Before the year 2004, the word “classism” was not in my vocabulary. As a music teacher at a prestigious private elementary school and a private teacher of piano and voice, I schmoozed comfortably with those who could afford such high-quality education for their children. The fact that many of them lived in million dollar homes in the Bay Area suburbs of Hillsborough and Atherton, while I was only a renter, never seemed to enter the picture.
But then, a misdiagnosed medical condition, mistreated by an ill-prescribed medication, cost me my job, my car, my rented room and every penny of the $13,000 that I had in the bank. The medication caused changes in my behavior that became a concern to my employer, my clients and my landlord. It also affected my driving, causing drowsiness and culminating in an accident that totaled my car.
Shortly after the accident, my landlord terminated my lease on an “Owner Move In eviction,” claiming that his niece needed to take the room. On April 1, 2004, only six months after the medical problem began, I became homeless for the first time in my life, at the age of 51.
Everyone Else Knows Best
Naturally, my close friends and family members began to give me advice. But their advice never seemed to apply to my new situation. They also doubted the truth of my statements. It was hard for them to believe that both my laptop and cell phone had been stolen, though theft is commonplace on the streets.
Things like not being able to readily find a pay phone, or come up with change to use that phone, seemed inconceivable to them. It had never been a part of their experience, nor had it previously been a part of mine. I was terrified to ask strangers for change, and I simply did not do so.
Almost every day, I faced a new challenge of homelessness. In an often fruitless effort to obtain services, I would take long walks in the summer heat, and wait for hours in lines. Not eating well or regularly, I lost weight rapidly, and began to feel faint.
Because I lost so much weight from malnutrition, my family suspected I might have been “on drugs.” My desperate pleas for help were interpreted as signs of a mental health condition, which caused people to shun the idea of letting me stay in their homes. My failed efforts to access services were viewed as irresponsible laziness. And my attempts to describe my challenges were dismissed as complaints and excuses.
With no hope of help from family or friends, I finally decided I was unemployable, even though I had worked all my life. On January 1, 2007, I received my first disability check, which I supplemented by flying a sign on the streets. This was no longer a passing crisis. Homelessness had become my life.
While it is true that some homeless people are drug-addicted, mentally unstable or simply lazy, we also find plenty such people in the big mansions of the Bay Area.”
Class Privilege and Your Perceived Value
It took almost 10 more years before a casual acquaintance agreed to front me a one-way ticket to a low-rent district in another state. Here, I was able to rent a room for one-quarter of the cost it would have been in the Bay Area. Within three weeks, I applied for a part-time job as a church musician and was hired. Now, almost two years later, it is beginning to feel as though my homeless days are over for good. In this small college town in Northern Idaho, I have good friends, a supportive church and a volunteer position at a recovery center, where I try to help other people who have been through similar trials.
These experiences have caused me to reflect on the overall phenomenon of homelessness. While it is true that some homeless people are drug-addicted, mentally unstable or simply lazy, we also find plenty such people in the big mansions of Hillsborough and Atherton. It concerns me that wealthy people often assume homelessness to be the result of moral failing. In overlooking the factor of class entirely, they miss the biggest piece in the picture.
In large urban areas, the demand for housing simply exceeds the supply. But in order for this message to reach the ears of those in the privileged classes, the words of the homeless need to be taken for what they are. We need to stop assuming that statements from homeless people are only complaints, excuses, scams or cons of one form or another. We need to stop supposing that homelessness is anything other than what it is. People are not homeless because they are hardened criminals, hustlers or alcoholics. People are homeless because they do not have a home.