Under the Boot

Back in the day, I used to be an activist. I hit my brakes for picket lines; couldn't pass one without picking up a sign. One-- a Teamster strike-- I stayed with for nine months and the scabs nicknamed me the "Bullhorn Bitch." I picketed with a grandmother who was evicted from public housing when the standards for evictions were applied unequally, probably because she was a well known activist and advocate for public housing residents and an outspoken radio talk show host. I rallied with farmworkers, walked with strikers, marched against economic exploitation, police brutality, and Bush's attack against Social Security. I demonstrated with members of the American Indian Movement.

One thing I had back then was housing, as precarious as it was. See, there's no such thing as a "permanent" apartment, or even a permanent mortgage, because shit happens, and working for any employer who is not an immediate family member is never "stable" employment. But I had a lease, and my rent didn't quite reach 50% of my take home pay--yet-- so I at least had a home to return to at the end of the march, a place to rest my weary feet, to shower off the day's road dirt and sweat, to print out more leaflets and petitions, answer phone calls and emails. It all begins and ends with Home.

Home is so important. It keeps you grounded, stabilized, sheltered from life's storms. Ask any young adult who grew up bouncing through a series of foster homes just how important a stable home is. My sincere apologies to anyone reading this who grew up in foster care and found it to be a positive experience, and to those selfless individuals who've opened their homes and hearts to parentless kids. I have talked with people who came out of foster care and wound up on the streets as young adults, and their stories underscored the importance of a stable home, especially for kids. I'm only making the point here in this post that everything begins and ends with HOME. A home headed by a stable single mom (or dad) can be more nurturing than a home with two parents who are at war with each other and abusing drugs and alcohol. We know this. Moving from one temporary home to another is not the most stabilizing experience, for a child or an adult. That's what I'm saying.

This particular post is an essay, not news reporting, so it draws on personal experience, and impressions gathered from the stories of others.

For the first time since I don't know when, I'm sleeping in a bed. The couch was OK, but very narrow. The plastic chairs I slept on were hell on my back. The futon mattress I slept on in my apartment was good, but it's in storage now. My lease ran out in June. I paid another month, and stayed through July, then I sold my car, while I still had a good "relationship" with it, and decided to see what else is in the world.

This bed in this room is my third temporary home since August. I will be leaving for home # 4 this weekend, and a few days later, #5.

This city I'm in is the city I love. I was born a few miles upstate. The energy here matches mine, in most areas. The climate suits me. But, how do you live here without a place to live?

People line up, as one Daily News reporter wrote recently, for jobs that pay $10.75 an hour, in a city where $900 is considered low rent. Landlords expect you to have a job before they'll rent to you, but why would anyone accept a job when they don't know where they'll be commuting from? If it's this hard to find an apartment when you're not working and have plenty of free time, how are you going to look for a place when you're working all day? How do you begin to put your life's pieces together without a home base? (That job in Montana is looking better all the time.)

I think about the homeless woman I met in a Manhattan shelter. She spent all her money on hotels, she said, and then wound up in the shelter, trying to sleep on chairs. Then she left the shelter for the streets. She has no money, has health problems. She has worked, but because of when she worked, she can't qualify for social security.

The place I'm in now is OK. It's no frills, but I've been in much worse. The bathroom is shared. There is no kitchen, so you eat restaurant food, or street food. It's not free, and it's not cheap. There's a young woman here with an infant in her arms, and I want to ask her: how do you bathe your baby here? Because there are no bathtubs, only showers.

It all begins with home. I don't need an MSW to know that. When you have no home, the boot is on your neck. It chokes off your energy. There's nothing left for marches or causes or activism. When I get really fired up, I send out an angry e-mail or sign an online petition. It's all about survival. There are more and more people out there, in this city and in every American city fighting to make it every day, consumed by the struggle to find decent, affordable shelter. It's a struggle that supersedes all others.

Maybe that's why I used to be an activist. If this sounds somewhat obscure, it's meant to be.

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