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How Being Poor in America Shaped Every Part of My Life and Forced Me to Live on the Streets (Hard Times, USA)

The reality of poverty in America.

The following is part of AlterNet's series on poverty, Hard Times, USA. 

As a young lady, my mother dreamed of becoming a pianist. She showed enough promise at this that when her father lost a leg to diabetes and could no longer work, her piano teacher offered to continue giving her lessons for free.

     Her mother would hear nothing of it.

     "We don't need any charity," She bristled.

     Of course she was lying. A sudden loss beyond her control. A need for a little help over the hump. Theirs was as honest a case for charity as any. But her sense of pride would not let her admit it. So, my mother's musical development came to an abrupt halt and instead of her dream career, bathed in the footlights of a concert stage, one thing after another, she ended up struggling to raise my brother and me on her own.

     The arc of these events conveyed to me for the first time that a separate set of rules exists for the poor. Pride, for example--which they took pains in Sunday school to drum into my head as being among the deadly sins--was, for the poor, a virtue. And Charity, championed--during those same Sunday sessions--as one of the highest virtues of the heart was, in practice, a thing tinged with shame.

     Fall on hard times, and the whole moral code gets turned on its head.

     We lived out of two rooms, my mother, brother, and I; in what was essentially an unofficial rooming house, perched on a block of one family homes in a small, blue collar, middle class Westchester town. There were thirteen people in all under that one roof. All of us living hand to mouth.

     For a while, we were on public assistance, my mother also doing "day work" at other people's houses to make ends meet. She had to do this on the sly. Had the Welfare Department found out, they would have reduced the monthly check they sent by an amount equal to what this extracurricular work brought in and we'd have been no better off for the effort.

     I understood that this rule was an effort to protect the taxpayer, the idea being to guard against anyone using public assistance as supplementary income. But since most employment available to people like my mother was low paying, often leaving less spending money--after taxes, transportation and other costs associated with the workplace--than what public assistance provided, it also worked against her honest efforts at providing for herself. Therein, another hidden effect: Rules that work for the haves, can often work against the have-nots.

     I imagine there were other areas we could have lived where rent was cheap enough that we could have perhaps had more space and privacy. The city projects, for example. But it was my mother's ambition that we grow up free of the ruder influences of the urban sprawl.

     Many years later, I would see her wisdom. Despite whatever the good intentions upon which they were born, the projects primarily succeeded in institutionalizing poverty, greatly concentrating its mass within a given spot, multiplying, thereby, the degree of obstacles arrayed against anyone ever finding a way out of there. To the generations that have had to navigate a gauntlet of crime, drugs, street gangs, and other spoils of the projects every day, being tough, getting over, and other requisites of surviving in the moment, by necessity trump the more abstract imperatives of looking toward the future, such as being smart, staying in school and studying hard.

     From our two-room outpost in the burbs, a different set of possibilities and expectations; a different set of survival rules could be seen in play right outside the door, which employed a different vocabulary, set of priorities, and lifestyle as well, all of which I, through a kind of social osmosis, gradually absorbed and adopted, and which proved to be instrumental to any upward mobility I might expect to Achieve.

     Case in point: high school. With respect to my low income status, I was assessed as being a CD/ED--"Economically Disadvantaged," and therefore "Culturally Deprived,"--and summarily consigned to the slow classes and systematically steered toward developing myself into a capable factory worker. This despite that I scored above both the national average and the school's own higher than national average on the aptitude tests (a fact that my Dean surreptitiously let me in on the day before I graduated).

     I floundered there, bored and powerless, for nearly a year and a half; would have likely spent my entire school run there were it not for the nuanced manner of expressing myself that I picked up from my surroundings. Teachers and staffers, with the exception of all my slow class instructors, routinely remarked upon how "articulate," they found me to be.

     One of them finally stepped up and spoke to my Dean. 

     In short order I was shuffled into a regular class schedule. Mind you it was not evidence of my intellectual ability, but the recognition of a cultural "norm," that made the ultimate difference. What's more it took the intervention of a third party to get my situation addressed. Fact is, it is only through third party advocacy that those with little to their names ever get considered in our affairs. When someone advocates on behalf of the poor, they are cited and honored for their humanity. When a guy on the street advocates for himself he is often looked upon with suspicion and derision, as a mere beggar. 

     When it comes to generational poverty the trap is set even deeper. The very things that can help people out of such a predicament are not functionally valid to their circumstances. Take long-term money management as an example. For the middle and upper classes, money itself becomes a generational asset, a thing to be banked and grown and passed on to succeeding sons and daughters.

