On Saturday night, I went out drinking at Ye Olde Hut in Rockridge for a friend’s birthday. After a long night of drinking and talking (mostly) politics, we stumbled outside and were greeted by an African-American woman in her mid-twenties, asking us if we would trade cash for a poem.
My friend asked her what her name was, and she was reluctant, because he might have known her. It turns out that he did. They had gone to camp together many years ago and had some of the same friends. She immediately plead to him not to tell anyone she knew that he had seen her “like this”.
We soon found out that she had only recently lost her home. For many years, she had successfully worked in sales. Then, her brother was released from prison and she took him in. To support herself and her brother, she had to work three jobs. She hit the breaking point, and her anxiety problems exploded. She lost her jobs and her apartment and was now living in a homeless camp, which she described as very nice.
Soon, we heard some of her poetry, which was eloquent and moving. In between poems, she talked more about her life. She said that over the past few weeks, many people had approached her and encouraged her to sell her body. So she came up with a retort: “I’m a woman in destitution without the constitution for prostitution.”
As we were all talking, a friend of hers approached and told her story. She had spent most of her life as a carpenter and was part of a union, but the union work dried up and she ended up on the street.
I wasn’t surprised by either of their stories, but I was still extremely frustrated. Neither of these women ever thought they’d be homeless. They worked hard and supported themselves. But once they could no longer support themselves, that was it.
I couldn’t help but think about our governor, who recently “used his line item veto to cut the entire funding nearly $55 million for the AB 2034 housing program that serves over 4,700 adults with severe mental health needs, all of whom were homeless and frequently hospitalized or incarcerated before getting into the program… Mental health advocates say that the immediate effect of the funding cut by the Governor could result in thousands of those people in the program being forced back on the streets at risk of hospitalization and incarceration.” I don’t think either of the women I met on Saturday could have qualified for this program, but it’s still incredible to me that our state is cutting programs to help the homeless while pouring money into our failing prison system.
But the main thing I haven’t been able to get out of my head since Saturday is that this young woman was so ashamed of her status. Throughout our conversation, she continually plead with my friend not to tell anyone that he had seen her (and he promised not to). If the government isn’t going to help, and the newly homeless are too ashamed to tell anyone that might care about them, who are they to turn to?
Ultimately, these two women turned to each other, and likely to others in similar situations. Unfortunately, while they clearly supported each other in many ways, it seems unlikely that either of them will be able to help the other get off the streets and back into a home.