I live in a medium-sized upscale town with no visible homelessness, so I don’t often come across homeless people.
When I write homeless, by the way, I mean people you might see in the streets of big cities like New York, where I go now and again. Unless you’re chauffeured door to door in NYC and refrain from looking out the window, you will inevitably see a good many homeless individuals.
I’m talking about humans sitting or lying on cardboard, who roll carts or schlep big bags around, and look like they haven’t slept well or showered in weeks.
When I pass them, I feel awful, even though I’ve heard a small number “choose” this life. I guess it’s true, yet I’m certain the proportion is minute. I can’t imagine what it would take to give up a reliable daily hot shower or access to a clean bathroom for an extended amount of time.
I also don’t feel at all optimistic about their prospects. How can anyone in such a dire situation possibly get back on their feet unless they get a whole lot of help? I mean, I had a charmed childhood and have faced setbacks and made stupid mistakes in my adult life from the comfort of a safe home and it’s still been mighty hard to course correct.
And so, when I see a homeless person, I also feel a mix of fear and relief.
After all, were it not for the great luck I’ve had in life, this or that homeless woman could’ve been me, and this or that homeless youth could’ve been my child.
What causes homelessness?
“Insufficient income and lack of affordable housing are the leading causes of homelessness,” according to the National Homelessness Law Center. Other important causes include mental illness, substance abuse, and domestic violence.
Insufficient income? Check. I’ve faced periods of insufficient income. But I’ve had the luxury of an enviable safety net every time. I’m talking about a bit of saving and, above all, inter-generational wealth and support.
My father inherited his parents’ rendering business and was able to grow it. He worked hard (as many other people do!), made sound business decisions, and accumulated enough money to give his seven children not only an excellent education but also a generous financial gift in the form of a house or apartment when each of us left home as adults. Talk about spoiled!
This was in my country of birth, Venezuela, which we chose to leave for a couple of reasons, one of them being the economic and political chaos that took hold. Still, we arrived in the US, (Connecticut specifically) with the huge advantage of a top-notch education and enough money in the bank to pay good immigration lawyers.
Several members of my family, including my parents, also moved to Connecticut, and I’ve relied on them to navigate not only financial setbacks but also difficult health situations. I’m talking about mental illness, which my siblings and I are genetically predisposed to, so much so five of us have essentially “come down” with severe depression at different points in our lives.
I just can’t imagine living indefinitely with depression. At some point, I almost certainly would’ve resorted to self-medicating with alcohol, addictive drugs, or whatnot. At some point, I would’ve had to quit work.
Luckily, I haven’t needed to. I’ve benefitted from my family’s support and experience with this illness. I also have a teaching job that provides good health insurance.
Yep. I am a privileged human. I have faced my share of trials but never lacked emotional or economic support. And so, when I see a homeless person, the thought always crosses my mind:
Were it not for all this good fortune, that could very well have been me.