I need to get a few things out of the way. I am young. I am white. I am straight. And I am male. The world has virtually been designed for people like me to succeed. I cannot—and do not—claim to know the difficulties of people who fall into various marginalized groups. Yet, I am going to write about them.
In a recent interview with Slate Magazine, Jonathan Franzen, perhaps our country’s foremost literary voice, said that he would never venture to write a novel about race. He said that it was “dangerous” to presume that his “good intentions [were] enough to embark on a work of imagination about Black America.” Like me, Franzen is straight, white, and male. He believes there is something paradoxical about reaping the benefits of white privilege and then exploiting the struggles of people unlike him in his writing.
I hope this long-winded disclaimer will, instead, act as a preface for this article. I am going to write empirically about three interviews I conducted with homeless people while doing research for my senior thesis. The numbers vary, but the marginalized groups remain the same. People of different races and members of the LGBTQ community create a large portion of the homeless population, despite the fact that they make up only a small amount of the general U.S. population. Women do tend be homeless less often than men, but if they do become homeless, they are exposed to a drastically higher risk of disease, physical assault, and sexual assault than homeless men.
The idea which guides me is this: it is precisely people unlike me that have the highest risk of homelessness. So, in writing about these people, I have to consider the line that divides compassion and exploitation.
The Lunch Box is a one-room soup kitchen in Poughkeepsie, New York. It has six long cafeteria-style tables, a small kitchen, and several milk cartons against the back wall—some full of paperback books, others offering an assortment of nearly-rotten fruit and vegetables. It was almost Thanksgiving when I went. On the walls, cardboard pilgrims smiled next to cardboard turkeys. Red and green Christmas garlands added a tinge of off-season color. There were roughly forty people in the room. A few were white, some younger than I expected. But, most were older, black men.
I had mentally rehearsed my elevator-pitch to a mechanical degree. Be quick. Be direct. Do not offend.
My name is Derek. I’m a student at Marist College and I’m working on a senior thesis about local homelessness. Would you be open to answering a few questions?
Homeless families consist of 33 percent of the total U.S. homeless population.
The first person I spoke to was a 43-year-old woman. She said that her husband, a roofer, herniated two discs in his back and got laid off because of the injury.
“How long have you been homeless for?” I asked her.
“Not long at all,” she said. “It’s only been a couple weeks. We haven’t slept on the streets or anything yet. We just got evicted from our house and we’ve been staying in the shelter since then.”
She said that she had two kids, both of whom were staying with their grandparents. She added that there wasn’t enough room for her and her husband to stay there as well.
“What do you think is the hardest part about being homeless?” I asked.
“Oh, I really couldn’t say. Like I said, it’s only been a few days.”
“As somewhat of an outside observer then, do you feel like Dutchess County is doing enough to help the homeless?”
“Well, that’s a tough question too,” she said. “I don’t know if I feel comfortable answering it. I can tell you that my husband and I have found ways to get food and we’ve also had some help from my parents. I guess it’s finding a job that’s really the hardest part.”
She went on to say that she had been offered a job as a taxi driver in Poughkeepsie, but she couldn’t afford the $43 fee needed to upgrade her driver’s license from a Class D to a Class C.
Her husband came over midway through the interview, looking quizzical, but stern. I explained why I was there and asked if he wanted to be interviewed as well. He declined and said that he and his wife should leave.
37 percent of homeless people in America are black.
The second person I spoke to was a 31-year-old black man. He said he had been born into poverty and had lived in Poughkeepsie his entire life.
“How long have you been homeless?” I asked.
“About four years now.”
“How did you become homeless?”
“I think a few things made it happen. First, a lot of it has to do with drugs.”
Without being prompted, he said he had gone from pot to coke to heroin.
“But, I only became homeless after my mom died a few years ago,” he added. “My dad kicked me out because I couldn’t get clean. But, I think it’s this city too.”
“What do you mean?”
“I know it’s my fault [that I’m homeless], but the city doesn’t give a fuck about us. There’s nothing really proactive to help people before they become homeless. Then, once you do, it’s almost impossible to get back on your feet. I’ve heard that Poughkeepsie is better than most places. They’ve got a lot more shelters and stuff, but I’m telling you, it’s impossible.”
“What’s the hardest part about being homeless?”
“I think it’s boredom. I try to find things to do most days, but it gets so boring.”
This answer stood out to me. Most people I spoke to that night said sleeping in the cold or constantly looking for food were the most difficult parts.
“There was one time when I didn’t talk to anyone for like two weeks,” he said. “It was before I really knew about shelters or places like this. But, I went so long without even having a conversation with someone. I think that was the hardest part.”
One in five homeless people in America suffer from mental illness.
The last man I approached was sitting by himself. He was white, boasted a beard that covered his Adam’s apple, and, at sixty-two-years-old, he was the oldest person I interviewed all night.
I quickly felt that his answers and mannerisms were consistent with someone experiencing mental health issues. He spoke tirelessly, but without direction. Throughout our conversation—nearly half an hour long—he often made claims which undercut previous ones.
“How did you become homeless?” I asked.
“I became homeless after my parents were forced to leave the coven [an organization of witches],” he said. “My parents went against the superiors and they kicked us out. After that, we didn’t have a place to live.”
“How long have you been homeless?”
“On and off for thirty years.”
**Derek Rose is currently a Master of Fine Arts candidate in creative writing at Columbia University. He likes sitcoms without laugh tracks, movies without climaxes, and books about antiheroes. He grew up in Stillwater, New York—a town so small it doesn’t have any street lights. His fiction has appeared in the Atticus Review, Sink Hollow, Potluck Magazine, and Crab Fat Literary Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter (@Derekrose21) and Instagram (@Derekrose212). Check out more of his writing at https://derekroseblog.wordpress.com/.