While the recent cold snap that hit large portions of the United States has finally eased, the pressing issue of American homelessness shows no sign of abating. The sudden drop in temperature revealed the troubling inability, especially in southern States, to help homeless populations in extreme temperatures. It also shed light on the widespread epidemic of homelessness in America, with a shockingly large porting of this population unable to afford housing despite working long hours. Disobedient Media spoke with a volunteer who works with homeless populations, who explained the demeaning contradiction they are forced to live.
Reuters wrote of the recent freeze’s deadly effects: “The cold snap has been blamed for the death of at least three homeless men, in Texas and North Carolina, according to officials and local news media. It has provided a vivid illustration of a nationwide problem, as homelessness in the United States rose in 2017 for the first time in seven years.” Reuters went on to add that, according to federal survey data released last month, 553,742 people in the US lacked homes on a given night in 2017, while several metropolitan centers including New York City have seen even more dramatic spikes in homeless numbers.
Local press in states affected by the unusually frigid conditions, including Alabama, reported that homelessness advocates criticized the shortfalls of local government and church responses to the sudden drop in temperature: “Meg Tilden said more Huntsville churches should have “stepped up” and opened warming centers. “They should not have to have a contract (with the city) to do that,” said Tilden. “Jesus did not have a contract.”
A Chicago resident who provided overnight cots to the homeless in his basement during the cold snap was threatened with condemnation of his home, for alleged violation of ‘sleeping regulations.’ NBC reported that during the subzero conditions, the Chicago man had the idea to host overnight “slumber parties” for the homeless, but that officials said there are “sleeping regulations” for basements and Schiller’s basement doesn’t meet those requirements.
Homelessness is an escalating problem in the US regardless of weather conditions, including an increasing number of Americans who cannot afford housing despite working full-time jobs. Outlets like the New York Post relate that hundreds of full-time New York City workers are homeless, while a report by NBC documented the general issue of homelessness among the employed:
“The Kennard family of five from Johnson City, Tenn., is homeless. Perhaps the most surprising thing about the Kennards is that despite their homelessness, they are still a working family. For the last seven years, Patrick Kennard has worked a full-time job with benefits at a bank call center and until recently, Cindy Kennard worked as a director of a daycare facility.”
NBC’s report continued: “It’s hard sometimes for people to appreciate. They’re so used to the stereotyped homeless populations, the visible homeless, if you will, who live outdoors in public locations and they’re not aware that there are literally hundreds of thousands of people, many of them working, who are homeless as well,” said Dennis Culhane, a University of Pennsylvania social policy professor whose research focuses on homelessness.”
Adjunct professors have also faced increased difficulty in affording housing. The Guardian reported that some adjunct professors in the US chosen to engage in prostitution to make ends meet. They wrote: The Guardian illustrated the extreme lengths many adjuncts are forced to endure, writing that: “Sex work is one of the more unusual ways that adjuncts have avoided living in poverty, and perhaps even homelessness… They resort to food banks and Goodwill, and there is even an adjuncts’ cookbook that shows how to turn items like beef scraps, chicken bones and orange peel into meals…”
The Guardian continued: “Homelessness is a genuine prospect for adjuncts. When Ellen Tara James-Penney finishes work, teaching English composition and critical thinking at San Jose State University in Silicon Valley, her husband, Jim, picks her up. They have dinner and drive to a local church, where Jim pitches a tent by the car and sleeps there with one of their rescue dogs. In the car, James-Penney puts the car seats down and sleeps with another dog. She grades papers using a headlamp.”
Other outlets, including PBS and Salon, have also reported on the appalling conditions in which adjuncts are forced to survive. PBS noted that adjuncts made up half of all college and university faculties, while Salon cited the Chronicle of Higher Education’s description of professors with PhD.’s sleeping in homeless shelters.
Poverty and homelessness have become such an endemic issue in the US that a United Nations represented recently visited Los Angeles to monitor the appalling conditions in locations including Los Angeles’ infamous Skid Row. The Los Angeles Times reported that the trip was part of a national tour investigating human rights conditions for the poorest U.S. citizens. The article further related that the event included witnessing a “shirtless man who lay groaning across a wheelchair, a colostomy bag showing below his shorts hem.” The monitor, Alston stated: “I think it’s on a scale I hadn’t anticipated, block after block of people… When you see how concentrated it is, it’s more shocking.”
The gut-wrenching scene in skid-row is not the only horror faced by the homeless cross the United States. Disobedient Media recently spoke with a volunteer who has worked with homeless shelters and related activities over a long period. They told us of the demeaning rules faced by the homeless who frequent these shelters, in addition to the huge prevalence of health and dental problems. The volunteer told Disobedient Media that many homeless individuals had such severe dental problems that the volunteers were forced to make a concerted effort to fit menus around food that would be ‘easily gummed.’
The volunteer told Disobedient Media: “I have to make soft food or small bites so they can eat. Hard foods like apples are challenging.” They added that homelessness is so traumatic that hyper-vigilance is constant: “Among the homeless, and those at risk, I see a hyper-sensitization and vigilance resulting from their treatment at the hands of other people. No one talks about it.”
Most importantly, the volunteer explained to Disobedient Media that homeless populations face an unbearable catch-22, which often keeps them in poverty. They told us: “The homeless are not allowed to get better. Getting better means getting tools (clothes, an unlocked WiFi phone as some shelters hand out for communication and job hunting). Any sign of having these items must mean they’re freeloaders. To avoid being viewed as a freeloader, the homeless are forced to remain desperate so they fit our view and expectation of what they are supposed to be. And it’s still ‘their fault’ because they’re ‘lazy’ for not getting better. It’s an existence of contradiction.”
In the freezing weather that gripped the US in the last month, such double binds are not only demeaning, but deadly.