Sitting here in 86’ sunlight with a humidity index crawling into the upper 90s and major thunderstorms forecast for later, I’m wondering where I’ll eat tonight and sleep tomorrow. Wrapped up in my immediate problems, it’s easy to lose sight of how many folks share my dilemma of being poor, homeless and hungry. The statistics are staggering and reflect a plight that stretches across the country.
According to the USDA, in 2010 – the last full year for which numbers are available – nearly 49 million people lived without basic food security. Put more starkly – if that’s possible – one out of six Americans or 17% of us who think we live in the bread basket of the world don’t have enough to eat. More than 16 million of these people are children who go to bed hungry because there’s no food in the house.
Remember these numbers the next time you see a grotesquely overweight person waddling out of a doughnut shop or fast food joint. It shouldn’t take long to spot one; I see them every day and America seems to be filled with them.
Moreover, on any given night in the richest country on earth, nearly three-quarters of a million people are homeless, of whom almost one-fifth suffer from chronic homelessness. The figure includes an estimated 76,000 veterans, men and women who deserve more from their country.
“It’s our national disgrace,” observed Clara Bevins, a poverty activist in California. “There is no excuse for people to be without food or a roof over their head. This isn’t Somalia.”
I haven’t been homeless long enough to be considered a “chronic” sufferer but there are tons of people who do get counted in studies of the problem. The findings from a survey done by the National Alliance to End Homelessness ought to disturb everyone:
- Some 40% of homeless households’ income falls below the poverty line, roughly $22,000 annually.
- One-third of homeless families are headed by single women, a quarter by single men.
- Black and Hispanic households together make up more than half of all homeless families.
What this does to people – especially kids – is debilitating on a day-to-day basis; it’s horrifying when you think of how many people are affected.
Not having a place to call my own extracts an enormous emotional price every day. Beyond wondering “Where’ll I sleep tonight?” there is the problem of having your clothes and other belongings scattered all over town in the garages, attics and cellars of friends.
Even simple issues become daunting to the homeless.
I have to impose on friends to let me use their address as a mail drop.
Several days a week, I waste hours trying to secure a place to stay tonight – whether couch surfing or lining up at a shelter.
If I end up at a shelter, how will I recharge my cell phone and the WiFi laptop a friend in Ohio graciously sent so I can stay connected?
I know that by the standards of the homeless, I’m not truly homeless: Most nights someone has let me flop at their home and shower the next day. One friend let me stay for several weeks. But the toll drains your soul and spirit, and each morning requires summoning a fresh resolve to move ahead.
Some mornings that takes a huge effort, more than I think I have.
For the homeless, eating itself is a twofold problem: Getting food and preparing it.
While many shelters offer dinner and breakfast to overnighters, and a number of organizations provide free lunches, there are more hungry people than can be accommodated. Beyond this, food banks are incredibly useful and needed but without a home, where do you store and prepare what is handed out?
If I have something from a food bank, where will I cook it? If I have a little money to buy “used meat” – what my friend Irvin calls the marked-down items in a butcher counter that a store must sell today or toss out tonight – can I keep it in somebody’s freezer for a few days to kill off any bacteria? If I can afford a tomato, I know I have to eat it all today because there’s no fridge to keep the remainder fresh until tomorrow.
I’m unexpectedly offered a spare room at someone’s home tonight so I’ll have access to a stove. I will make pasta and open a can of no name peas to let me think I’m eating a vegetable. But since it’s my only night at this particular friend’s place, and my only meal today, I wonder how I’ll repackage the other half of the pasta bag to keep it fresh until the next time I can prepare a meal.
I suppose that the homeless live a little like our grandparents did in a time before adequate refrigeration. Whatever they bought today they ate tonight and my grandmother would shop again tomorrow.
There’ve been very few days in recent months when my stomach didn’t growl from hunger at some point during the afternoon. Maybe I’ll cook all of the pasta and “store calories.”
Author and journalist Charley James’ next book is about his experience becoming homeless. When published, Charley will donate a percentage of his advance and royalties to homeless organizations.
Follow Charley on Twitter @SuddenlyHomeles.