May 31, 2016 by poverty2professional
There is nothing more a student who is struggling through homelessness wants than to feel normal. What normal is, of course, is variable. While I was in high school, “normal” meant having a place where no one knew my situation beyond me. No questions, no comments. Where if anyone asked how I was feeling, I could just say, “Yes, I’m okay.” And, even if I wasn’t okay, they didn’t know any better and I could pretend just the same.
Looking for stability of any kind is a common practice of adapting to homelessness. If you’re a housed person, you’ve probably noticed it to one extent or another: the person who sleeps in her car on the same block every night except for street cleaning; the man who is always on the corner of 5th and Grover; the family that picks the same park bench to sit at (hi, that’s me and my dad). We all need a place, a spot, a haunt. When everything else in life is unpredictable, there’s just a smidgen of reassurance in knowing that you have routine. Whatever gives you order or permanence – even when you know you might not get dinner or have a warm place to sleep – can make you feel better.
Going to school every day helped me feel normal. Although you couldn’t pay me to return to the regimented six classes every weekday from eight to three-thirty, it was what I needed at that time. For me, it was the identity of being “the smart kid” at school and competing with everyone else in my AP classes. No one knew or cared who I was beyond that. I got to ignore all my uncertainties, especially the ones that scared me, and channel my energies to what I knew I had control over: getting a spot on my high school’s (Grand Prix for nerds) Scholastic Bowl team, choosing the classes I would take in senior year, and determining how neatly the frog in tomorrow’s lab would be dissected.
Of course, it was never easy to keep this attitude consistent, particularly because of the very strong, very real prejudices our society harbors against people in poverty. Classism may yet remain one of our country’s last unexamined prejudices. We justify poverty by highlighting the opportunities offered to those who struggled and found a way out. Clearly, if you are poor it’s only because you didn’t want to work hard enough to be middle class. The problem is always you. Not opportunity, not nature of birth, not network, not family ties, not racism or sexism or being of a background that is systemically disadvantaged. And it’s not just older generations that this mentality effects. Trust me, I got to hear it echoed from my peers.
“I don’t like homeless people,” one friend said to me on our way to class. This was also someone who – unlike the past couple of friends I had referenced in earlier posts – did not know that I was experiencing homelessness.
I asked her, “How come? They’re people, too. They’re just going through a rough patch.”
“They’re that way because they’re lazy and don’t want to work. I’m never going to be homeless.”
Her conclusion was clearly misinformed. I remember feeling angry enough to want to shove my GPA in her face and go, “See? I’m not lazy! Maybe you are!”…but that would have meant admitting that I was homeless. Couldn’t do that. It would shatter my space of “normal.”
And my friend’s statement brings me to sharing what this blog is not. This blog is not preaching, “With a little elbow grease and a can-do attitude, you, too, can escape homelessness!” No. Dear Lord, hell no. Did I try really hard to go after college because I knew education was one of the few ways left in this country to rise above your social class? Yes. But it’s less of being a “fighter,” and more of a cow who escaped the slaughter. On any given week, fifty other things could have gone wrong to keep me (and many other teens in my circumstances) from succeeding. A flat tire would mean missing school, the lack of Internet would mean missing homework and, possibly, missing an application deadline for a college or a scholarship. And that’s just the academic sampling. Missing caseworker meetings could jeopardize the frail stability that the shelter offered or it could foil our chances at housing. When you’re homeless, one wrong move can cost you your whole livelihood. And no amount of positivity or can-do can repair that.
So, at least I could feel safe in my illusions at school. Every day I arrived meant I could count on nice, predictable “normal.” I could plan for the SAT just like everyone else. I could (erroneously) sign up for AP Calculus just like everyone else. It wasn’t until I got into my senior year and I needed more reviewers for my college essays that I started telling a teacher here and another there about “my situation.” Deconstructing the illusion of “normal” at school was a slow, difficult process. Because whatever my teachers thought of me was also tied to what I knew most people thought of when they heard “homeless.”
Journal excerpts from January & March 2009
I know I’m kempt and decently attired, if I were to walk out on the street these people wouldn’t know me from Adam. They’d just treat me with distant courtesy. Actually, simply examine the context of my last sentence; I’m stating I could pass for a regular person outside of the shelter? A regular person? So now it’s affirmed that I’m abnormal? How’s that? Did I grow a third eye and webbed feet? No, the only barrier between the rest of society and I are my residential circumstances and suddenly I’m inferior. There is a psychological battering that comes with homelessness. There’s no escaping the stigma of being homeless either, the term alone makes people cringe and shirk away as they conjure their own unsavory archetypes.
But, hey, if I can ignore the fact I do my homework in a cramped closet room instead of at a desk no one can make me feel inferior without my consent, right? I can still march into the classroom and no one knows. I can act like it doesn’t exist. Or at least until a teacher instructs, “Everyone, check your homework online and don’t come whining to me. C’mon, it’s not like you’re homeless or something.”
Among other things, it’s a great inconvenience to be homeless.
Most kids dread getting their report cards in the mail. I was just wishing I’d get my stupid grades. You can’t get your report card unless you have a permanent address. So every five weeks I had to march up to the attendance office and ask one of the secretaries for my “mail.” It’s not so bad when I talked to a certain Ms. P, she doesn’t ask questions. Of course, she’s not always there either. Not too long ago I had to blatantly explain to one of the new (old) secretaries that I live in a shelter. It’s the same reaction every time; at first they don’t get it. “What do you mean you don’t have a home?” I guess it’s a shock to hear it, but it’s a pain – literally – to repeat it.
Another thing about school, though, is that I have to kind of go along with the occasional homeless gibes. I mean, if I weren’t in this situation, would I chuckle or concern myself with it? There are kids at school who, in the classroom, say that homeless people are in their predicaments because they’re lazy. That isn’t true; after all, I’m the hard-working student with the 4.3 GPA.
Then there’s worst part of the “homeless experience”: sub-humanism. The wanting to be recognized as a person. When you get down to it, you’re nothing more than a name, a body, a statistic. You’re counted by the city, reported to the state, and fretted at by the federal government because clearly the economy is tanking. People who have homes might pity you, but they also do it in the same thought that they’re glad they aren’t you. You get to be the reminder, but it’s less often that you’re a person.
End journal excerpts.