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A self-help solution
-- Government social worker, February, 1997
At the time, I resented his words. He was, in effect, saying that one is stupid because one doesn't have a month's rent plus a security deposit and a cleaning fee. Make that two months' rent if the credit report is bad. Moreover, his funding was based upon therapy. No long-term help unless I had a problem that could be addressed therapeutically. The only therapy I needed was sensible rent and an income to pay it. I report this so that you'll understand I am not an outsider looking into homelessness. My interim solution is open to most of you. Before explaining what that is, we need to identify the difference between a homeless ideal and what is possible now.
The ideal is a goal adopted by the National Coalition for the Homeless, and forms the basis of most responsible social activism. These advocates see permanent housing for all and a system of supportive services as the best long-term response. As sociologists Marjorie Hope and James Young have so eloquently written in The Faces of Homelessness,
We believe that the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are glorious but empty abstractions unless they are animated by more elemental rights: to housing, to sustenance, to health care, to social services, to work. Human beings dumped into the streets like yesterday's refuse hardly possess life or liberty, and do not know what the pursuit of happiness means. (270)While I support and endorse this noble agenda, the ideal is not likely to get a "less deserving" homeless person into his or her own living space in the near future. In my view, self-help and selective use of the existing social service system is more realistic. Believe it or not, there are solutions to many problems of individual homelessness. Part of the challenge is in finding them. Another part is learning to be flexible enough to take advantage of help when it is offered, provided the help serves your ultimate goal. Turning your life around requires a decision and a commitment to an escape plan, more of which in a moment.
Progress -- such as it is with homeless issues -- has been dictated largely by empirical evidence. Most samples would seem to suggest that homeless people (as a group) either have been incarcerated, have substance-abuse problems, have been alienated from their families, or have a history of mental disorders. In other words, they are disenfranchised from the rest of society, and have little stake or interest in mainstream society's goals. Therefore, many states have implemented a case-management system in an attempt to salvage individuals from the larger pool. And this is where most of the money is directed. The problem with this view of the world is that it tends to imply these four categories are the cause of homelessness -- that the homeless person is responsible for his or her circumstances. Homelessness, apparently, has nothing to do with loss of cheap rentals to urban renewal, substantial rent increases, a minimum wage that hardly reflects the cost of living, and loss of traditional unskilled and semiskilled jobs to cheap labor elsewhere.
Many homeless people have bought into the argument that they are the sole cause of their homeless condition and have become prisoners of the system. As a prisoner of war, any reasonable chance of escape must first start with a plan. Indeed, the only weapon you may have against your captors is the plan. Your plan is the light at the end of the homeless tunnel. If the plan doesn't work the first time, keep revising and refining until it does. I suggest these hours you spend researching, designing, and executing your escape plan will become your salvation.
Continuing educationThis is an era in which adults return to school. For our present purpose, it doesn't matter how these "new traditional age" students justify doing so, whether excess leisure time, boredom, social interaction, a lifelong love of learning, keeping pace with technology, whatever. They appear to be hitting the books in record numbers.
I never doubted that homeless people possess an uncommon measure of horse sense. It turns out they have more than this. There is evidence, according to a study by sociologist James Wright in 1989, that almost one out of five homeless people has attended "one or more years of college" and that "over half have a high school [diploma]" (Fantasia 75). In the case of homeless veterans, the statistics are even more encouraging. Up to eighty percent has graduated from high school, and fully one-third has college exposure (Alker 10).
One of the more obvious solutions to your homeless dilemma is to finish that degree you started. If you've had no exposure to higher education, this might be an excellent time to begin thinking seriously about it. There are even programs to help you finish high school through general educational development or GED. Consider this: the federal government will support one's serious commitment to education through grants and low-interest loans. Keepers of the public purse also recognize that you will need living space and food while pursuing this commitment. Many schools have work-study programs available to help supplement other financial aid. Note, however, this scenario doesn't happen overnight. Starting from scratch (so to speak), you may need six months to a year of lead time to make it happen. Unless there are valid reasons to the contrary, you'll be expected to contribute about $1,200 to the annual expense formula from your own earnings.
