March 04, 2014

Homeless 12: A Damn Job

Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange
of the Farm Security Administration
This is one of the single most famous images
from the Dust Bowl/Great Depression era.
"Why don't you just get a JOB?"

About a week ago now, an old friend of mine from college asked me to address this question, because she knows that so many people ask it of individuals in a situation like mine. My friend understands what my answer would be, but felt that since I'm actually having the experience and she is not, I am best suited to explain the complexity of this question. I am grateful to her for the suggestion, and for her understanding.

Still, I put off addressing this issue until today, for two reasons: (1) The fact that I keep smacking up against the brick wall of this very question angers me so much that I'm almost incapable of crafting coherent sentences. (To all those who have helped me without judging me, thank you so much; you get why I'm infuriated sometimes, and your kindness encourages me to carry on.) I apologize now for the angry tone of this post; I sound angry because I'm...angry. (2) Having to try and explain this, demonstrate in words that it's not nearly this simple, craft a response that will broaden someone else's view beyond such facile "answers" to problems like poverty and homelessness, is a daunting--even exhausting--task at the best of times, let alone when conditions like PTSD reduce your list of daily goals to things like "remember to eat at least once today" and "take a shower." Yet, I will attempt it, and I hope somebody finds it useful. Allow me to deal with the larger question by addressing those two factors one at a time.

(1) Why does the question anger me so? I understand why the question exists, and why people who have never faced long-term unemployment or homelessness would ask it. It seems like there's a large helping of laziness involved in finding one's self in this position; after all, we live in the fabled "Land of Opportunity!" I get it. My anger can best be explained with an image, I feel.

Image on left from Simple Life Abundant Life
Image on right by Pineapple XVI

I have been a Christian my whole life, most of it spent as a Fundamentalist Evangelical, and I admit freely that the issues I'm facing now were only a distant thought to me, something to be "tutted" over, until recently. I get that, too, and I indict myself, first and foremost, as the chiefest of sinners (I Timothy 1:15). The point is, we will actually spend energy and internet space researching what the Bible says about essential oils! What Christ said about the poor, the needy, the hungry, was very clear. "Give to those who ask" (Matthew 5:42); "...freely you have received, freely give" (Matthew 10:8); "...give, and it will be given to you. ...for the measure you give will be the measure you get back" (Luke 6:38). Time and time and time again and myriad times over, Christ instructed His hearers to give to the poor, with no exemption for WHY they needed help, how they got where they were, what the giver suspected the receiver would do with the money. NO EXCEPTIONS. Christ learned a trade; He could have earned His living. Yet He had "nowhere to lay his head" (Luke 9:58). I'm not even talking about me now; I have a place to sleep tonight, because one of my dearest friends in life took her Master's instructions to heart. I am talking about this country's schizophrenic behavior over the teachings of Scripture, always asking what the Bible says about gay marriage, and internet pornography, and marijuana, and twerking, and South Park--all of them things which the Bible never addressed because they didn't exist yet--and meanwhile hosting seminars in churches about how to control donations given to the poor to ensure that they're not used in ways of which churchfolk wouldn't approve. The beam and the mote. Look it up.
(2) Why isn't it as simple as getting a job? When I started writing this series, I discovered quickly that to be effective, I would have to publish for all the world to read details that I once would have shared only with my mother and a handful of my most trusted friends. Some of you have been impressed, some shocked, and some openly disapproving of me airing my private skeletons on a blog. To all of you, it's about to get really TMI ("too much information") in here. Sorry, but it's the only way I can answer the question.

One of my closest living relatives (and there aren't so many left that I can spare any) told me to my face that they would never believe my claims of PTSD, anxiety, and depression, never believe that those conditions left me unable to work, never believe that I was anything but a mooch and a professional victim. I'll never convince that person; I have their word on it. That conversation is why I feel exhausted by the thought of sharing all this. It feels pointless. But it's the only way.

Let's start with student loans. When I entered college, student loans were being sold to the youth of this country as "good debt," i.e. a sound investment in a lucrative future, and therefore not unwise or unsafe or short-sighted. And then, loan companies lobbied congress until those loans became virtually impossible to discharge even in bankruptcy. Guess what? Student loans are the same sort of indentured servitude as any other debt, and the next big crash we face will be as a result of student loan defaults. If you thought the "housing bubble" was bad when it burst, just hide and watch what the "student loan bubble" does to the economy when it blows. So I was in $133,000 worth of federal loan debt and $30,000 of private loan debt when I finished my most recent degree, and had been caring for both my disabled parents as best I could while a full-time student--undergraduate, then graduate--and sometimes working two jobs on campus. My mother called me during an exam once to say that my father had been taken to the hospital. Again. I had to call in one day and tell one of my bosses that I would miss three days of work because Mom went to the ER. Again. Are we REALLY that shocked that when my dad died, the panic attacks were so bad at first that I literally could not stand up off my bed? Could you hold down a job in that state? After expecting them to die since I was 16 (in Dad's case, and since I was 4 in Mom's), is four years of recovery time since I lost my mother that difficult to understand? And when I couldn't make monthly payments, the lenders slapped on late fees until my debt reached almost $500,000. My grandchildren couldn't have paid that off.

PTSD. The specter that changed everything, when my body and mind said, "You've run on the adrenaline of waiting for someone to die for 32 years. Time to pay the piper." And because of PTSD, my student loans were finally discharged. For the next three years, the Department of Education is closely watching what I make; money from government aid doesn't count against this total, but I have a very tight cap on how much I can actually earn each month. It's not enough to live on; it's just enough to lose me the food stamps and cash assistance I spent the last 6 months fighting every day to get. "A job at McDonald's" would both starve me and cripple me financially, all without giving me enough earnings to get my little girl back. And make no mistake--that is not just my goal, but the reason I'm still alive.

Photo by LSDSL
"You shouldn't have taken out the loans, then," my family member insisted. Very helpful. If I could go back and tell my 18-year-old self that, I certainly would. I'm just waiting for my flying DeLorean to arrive, and I'll get right on that. Believe me, I warn every child I know who is planning on going to college someday to find some other source of funding, or learn to enjoy waiting tables. I didn't wake up one morning and decide to defraud anyone; I planned to become a professor and teach Religious Studies at a university. I still plan to do it. I am not so beaten yet that I have given up on digging out of this hole and fulfilling my dreams. If you are frustrated with me because I haven't yet become a productive consumer and contributed enough to the GDP, keep watching this space. Oh, and in the spirit of "Don't forget to tip your waiters!," thank the next stay-at-home mom you see for raising a future generation, and apologize to her if you've ever said that "women like that need to get a job"; she's got one. Look in the eyes of a homeless person who is much worse off than I am and say, "I love you exactly as you are at this moment, as Jesus told me to, and here's $20, because He told me to."

1 comment:

  1. OMG. I so agree with the Students Loans. I feel like those will NEVER be paid off! And between mine and my husband's combined amount, (no where near yours, but enough) we will never be paid in full! Our generation was definitely lied to about loans! I talk about this all the time.


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