Haunted by the Ghost of Homelessness

You’re never ‘not homeless,’ even when you think you’re not.

Whatever sunshine you see for a moment, a scary storm can lurk for those escaping homelessness. Photo by Diane Nilan

The key to escaping poverty and homelessness is a job, right? Not so fast, buckaroo.

How many people who thought that, and followed that prescribed route, have found out the ugly truth? I’d guess millions.

The ugly truth is that if you were in debt before becoming homeless — kind of a guaranteed condition for most — those debts can come back to haunt you. Big time.

Case in point — MelissaT, whose story I’m deeply familiar with, so I know it’s solid.

She’s been not homeless, with her 11-year-old daughter, for almost 2 years. She’s intelligent, capable, and wants to work. She’s doesn’t suffer from addictions. She’s got a few physical issues, but she’s more than able to earn a living, childcare issues notwithstanding.

Today she showed me 3 official (State of Kansas agencies) documents. The short story is that in a previous lifetime, before she became homeless (the result of a divorce and accompanying economic disaster), she didn’t pay a $94 water bill.

She called the collection agency which last week sent a sheriff to deliver a summons for that bill (how much did that cost?). She wanted to pay her debt. In the process of a horribly nasty call, the collection agency rep told her that the water bill was now at least $275 (fees and interest) and she also had unsettled debt with a bank, about $500, over 12 years ago, a lifetime for her, which now tops out at over $700.

To make matters worse — she’s worked for more than 2 months, but still hasn’t gotten paid. It’s a project sponsored by a university, so it’s not like the employer doesn’t have money. She keeps getting told 2 more weeks. For her, a lifetime since she rubs nickels together to cover her and her daughter’s modest lifestyle. She doesn’t want to stumble back into homelessness.

Before she even gets her check, which will be $900, this state agency sends her an official notice that they’re getting the money the university owes but hasn’t paid to solve these past debts, which have ballooned into $875 (at least) with court costs and interest. Of course.

She has no recourse. (Don’t second guess her and her current financial situation. That will insult this diligent, loving mother and it will piss me off, making you the subject of my next post.)

What do I tell this devoted mother who’s experienced an incredible (but sadly normal) amount of trauma?

Trauma is something that overwhelms your coping capacities and confronts you with the thought: “Oh my God, it’s all over, and there’s nothing I can do. I’m done for. I may as well die.” (Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk)

We checked with a local shelter director who pointed us to a credit counseling organization. Mel called right away and awaits a return call from what is a beleaguered agency.

She’s already cleared up over $4000 past debts in order to get into subsidized housing — she owed the housing authority about $2500 and the rest was for utilities that she had to have in order to be allowed to become a tenant. She didn’t have the money. I “dialed for dollars” to raise it.

And this conundrum doesn’t even begin to touch the approximately $5000 for a defaulted student loan. The feds have yanked her tax refund to partially cover that. They’ll be back.

Sharing the spoils — vultures await their turn — unlike collection agencies. Photo by Diane Nilan

I can assure readers that she’s not alone in this financial duress. Millions more are in the “we are screwed because we owe more than we’ll ever be able to repay” club. And for a growing number, debt = prison, thanks in part to our Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Routine traffic tickets or even overdue student loan payments can set off a cycle of debt that also includes the suspension of a driver’s license or professional license and, in some cases, jail time. A suspended driver’s license makes it nearly impossible to get to work. When a person can’t pay, courts add more fines on top of the original. If those fees aren’t paid, a jail sentence is imposed. Incarceration is also often meted out to low-income defendants facing misdemeanor charges who cannot afford to pay bond ahead of a court date. (Salon, 12/29/17)

For those who advocate for the HUD “answer” to homelessness du jour, Housing First (here’s my latest post on this topic), have you ever counted up how much it REALLY takes to stabilize a family once you plunk, er, place them into housing? Do you know that they, like Mel, will be haunted by past debts until they die or pay?

In a Google search for single parents in Mel’s situation, I didn’t find any comparisons. Actually, most, even scholarly institutions that I respect, were frustratingly clueless about this damned-if-you-work-damned-if-you-don’t status that can’t only be Mel’s.

Many of the policies that help those closest to the poverty line do little for those at the bottom of the heap, who may not be in position to do much to help themselves. The danger is that they remain stuck at the bottom, the very poorest citizens of one of the wealthiest nations on earth. (Brookings Institute)

So, and this is a direct question to you, my reader: what do you, a single parent, do when haunted by the ghost of past debts when you’re barely able to avoid returning to homelessness?

I’d suggest the rest of us buy stock in debtor prison businesses.

Incarceration is a lucrative enterprise, for some. Photo by Diane Nilan

Founder/pres. HEAR US Inc., gives voice & visibility to homeless families & youth, ran shelters, advocate, filmmaker, author, 15 yrs. on US backroads.

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