Returning to school allows everyone to win. Society wins because each credit hour successfully completed makes you more employable. No longer are you the ward of uncountable social service agencies. You have a commitment to the country's tax payers to make good on their investment in you. Daily interaction with the staff and students of a college or university will help to restore your self-esteem. With the current emphasis on adult education, age is hardly a factor.
While I'm not sure he had homeless people in mind, British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) defined a university as a place "where the young and old are gathered together in the imaginative consideration of learning." In this atmosphere, your exposure to the homeless subculture may become an asset to help make a difference in the lives of others. It may take the shape of a public voice for those who have none. It might play the role of a guide through bureaucratic minefields, or of finding common ground to get one group talking to another. It could involve troubled youth or the unique problems of senior citizens. It even may address the root of your own problem such as substance abuse or a relationship that went sour.
For information on student financial aid, there is a "free, comprehensive, independent guide" available on the Web. The University of Texas maintains a link index to university, four-year college, and community college home pages. Also, don't hesitate to visit the financial aid office of a school near you for additional counsel. This should help to get you started in the right direction.
Lest any reader suspect this is a thinly veiled rejection of things spiritual, it isn't. Most homeless people have a spiritual component to their views on how things are. I'm merely suggesting that a college campus may give the formerly homeless person enough freedom to discover his or her own spiritual ideal, where the "rescue" mission's agenda is more like a twelve-step program for fundamentalist conversion. You alone can decide which size fits.
If school isn't your bag, and my discussion above hasn't convinced you to check into the possibilities, take a few minutes to review my Homeless Program Index. While still under construction, this will point you toward other index resources as well as detailed listings for a handful of programs. As always, part of the challenge is in finding these programs. The Internet can help you to do that.
Why learn to use the Internet?In a word, parity. Whether one's circumstances are temporary or semi-permanent, the Internet can help to level the playing field by giving one a voice and access to massive amounts of information. Putting your experiences into words and sending them to the right people may help to cause change. That's happened before; hence that bit about the pen being mightier than the sword.
In 1993, Richard Civille, of the Center for Civic Networking, presented a paper to a Harvard symposium on public access to the Internet. The Internet and the Poor argues "strength of weak ties theory" and suggests that such networking "broadens one's knowledge of the world, expands horizons of opportunities, and helps in career advancement."
When you think about it, weak ties theory appears to operate at the very heart of communications. The number of weak ties a person may have almost dictates that person's environment and view of the world. People with few weak ties are isolated. There is an insulating layer between them, the global village, and the exchange of ideas. Civille says "they are confined to the provincial news and views of their close friends." This sounds very much like the condition of homelessness, a sort of closed system. To escape is to find a way to break out of that system.
U. S. District Judge Stewart Dalzell (Philadelphia) has said the Internet is "the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed." With public access available in a growing number of cities and towns, the only barrier to taking advantage of the Internet is learning how to use it effectively. The Internet has opened its playing field to anyone -- including the homeless. No longer is it necessary to have an expensive storefront or to pass extensive credit checks to participate. It is not necessary even to have a home.
The Internet can make your words available to anyone with access to it, anywhere in the world. To me, the Internet is like a change in attitude. Cyberspace is beyond the here and the now, and the dinginess of present circumstances. It will engage your mind -- both in learning how to use it effectively, and in maintaining your end of the dialogue before an audience. It will put you in touch with other human beings who may have insight into a problem you're trying to solve. Or more knowledge about a particular place than you have.
The ability to quickly find useful information on the Internet is a skill one learns with practice using popular search engines. Here's a fully functional example of Google...
If you are traveling, for instance, you can instantly check the weather for any area ahead of you. If you need detailed directions to a particular street address anywhere in the country, the Net will draw you a map. If you want a tourist's view of the city you're planning to spend the winter in, chances are that city has a Web site on the Net. Often the local newspaper is online as well, complete with all the local news and classified ads.
Yahoo! provides easy navigation to all of these. Simply enter one of the bold terms into Yahoo!'s search field near the top of this page.
