Are you ready? It’s Tuesday. Let’s do some myth busting just for fun. In my Facebook feed this morning, just in the first couple of minutes that I was looking, I saw articles on poor people, and working people, and poor people who work but can’t afford basic needs, and homeless people. Oh yeah, and comments about health insurance and who should have what and the inevitable comments from people who are tired of supporting health insurance for other people. Don’t forget those.

If I’m completely honest, it wasn’t a pleasant way to wake up this morning. Then beyond finding it irritating, it actually made me angry.

Yes, by all means, let’s talk about poor people and poor people who work and people who are homeless and what they all deserve. Here’s my angle on this, for anyone reading who has not met me in person. I’m probably as middle class as it gets. I have a great job that I love. I’m a home owner. I have some dogs that are very opinionated at all the wrong times of day. I have a master’s degree, I am involved in my community, and I’m nice to older people, little kids and puppies.

All of those things are true.

You know what else is true? I’ve been homeless. I’ve been poor. And I’ve been uninsured.

And are you ready for THIS? Here’s where it gets REALLY crazy.  I was working when it happened!

I know. I know.  Take a minute. You may have to percolate on that a bit. I didn’t become homeless because I did something “wrong”. I wasn’t trying to scam the system and get something for nothing. It didn’t ever occur to me to ask. The simple fact is that I became homeless…lacking in a permanent domicile…when my remaining parent died and the house I grew up in got put up for sale.

That’s all it took. It wasn’t a long, slippery slope of mistakes or accidents or bad judgment calls. It wasn’t bankruptcy brought on by medical bills that I couldn’t afford, although that happens all too often. It wasn’t unemployment, although a lot of folks are only a couple of missed paychecks away from becoming housing vulnerable or homeless. There was nothing about it that could be judged the way we tend to judge people who are homeless. I was 17 years old. I was suddenly and unexpectedly without a parent, then suddenly and unexpectedly without a home. Oh…the job? Yes, I still had the job. It was 1982 and I was making near minimum wage, flipping burgers in fast food. I earned $3.25 an hour. At the highest point in that job, I made an entire $3.65 an hour.

A few of my family members stepped up to help. I stayed for a while with a cousin. Then I stayed for a while with Marie, the father’s long-term significant other. Then I couch surfed with a friend. Occasionally, I told Marie I was with the friend and I told the friend I was at Marie’s and then I just slept in my car because I was so afraid to be a drain on either of them.  Then I stayed for a while with my sister. Then I went away to college on grants that my sister helped me apply for, because at $3.25 an hour, it would have been tough to pay for on my own.

In the space of ten months, I lived in six different places with four different family configurations, while attempting to cope with the father’s death and other circumstances of my family of origin. There’s also nothing in there to be judged. My family tried to help as best they could. There was nothing anyone could do that would have resurrected my dead parents so that I could go home.

You want to know the funny part? I was 27 before I realized that I had been homeless. That never occurred to me either. How could I have been homeless? I stayed with people. I had a car. I had a job. That’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard! Of course, I wasn’t homeless.

Working at The Salvation Army Women’s Shelter in Syracuse, I heard the HUD definition of homeless for the first time. I worked in a homeless shelter. Go figure!  No great mystery THERE.  Anyway, hearing that concept sent me into a tailspin. In the language of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, I was a category within a category. I was an Unaccompanied Child within the larger category of being homeless.

Unaccompanied Children are people who are not part of a family or in a multi-child household during their episode of homelessness, and who are under the age of 18.   ~HUD definition of terms (

At 27, I had to reorganize myself around this. I had been…homeless…by all of the definitions that HUD offered. Having a job hadn’t mattered. I worked 39 hours a week from the time I turned 16, which was as many hours as I could legally take on without being called a full time employee. I worked those hours through my junior and senior years of high school, on the honor roll for most of that time. I did it the entire time I would have been considered homeless. In other words, I worked my ass off. And I had to take into consideration that I could have been viewed as a term a former supervisor taught me (and also taught me to fight against)—I was one of the “deserving poor” who had become homeless through no fault of my own, simply through a series of occurrences over which I had little or no control.

So here I sit these days, reading my Facebook feed and headline news and political comments about poor people and homeless people and I reflect on my home ownership and my master’s degree and I have to reconcile that every day that I am one of those people. I am one of those people that folks rail against, and not just because I ultimately became a social worker. I was one of THOSE. I was OTHER.

I am no longer homeless. I haven’t been in a long time. But a very smart person observed to me not long ago that we are always all of the ages that we have ever been. Don’t you love that idea? In a way, I guess that means I’ll always have a little part of me that is 17 and just trying to graduate from my high school, washing my school uniform shirt with a load of towels at work so it would be clean for the next day and waking up stiff and cold in my car in my employer’s parking lot.

If you haven’t had a chance to try it, I highly recommend that before you decide what anyone needs or deserves, that you sleep for a few cool, damp, spring nights behind the wheel in a 1973 Pinto in a fast food parking lot. Then come back to me and we’ll discuss poverty and what people who are poor and/or homeless deserve. The catch is, though, that if you have somewhere else you CAN go, it doesn’t really count.

People who are poor don’t look a certain way. People who are homeless don’t look a certain way. And they don’t need to look like what we THINK they need to look like to be the “deserving poor”. I looked like a 17 year old kid with a bad haircut and a Catholic school uniform. No one would have picked me out of a crowd. I went to school—and to work—day after day and no one knew.

People who are poor and people who are homeless aren’t all out there looking for a free ride and planning to stay on what scraps we deign to offer them as support benefits for the rest of their lives. Sometimes, we need a break. Sometimes we need a hand. I happened to get both. Sometimes we just need someone to be frickin’ kind to us. I got that too. Now I can’t help but wonder how much of my getting those things had to do with the fact that I was a white kid in a Catholic school uniform. One does have to ponder THAT question.

I grew up to be an executive director. Good stuff can happen for people who are poor and people who are homeless when they get A) a break and B) a hand and C) a little frickin’ kindness. So, for the folks sounding off in Facebook feeds and political posts about “the poor” and “the homeless” and “the needy”, seriously…until you’ve walked a mile in my sneakers, or slept on that park bench, or driven a few miles in my Pinto, as it were, I just can’t put a lot of stock into anything you’re carrying on about over what people need and deserve. Stop adding to the myths and misinformation out there and go find your bench.

Dedicated to the supervisor who taught me that there’s no such thing as the “deserving poor.”  Thank you, Liz.





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