What seems like a simple trip to the supermarket, convenience store, department store, or local mall is not nearly as simple or convenient to some people. So, the times when it can happen, it becomes an event, something worth remembering. After you’ve been caught in a rainstorm without your umbrella, you return home, soaking wet, throw your clothes on the floor or perhaps you indulge in the luxury of throwing them into the clothes dryer, strip off your socks and shoes and sink into dry clothes and some heat (let’s not even get into the value of a hot shower). Ah, socks. Those elusive objects that always seem to lose its pair in that bizarre Bermuda Triangle vortex located somewhere between the washer and dryer; they may seem like a conspiracy to make you buy more socks, but let us not stray too far from the point. Socks. After you’ve spent a few minutes or maybe hours in a pair of wet socks, your feet have never felt so good as when you take those off and slip your feet into a clean, dry pair. It seems almost shameful to take this for granted. Socks to those who are homeless (and have been for many months or years) are as valuable and necessary as food. Socks can be as valued as money is on the stock market. We know. When you walk for miles daily, in the heat, or cold, or rain, your feet not only ache but are made that much more painful because they are wet with sweat or too long in the rain. Blisters become a certainty, cracking and bleeding almost inevitable. Dry socks are tantamount to not only comfort but also well-being (and I don’t just mean psychological well-being; I’m talking about health). When you’re homeless, your feet are your main and only form of transportation. If you can’t walk, you may be out of an important job interview that may have finally secured you the steady means to get yourself off the street or you may not be able to make it to the local food kitchen for that day’s possibly sole meal. Socks may not seem like much, but I have seen the value in a clean, dry pair of socks.
In the city (Harrisburg, Pa) where we sometimes walk around (when mentally able), we have found not a single working water fountain. Oh, certainly, there is one or two located in distant spots, but they are not turned on. In the homeless world, particularly in the summer, water is a must. Despite being surrounded by many bodies of water (in the form of lakes, rivers, streams, and falling from the sky like manna), water can only be bought, else you may face some sort of legal trouble. A 20 oz. bottle of water can cost close to three dollars in some stores, and as much as five or six dollars, depending on the brand, and a gallon of water costs from sixty-nine cents for an off brand at the suburban supermarket to $1.49 in a convenience store, but when you are homeless not much is convenient. A trip to the supermarket involves getting on a bus or walking, and sometimes this is not at all convenient or possible (most of the homeless here are in the city proper, i.e., downtown) and although $1.49 may seem like spare or loose change, it’s like trying to make 100 dollars when you’re homeless. Water becomes as valuable as water seen in the film WaterWorld (starring Kevin Costner and Dennis Hopper); this may sound like an exaggeration, unfortunately, not when you are homeless in a city where free water barely exists without worry of punishment. The only place to get free water is by water fountain located at the local soup kitchen. It’s preposterous to us that you must pay for something as essential as water. A bottle or cup of water to someone homeless, the ability to quench your thirst, is value beyond price.
Paying for water is not the only piracy in this city. When you live in a house, going to the bathroom is a matter of walking down the hall or at the worst up or down a flight of steps. When you are homeless, it is a matter of walking miles only to find it closed (if it is past business hours. Oh, yes, there are marked hours when certain bathrooms are open). Should you arrive after closing, you’re met with a locked door and hurting bladder . . . or worse. Portable Toilets, you say. During the off-season, these are nowhere to be found. By off-season, I mean during the summer there is a local park open that is quite the well-trafficked attraction, but only during the summer. In the off-season, these portable toilets are removed and any public restroom is locked. In addition, this local park closes after sunset! Every local establishment is pay to pee: you must first buy something before you can use the restroom. A moment to sit on a throne and relieve yourself without having to pay or sneak can be beyond the benefits of royalty. It’s sickening that something so natural, so normal and routine, can be denied by the hours of a clock.
Bureaucracy: Let us end with the horrible hindrances caused by agencies and institutions to the homeless. Of the homeless Stephen and I met so far, very few have been the mythic crack addict or criminal. Most have been normal, average people who once had jobs and homes, but may have lost that job during a layoff or fallen on bad times so could not keep the home, had their home taken from them, or were a victim of some other atrocity. They were working people, who paid their bills, and followed the rules. It took but one unexpected loose thread and everything unraveled. Now, they are homeless and wanting to reenter the job force, but are denied because they do not have the valid, verifiable paperwork. When you’re homeless, paperwork is very difficult to come by. You can’t afford the money to obtain a proper ID or perhaps one that is no longer expired, you don’t always have easy and convenient access to the internet (a local downtown library is open during the week, but the line for getting on the few computers is often hours long), and that trip to the proper government office could cost $1.75 (for the bus) you don’t have because you needed it for that gallon of water. It’s nearly impossible to line up all the correct paperwork that allows you to obtain the correct paperwork. This is a typical story of the homeless we have met. We’re fortunate in that way, we have all our paperwork. Often the homeless are given the runaround, or are deliberately deceived by the customer service representatives (oh, yes, this does go on in the world) or are told the wrong information. Wrong information can be detrimental to someone homeless, because every minute counts, literally. Someone who can help and be truthful and reliable can be like winning the lottery to someone homeless. What stops homeless people from no longer being homeless is not their laziness or desire to live off the system, but the system itself! The homeless people we have met WANT to get a job, they WANT to pay rent or a mortgage, they WANT to pay their bills, but they can’t because they are hindered by the very system that says it can save them. What can save the homeless can come in the form of a base, a foundation from which to stand that won’t crumble, like an address, or access to a phone, or a hot shower and clean clothes. None of these are supplied by the system that says it can help, at least not without the proper paperwork and some verifiable ID.
A handout is not some spare change in the bottom of your purse or jingling loose in your pocket, or welfare, it’s a hand out, with something like socks, or a blanket, or a warm cup of coffee, or a toothbrush and toothpaste, or jug of water, without obligation. This, to our eyes, is the meaning of value to the homeless, sometimes more than money, it seems, because this can come without indebtedness attached. From what we have seen, what can be most valuable to someone homeless is an actual chance to get back on their feet.