Desensitized To The Homeless In Front of Me

There was time to waste while waiting for my train connection last Saturday.  The sun shot rays of warmth thru the cool November air that gently wiggled the Glendale city flag above the old rail station.  Hurried commuters voided the busy weekday space and I, along with five others, sought time-killing amusements while our Amtrak connection worked its way north.

A man, in decent clothes (from what I could judge from my distance), sat two benches down.  He seemed engaged in a conversation through, what I assumed, to be his headset. 

I rummaged through my carry-on and pulled the Colm Toibin novel that I can’t put down.  Half way into chapter 9 I heard my bench neighbor scream, “That’s not the way it happened.”  And then I wondered why others think that I really want to hear them verbally scuffle with someone in a cell phone conversation.

“Help! Find the dog.  Get my soup,” he ranted.  Discretely I turned my head to see what was going on with him.  There was no headset clipped or cell phone plastered against his ear.  He was having a full on conversation with himself.  I returned to the Toibin novel.

Then it struck me, I’ve joined the Desensitized Club.  During my Los Angeles visit I avoided all eye contact with the droves of homeless and mentally challenged people fighting to survive in alley ways, under bridges, in groves of rail-side trees, and abandoned buildings.  I witnessed a couple hang laundry on a chain link fence next to the bridge that housed their plastic bags of worldly goods; a woman with a baby in one arm and a plastic sack in the other rummaged through a trash can for recyclables to sell; bearded men, bent with heavy and threadbare backpacks, hobbled along the Los Angeles River; and disheveled women pushed grocery carts,some with a dog, and a myriad of clutter—again—stuffed in to black plastic leaf bags.

I avoided eye contact because of my own inability to face this ugly American truth—our increasing homeless population—maybe more than 3.5 million with about 1.6 million between the ages of 13 and 17.

The chatty man two benches away clearly showed mental health issues—one of the many reasons for homelessness.  How can that be in America? 

The newest members of this homeless population are our women veterans—about five-percent of homeless veterans.   How can this be in America? 

Here’s how it happens, according to a United States Department of Labor Homeless Women Veterans Listing Session.

Factors that lead to homelessness for women veterans

A diverse set of complex issues and behaviors was identified as contributing to homelessness among the women veterans:

  • Unemployment – due to job loss, lack of job training and skills assessment, and difficulty transferring skills obtained while in the military to the civilian economy
  • Lack of veterans benefits – some veterans are not eligible for benefits (e.g., as a result of having a less than honorable discharge); others have difficulty determining eligibility and understanding and accessing benefits for which they qualify.
  • Legal trouble post-military , e.g., probation
  • Mental health issues, e.g. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Military Sexual Trauma (MST) , and mental illness
  • Disabilities
  • Divorce/Separation
  • Domestic violence
  • Lack of family or social support network
  • Substance abuse

And even more disturbing is a new (or finally admitted) attitude that  I repeatedly hear and read from those of us lucky to have shelter and well-being–homeless people are losers who don’t deserve help.  Recent headlines that read “Goons Occupy Wall Street,” continue the slandering of the less fortunate. (The headline references a homeless man, probably suffering from mental illness, who went into a public rage.)

Last week a woman called my husband and asked if he would buy her hot tub. She explained in halted language, “I lost my research job a year ago. The company moved my department to India. Even with my masters of science degree I haven’t found work, so the bank has taken my home, and I’m selling what I can before I pack my children and see what happens next. My American dream is gone.”

This, along with Afghanistan and Iraq women veterans, is the new face of homeless citizens in America.

For me, still blessed with a home and a means to keep it, this scenario turns my stomach.  I feel helpless to remedy this travesty.  Our lawmakers have gone berserk; we hear “class warfare” battle cries from both the uber wealthy and those whose American dream became a nightmare; and I admit desensitization from the legions of uncared for mentally ill seeking solace in the sun on empty benches in empty railway stations.

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4 thoughts on “Desensitized To The Homeless In Front of Me

  1. I live in the middle of nowhere, and I’m always shocked by the number of homeless people in urban areas. I wonder why cities always seem to have a problem with homelessness, while rural towns do not?

    • I just read the answer to that on the website I linked….Rural areas do have homeless, but less (71% are urban). However, rural homeless are at higher risks because there are less resources for them. What a mess.

  2. I’m rural. Way rural. We definitely have a homeless population in my closet little, teeny burg of Redway about a 45 minute drive for me.. Same 6 to 10 people for many years. We also have a huge contingent of youthful and seasonal “travelers”. But, in my mind, this 2nd group is not part of the true homeless bunch. Our “true” homeless bunch of folks all seem to have a certain degree of mental illness. I’m actually friends with one of these people. Her name is Robin and she’s 50 and has lived under a bridge for years here. When she’s not being hassled by the cops to move, this IS her
    home year round. I’m not certain how she got from being a student at Chico State Univ. to living under a bridge but mental illness probably is the
    biggest factor. The woman is brilliant but some days she’s just not stable. I give her rides to her “home” often and each time we are around each other, I kinda have to suss out her mood that day. I no longer take it personally if I ask her a question and she just has a blank look or just seems so totally uninterested in anything I have to say. Cause next time, she might just totally blow me away we some fact that only an educated would have known. when offered a night at the occasional homeless shelter in the winter, she has said that she’s afraid to stay in a structure, she will lose her “edge” so no thanks! Something happened though that really brought home how invisible these people CAN be. I pulled into the grocery parking lot last week and Robin came right up to me and I could tell right away that something wasn’t right and I asked her. She looked in the blank distance and started to tell me that just moments before, she was walking behind one of the huge Dodge Ram type trucks that was parked but the truck started backing up, knocked her to the ground and ran right over
    her with the tires actually not making contact!! She said when the truck backed up enough that she emerged from the front and got up and started banging on the truck to get the attention of a male youth driving. He said he was sorry, gave his driver id and left! She had bruises on her back and some abrasions. This really did happen. So, I’m trying to figure out what she can do about this situation and she can’t go tell the cops, her unstable and sometimes rude behavior means she can’t go back to the health clinic
    and she most certainly can’t go to a lawyer which all means that she had NO recourse to the physical assault that just happened to her. True to her mood of that day, she started saying that it was all a part of some conspiracy to “get her”. I asked if there were any witnesses and she said one person drove by at that moment and yelled out the window if she was ok but continued driving so the driver couldn’t even hear Robin’s response.
    All she wanted from me was a ride back “home” so she could recover!!! I brought her back to her bridge and I was really ready for us to part ways by now she was just angry but convinced about the bigger conspiracy. I left her and felt horrible for the next several days just knowing that this terrible thing had happened to this woman and nobody gave a shit and she didn’t feel that there was any way to make it right! Where does all this fit into my modest yet EXTREMELY LUCKY life??? I don’t entirely know.

  3. That is an amazing story and makes me scream, “How can this be in America?” We know, however, how and why this has become something in our face with few options to reverse.

    There’s a great reply on my Facebook page that pretty well explains the how…

    Still turns my stomach.

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