Public accessAs a homeless person, your access to the Internet may well be through the growing number of public-access computers maintained in libraries. Those same libraries probably offer free classes for an hour or two on Internet basics. I have also witnessed homeless people sharing this knowledge with each other, much like one might expect of students in a middle school. You should also be aware that virtually every community college and public university in the country is now connected to the Internet. Libraries in these institutions often have some community-access arrangement where ordinary citizens are able to use certain computer tools. If there is a fee involved, it is usually less than $25 per annum. Perhaps to the chagrin of other patrons, some libraries have become virtual day shelters to homeless people. For a well-documented survey of this issue, including some creative solutions, see: Silver, Judi. Libraries and the Homeless: Caregivers or Enforcers. Katharine Sharp Review, Winter, 1996. Nevertheless, if society's agenda for homeless people involves a regular paycheck, then computer literacy is a marketable skill.
Finding a libraryThe link below may help you to find a library that probably has free, public access to the Internet. When you have isolated a convenient site, the library may require that you possess a valid card to use its equipment. This is not unreasonable. If you don't have a library card, find out what the requirements are and get yourself one!
It is possible that you may encounter a librarian who insists e-mail is not supported. Actually, the library need not maintain a mail server. As long as you have free access to the Internet, you may take advantage of e-mail with the services below. It may be a good idea not to mention this to an overly protective librarian.
More than a few homeless
people devote some of their time to writing. In addition to providing an
audience, the Internet can put the power of a large reference library at your
fingertips. One of the more useful "fact engines" I've seen is based in
the United Kingdom. Here you'll find the Penguin Rhyming Dictionary,
The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, and The Oxford Dictionary
of Quotations, among dozens of other sources.
In search of a forumIn cyberspace, a forum involves two or more people who come together because of mutual interests. They have something to say to one another because there is some common thread connecting them. The vehicle they choose may be a newsgroup, where the postings may be read by anyone; it may be a discussion list, where e-mail messages sent to a common address are routed to every other subscriber on the list; it may be a more intimate forum -- such as Delphi's "communities," which offer structure, expert moderation, and real-time chat capability.
Streetring is currently working on a periodic newsletter. We invite your participation both as a subscriber (it's free, of course) and as a contributor. If you have something worthwhile to say to other homeless people, and people who manage the social service empire, here is a readily accessible forum. To subscribe, use the sidebar form near the top of this page. The newsletter email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org
NewsgroupsI wish I could tell you that homeless people had a well-subscribed newsgroup that was closely followed in all centers of power. Unfortunately, this is not yet the case. alt.society.homeless is too new to be well known. If the quality of postings improves, it may develop a following. Some of the other newsgroups will occasionally touch on the subject (alt.gathering.rainbow is an example), but their respective agendas are somewhat broader. DejaNews, a free, newsgroup posting service and search engine, was acquired by Google in February, 2001. Google has now placed all of Deja's newsgroup archives online and has implemented posting capability. All you need is a verifiable email address. This is an excellent way to participate, assuming that most public-access systems do not maintain news servers. Here's a link that will take you to Google's newsgroups:
International Homeless Discussion ListHosted by Communications for a Sustainable Future (CSF) at the University of Colorado, the International Homeless Discussion List is probably the largest forum to date on this subject, with "about 550 subscribers." To subscribe, send an e-mail message to:
and include the following in the body of your message...
sub homeless "Yourfirstname Yourlastname" <Youremailaddress>
Note the double quotes around your name and the angle brackets around your e-mail address. So, for example, your subscribe line might look like this:
sub homeless "John Doe" <email@example.com>
Homeless People's NetworkFor information on participating in this "homeless" and "formerly homeless" forum, visit HPN's Web site hosted by Arizona State University at http://aspin.asu.edu/hpn.
Substance abuse -- primarily alcohol -- is
probably the most significant barrier between a homeless person and his
or her own living space. Vast quantities of money are poured into treatment
programs in most major cities. Whether or not they work appears to depend
more on the client than on the program. Perhaps when the client is ready,
the right program will appear. To test these waters, consider the following
Internet resources: The "community" at Delphi