     But for the chronically poor, money is a thing that is for all effects and purposes already spent before it is earned. Successful handling of it is measured, not in years, or future generations, but in making it to the next payday. The sweat of their brows comes to be understood as a means of funding the moment, rather than as a way to finance the future. Thus if they do happen to get a little ahead, the extra cash doesn't go into a savings account account, but to buy a new flat screen TV.

    

     The closest my mother or anyone else in that rooming house ever got to any kind of savings was the "Christmas Club" account offered by the bank, wherein she put in a little money each paycheck, them withdrew it in December for her holiday shopping. There was no interest involved. You got back exactly what you put in.  Meanwhile, the bank made what it could off of the pool of such funds. When you consider that this money could have just as easily gone into a savings account, it is hard not conclude that this club was designed specifically for the short-term positioned poor, as a way to use their money in the same way the use all their other deposits, but without having to pay a dime for the privilege.

     Back then the popular phrase for the poor was that they should "pull themselves up by their boot straps" (a thing I could never visualize anyone doing without bending over) and thereby gradually ascend to more prosperous days. But the evidence of all these experiences is that incremental steps, given you can find your way to taking them in the first place, only come to be confound by one hidden double standard or another, such as described here, and that getting out of the trap of generational poverty is more likely to a require one great leap.

     This was certainly true for me. I spent a dozen years homeless in New York City. This was during the Eighties and Nineties. I was stupid. I got myself caught up in the crack craze and smoked myself out of a job and a home. It was a fairly flat-line experience for me. Getting out of it entailed a sudden major, upward hurl. One day I was puffing a crack pipe underneath Grand Central Terminal, and the next day, it seemed, I was the stuff of news headlines and keynoting at the UN. 

      At first, when the marshal showed up and booted me form my apartment, I panicked. I couldn't imagine how I would ever scrape together the resources every day to eat, keep a set of clothes on my back, and shelter myself from the elements. To my surprise, however, I quickly discovered that taking care of myself materially was not the insurmountable task I feared it would be. A bit of effort, the application of a few street smarts, and it was, by and large, fairly doable.

     At the same time, a number of other needs were fast in presenting themselves as being more vital than ever if I were to have any fair chance of making it through the rough reasonably in tact and on to the brighter days. I needed, for example, to have the mindset for this; needed to have and maintain a good sense of my own identity and value. While it can be said that all of us need this, the thing is, when you have little to nothing else left to your good name other than your good name it is an even more critical thing. Ironically, though, it is precisely at such a point that your good name is in for a shellacking.

     And by miscreants and well-wishers alike.

     I was, for instance, declared to be among a demographic group defined as, simply, "homeless," a term   favored as being kinder and gentler than, say, "vagrant" or "bum." Yet it still falls in with the parade of references, which cast the poor in the negative: as being jobless, penniless, less fortunate, and so forthAppend negative values to a class of people long enough; sooner or later we begin to regard them--as will they themselves eventually, in a less than positive light.

     I find this to be largely idiosyncratic to the United States; that we measure one another's lot in life against the dynamic of the Great American Dream. In England, whose class system doesn't really entertain the "anyone (read everyone) can make it," mythology we embrace here, they don't call ithomelessness, they refer to it as "living rough."   

     I sold Street News as a means of putting a buck in my pocket when I was out there. It wasn't panhandling. It was about helping myself. And doing it by means of an infinitely American and indisputably Eighties entrepreneurial concept: Buy the papers wholesale. Sell them at a profit. What's more, I took particular pains to always hawk the product rather than my circumstances.

     But STREET NEWS, alas, was inexorably branded by the media as the "homeless paper." Over time, sentiments toward even this progressive social instrument gradually shifted from "Great Idea! People helping themselves," to "Oh God. Here they come again." 

     If Street News had been branded, say,  "The Journal of People Living Rough," It would have been that much less likely that our mere presence would offer a blight on the picture of America in which we all want to believe.

     When I started journaling for Street News things became different. It is infinitely more legitimate, more noble even, it seemed, to write about poor or homeless people, than to be among them.

     A book deal eventually presented itself.

     Out of that aspiration, I went into treatment and got off of the drugs. When the book went to press, a slew of new, nicer definitions were attached to my name. I was suddenly in the papers, on the radio, and TV. And, yes, they wanted me to keynote a UN conference on--you guessed it--global poverty.  Only then, once I was no longer one of them, did the world want to hear what I had to say about being poor.

 

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