I’m not the kind of person who gets all weepy about the plight of the poor and oppressed. On the other hand, poverty is something I understand from direct personal experience. When I was a kid my family was homeless for a period of time. We lived in a car, took sponge baths in gas station bathrooms, and scraped by with very little for a long time. We gradually worked our way up to a really crappy apartment in a bad neighborhood. Things eventually got better, but it took years. Later, as a teenager, I dropped out of school, left home, and lived precariously. Poverty isn’t an abstract philosophical concept for me.
I have to say, the whole time my family struggled we never thought of ourselves as homeless or even poor. We always felt like an ordinary middle class family that just happened to be in between places for a while. My parents were good people. They worked hard. But they were young and had no money or resources to draw upon. It takes more effort than many people realize just to pull together first and last month’s rent and a deposit for utilities. Maintaining even the very basics when you have no reserves is rough. A flat tire or short term illness is sometimes all it takes to set you back a long way. So when I see homeless people I don’t automatically dismiss them as some alien species.
I rode my bike to the hardware store this morning and bumped in to Valerie again. I see her about once a week and we chat. She lives in a little house she built herself with scavenged scrap material. The base is a shipping pallet, the walls are plywood, and the roof is waterproofed with a vinyl banner that depicts the Golden Gate Bridge. At sixty one Valerie is in better shape than I am, super clean, and apparently level headed based on all my interactions with her. She’s really proud of her house and she’s happy to give a tour and talk about its various features.
Valerie’s house is on heavy duty casters so it’s theoretically mobile, although she’s been in the same spot for a long time. The cops know her and the wheels give them the cover they need to let her stay since the house isn’t a permanent encumbrance to the public right-of-way. The cops prefer to bust truly dangerous characters instead. Valerie doesn’t bother anyone.