, dry space. So I haven’t had it hard.

I don’t know real suffering. But I know a little.

The other day I was biking to the Oregon high school where I work and I stopped at a red light. Next to me was a homeless man I’d seen on other street corners and fed at homeless outreach events. I don’t know his name, but I know him. The man is disabled and an addict. He seems to have mental health issues as well. He’s a fairly well-known member of the homeless population in Eugene, Oregon.

Next to us, in the car lane, a late-model Cadillac pulled up. The driver rolled down the window. As the light turned green, he said, “Get a job, fucker,” and drove away.

I got angry. I wanted to throw a brick through a car window, drag the driver out onto the street, grab his keys. I’m being quite literal when I say that the driver of the Cadillac would probably shit his pants if he had to sleep a week out on the streets—if he had to sleep under the bridge or down by the river, if he had to scuff his feet over the ground in the dark to make sure he wouldn’t lie on a used needle. He probably doesn't spend a lot of time thinking about the little details of daily survival: where to get food, how to avoid being assaulted, how to sleep through the night without being robbed or bothered by the police.

Eugene has a large homeless population—roughly 3,500 out of about 160,000 total residents. Like Portland, it's a progressive city, with liberal voting tendencies, and it is, as a whole, a place that’s very tolerant of the homeless. Combine that social tolerance with a moderate climate, and it’s easy to understand why so many homeless men and women gravitate towards our town. I've met people who've come from New York, Alabama, Texas, Missouri, Arizona, and Montana. They settle here, live by the river, or crash in the many city parks. But there’s a disparity of wealth and opinions in Eugene, and you can see it in the way we treat our homeless.

A few years ago, our city had “bum cages” installed on the underpasses all over the city. These iron fences keep homeless people from climbing up the embankment and sleeping in the dark recesses under the bridges. According to the city planners, the cages minimized garbage issues and public drug use and keep the homeless from being violent with one another by eliminating fights over sleeping territories. That's seriously a response to homelessness?

In our city, there are bureaucratic roadblocks too. The high school outdoor program I teach did a bunch of outreach to the homeless population over the last few years, but we ran into difficulty two years ago with the local government. The Parks Department had heard about all of our homeless events and wanted us to pay a $115 Parks Department fee each time we wanted to “rent the park” for a day in order to feed the homeless or give away socks or blankets under the freeway bridge.

I said, “No, that doesn’t sound like a good idea. We won’t spend $115 on fees if we can spend it on socks or food.”

So the Parks Department threatened to have me arrested. The woman in charge said, “We’re going to alert the police that you don’t have a permit.”

“Go ahead. I’ll just tell the media what I got arrested for.” I felt like I was headed toward a worthwhile arrest.

But the Parks Department called my school district’s superintendent, and the school district paid the rental fee for us for that day. I felt like it was an important day to take a stand, but the district wouldn’t let me.

To summarize: one government agency threatened another government agency over an inane rule, and one government worker threatened another government worker with arrest if the second government worker’s department didn’t transfer money to the first government worker’s department. So the money changed hands.

In any case, since then we’ve held all of our homeless events on bikes, handing out items person-to-person instead of setting up at a location because we’re no longer allowed to stage large group gatherings. The school district won't allow it unless we want to pay the park rental fee.

The challenge, in dealing with homelessness, is understanding. We have to at least try to bridge that gap. We have to recognize our own human weaknesses, our own fallibility. We have to realize that most of us are not that far from bankruptcy or foreclosure. Any of us could be laid off, any of us could suffer a sudden injury. And then what? Where would we be?

If it’s difficult to relate to adult homelessness, consider this: According to the National Center on Family Homelessness, 1.6 million children in the United States experience homelessness each year. Those children in our country are called “the hidden homeless.” We won’t see them on street corners, but we'll find them sleeping along the river, in cars, and behind dumpsters. They often eat at shelters.

But to see them, we have to engage. We have to get out of our cars and talk to people. To understand the street, we have to walk the street. We have to see how others live. Not everyone is going to be forced into homelessness as I was. But we have to at least understand what the homeless contend with.

On seeing the world as it really is, Edward Abbey once wrote, “In the first place, you can’t see anything from a car: You’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees...”

Of course, you could just stay in your car and turn up your radio.

Peter Brown Hoffmeister is the other of three books, most recently the novel Graphic the Valley. He lives with his family in Eugene, Oregon. Follow him on Twitter.