“Spring 2017: Those No One Sees”, another Primavera Foundation – inspired essay re causes of homelessness

Featured painting by Umar Rashid aka “Frohawk Two Feathers.” Image courtesy of University of Arizona Museum of Art. Photograph by this author. 16 March 2019

Rough sleepers no one sees

Even among the unseeables, though, there is a layer of humanity below those I just mentioned. Many of these would be included among the untouchables, those persons so low in Indian society that they fit nowhere within the structure of a divinely –created Hindu caste system. Also known as Dalits, Indian society considers them impure from birth. As such, they are often work menial jobs in agriculture or clean latrines and sewers by hand. In a world in which more than seven out of ten of us live on $10 or less a day, these unseeables live on less than $2 a day for a family of four.

These are those souls you saw standing dazed with unkempt hair and misfit clothes outside the Old Town Farmers Market the day you took your daughter to celebrate her first day of kindergarten. They’re the very same people you now see standing dazed outside the same farmers market as you take that same daughter to celebrate the launch of her new clothing line. These are the ones who have nothing and who will likely always have nothing. Those who no church or Eagle Scout or Junior League project will ever “fix.” Their photos and stories will never be touted as “success stories” in fund raising campaigns. We won’t drag them in front of the media so they can tell us how their whole lives have turned around because of those of us who care. Many of these unseeables are among the more than twenty percent of the U.S. homeless population who suffer from schizophrenia, bipolar, aka manic, depression, or severe depression. Their mental illnesses place them among those who USA Today found are 16 times more likely to be killed by cops than the rest of us.

It is true that modern brain science now makes it possible for many who suffer from these conditions to earn professional degrees, hold down jobs, raise children, and keep a place to live if they get and take the right medications and therapy. But, as one California woman who slept rough for twenty years told USA Today in 2014, “On the streets, you don’t have time to get treated. You are trying to survive.” Many homeless persons whose treatment includes taking psychiatric medications routinely have them stolen, and many of the drugs are harder to replace now than they used to be.

For political advantage or due to ignorance, many still claim that anybody who wants a government check gets a government check. If there was ever a time when that was true, it is not today. As FiveThirtyEight reported in 2016, in the years since President Clinton signed into law comprehensive welfare reform, the number of low-income families who receive cash assistance dropped from 68 out of every 100 families to 23 out of 100 in 2014.

Social Security Disability Insurance also pays to far fewer persons than some still think. The truth is that many who sleep rough can’t get SSDI anyway. If an SSDI applicant never worked for an employer who paid in her FICA taxes or if she didn’t otherwise pay FICA taxes for the past ten years, she hasn’t paid enough into disability insurance to receive payments.

But even if she is eligible to receive payments from her Social Security Disability Insurance, it’s pretty hard for anyone, let alone a person who sleeps behind a dumpster, who can’t read, or whose mind functions at a fourth-grade level, to satisfy SSA’s complex, record-dependent standards. These require an SSA applicant to collect and submit extensive historic, medical, and other records required to even get considered for assistance.

These records are often scattered across the country in ERs and hospitals that accept emergency patients who don’t have insurance. And even if she does collect them, it’s hard for her to keep such records safe in a shopping cart, from the jailer who throws away these critical documents as he books her after an arrest for urinating behind some bushes at a local park, and from public officials and landowners who routinely run off the homeless from the spots where they try to sleep. As for those unseeables who can’t work because of mental illness, developmental delays or another condition that damages her ability to think and remember, the task of knowing what she is supposed to do and how to do it is akin to asking her to turn rye into wheat.

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