Monday, September 9, 2013

The Silent Epidemic of Middle-Class Homelessness

 Yesterday, I ran into a friend of mine in Soho. I hadn’t seen him in a long time.
“Long time no see,” I said to him. “You look good.”
He shrugged in his self-deprecating Jewish way.
“Well, at least you’re eating regularly and you have a roof over your head,” I said.
He shook his head.
“You’re homeless?” I asked, half-joking.
He nodded.
“You’re kidding me!” I said.
He told me that he’d been sleeping on the F train for the last two years, with the exception of one month, when he was able to stay at a friend’s co-op, and his birthday (his 60th), when he treated himself to a room at the Y.
As I was talking to him, I realized that I personally knew four people who either are or have been homeless.
At this point, if you’re a Republican, you would probably say, “What’s wrong with these people?”
And I would say, “What’s wrong with our economy (and our society, in general) that people who were formerly what you would call ‘middle-class,’ people who played by the rules and did everything they were supposed to do, still wound up being homeless?”
It’s no surprise when people like Mitt Romney are tone-deaf on this issue. But the reality is that most politicians—Republican and Democrat—are so wealthy that they’ve lost touch with the challenges facing middle-class people. (And forget about the poor. Nobody even talks about them.)
My Soho friend, Norman (not his real name), is a photographer. I don’t know exactly what happened to his last apartment (he was living in New Jersey), but he’s been working as a messenger for the last few years because he couldn’t support himself as a photographer.
I have another friend who was recently forced to move back with his sister in Virginia because his landlord stopped accepting his rent check at the apartment he’d been subletting for the last 19 years. He had been working as a doorman at an apartment building in Soho, but quit his job, partly because the staggered hours were destroying his health. He retired shortly afterwards.
A third friend, who admittedly had certain mental health issues that prevented him from working in office buildings—a serious liability in a city like New York—slept for a period of time in a Korean deli on Fifth Avenue and 13th Street before, after a long period in which he studied to be a priest among other things, he found a room in a house upstate. I’m not sure what he’s doing for a living now, but I know that at one point when he was still sleeping at the Korean deli, he was distributing flyers for a copy center.
A fourth friend, formerly a successful architect, has had to move back with his family on Long Island because he hasn’t been able to find work as an architect. I’m not sure what he’s been doing for money the last few years.
As you can see, some of my friends have been forced to take jobs (messenger, flyer distributor, doorman) that would make it hard for them to find so much as an apartment share, let alone their own apartment, in a city as expensive as New York. So what we’re seeing is a crisis in jobs, as well as housing.
A fifth friend just started a new job at half his normal salary after being unemployed for almost two years. Fortunately for him, he owns his apartment and had received a substantial severance package when he left his previous job.
But most people who describe themselves as “middle-class” are just one crisis away—one job loss, one medical emergency—from being homeless.
So the next time some Republican tries to blame a homeless person for being homeless, I would say, “There but for the grace of God go you.”
And I.

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