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Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The fine line between homelessness and the rest of us

By Wendy Alexander
Vagrant. Transient. Derelict. Vagabond. Street person. Displaced. There is not just one definition of "homeless." When people think of the homeless, images of troubled kids and drunks on the street come to mind, along with beggars of spare change, blocked sidewalks at City Hall, and police rousing those sleeping under bridges.
Media images present faces of the grimy and booze-addled. We notice those on the side of the road with a sign "œWill work for food" or "œDreams of a Cheeseburger."  But what about those you work with? Kids your kids go to school with? The person in the car next to you during rush hour trying to get to work? A college student?
I have written about the indignities of poverty and how it is to have to degrade oneself to have to ask for help to get by (Nov. 18, 2007, The Oregonian). In the last couple years, I have found myself in even more dire straits when I could not afford to pay my rent, utilities, and buy food or clothing for my kids.
I was officially homeless for a year. I prettied it up and called it "œdisplaced" because "œhomeless" sounded like those people walking around downtown Portland talking to themselves and asking for change, but it was homeless.
WENDYALEXANDER_11781895.JPGView full sizeWendy Alexander
My children and I were living in someone else's home, sleeping in living rooms and on couches and I was sharing a room with my teenage daughter while my son was sleeping in the family room. All the while, I had a job. I went from full time work, to part-time work and back to full time work, while going to school online, all in that year.
My oldest daughter, Samantha, attending college in Washington state, also had no place to call home. She was sleeping on friends' couches from night to night and several times even slept in her car. It was her last year and we were selling anything we could to pay for her to eat and get to the schools where she was student teaching.
According to a survey by the American Payroll Association in September 2012, more than two-thirds of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck. Essentially, that means that any financial emergency could put someone on the street.
In 2011, the Hillsboro School District had more than 450 homeless childrenattending school. Kristin Ludwig, a homeless liaison for the Hillsboro School District and Community Action Family Shelter, helped me and my kids when we were homeless; she helped keep my kids in school and works with kids from all types of homelessness. These are not vagrants and beggars; they are kids, with working parents who want to keep them in school and give them a better life.
While teaching in Washington, my daughter's school had a "œDress Like a Hobo Day." Obviously, this is meant to be a fun dress-up day for the staff and kids. But what was supposed to be a spirited entertainment turned into a public mockery of abject poverty. The interpretation of "œhobo"  was kids dressing filthy and straggly. My daughter Samantha overheard some kids poking fun at others and making jokes about how one girl was not dressed up for hobo day because she dressed like that all the? time.
One student asked my daughter, her teacher, why she did not dress up like a homeless person. My daughter replied that she just didn'™t want to participate that day, as another staff member looked on quizzically. After the student left, Samantha confided to the other staff member, "œThis IS how I dressed when I was homeless."
Recently, I had a medical emergency that took me from work in an ambulance. I missed several days of work, and incurred some substantial costs on top of already-high medical bills (mind you, I have insurance through my employer). Because of this one incident, I am in danger of ending up back where I was a year ago, not being able to pay my rent, keep on my lights, and again, struggling to keep food in the house.
This week alone, I had to choose between a few days worth of food or new shoes for my son. His shoes are still passable, so food it is. I am lucky in that my insurance pays for all my diabetes medicine and testing supplies, but too many others must choose between food and medicine.
None of this is meant to be a political soapbox speech. This is not a woe-is-me story either. I have a good job and if I had a two-income household right now, I might be just fine. I freely admit, I am better off than many. But people need to realize that while media images of the filth and homeless camps are off-putting, the fact is, you may be working next to, eating lunch next to, or even commuting next to someone who is currently without a home but still a contributing and valuable person in society.
I recently considered making a sign to hold on the side of the road. I have little to nothing of value to sell to try to get by and just could not think of another option to keep the lights on.
I couldn't decide what my sign should say. "œHard working Mom and student needs to keep the electricity on"? "œSingle working parent needs help with utilities, but makes too much to get public assistance"? "I'™m already working and can't buy food"?
It can happen so fast. Lose a job, have a medical emergency, maybe come up with a deductible for a car accident. Can you take a thousand-dollar hit in a month and still be fine? What about a couple thousand? Fall one month behind and it can spiral out of control. What would your sign say?
Wendy Alexander and her family live in Hillsboro. Wendy works in Hillsboro for a Portland-based construction company and she is also a full time student with a double major of Journalism and Mass Communication and Social and Criminal Justice.

Stolen entire from The Oregonian.

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