3 lessons I learned as a homeless kid in America
Let me preface this by saying that, like most of America's homeless population, I wasn't consistently homeless as a child. We periodically had enough money to rent a room (for a little while), just like we had times when we had enough money for food (for a little while).
But those times would end and we would be back on the streets (or, rather, in our van). I don't often think about my childhood, because on the surface it has little bearing or impact on who I am today. However, I do have residual belief systems around money and relationships that, if I were to psychoanalyze, would likely come directly from my childhood of scarcity. These are some of the lessons I learned growing up poor in America.
Lesson 1: Your poverty makes other people uncomfortable.
One of the things that I find interesting looking back on my childhood was how much time I had to spend making sure other people weren't made to feel uncomfortable about our situation. The only thing worse than being homeless was other people finding out about it because they simply did not want to know. I don’t blame them, necessarily, because what could they do about it?
Don’t be stinky. Don’t look dirty. Don’t act hungry. These were all things I spent a remarkable amount of time fretting about as a child, as I’m sure a lot of children do. I learned very quickly that, as a poor person, it was your job to minimize the discomfort for other people regarding your poverty. It was my job to make elaborate excuses and justifications to others, just to avoid that very distinct and viscerally uncomfortable reaction of someone with More Than Plenty trying to get out of an awkward conversation with Someone Who Doesn’t Have Enough.
Lesson 2: Being poor in America is incredibly expensive.
When you're poor, it feels like you're hemorrhaging money all the time. Every dollar that you get your hands on, people are expecting three dollars in return. Overdraft fees, late notices, fines, reactivation fees. When we did finally get our hands on cash, my mom had such a poverty mindset that she immediately spent it on “fun” things because the bills would never, ever, ever go away. There was never an option to catch up. We would never have enough.
Her financial education could be summed up in one sentence: “Enjoy it while you have it because there will always be bills and debt.” It's easy to see the cracks in this theory, but I don't blame her for her perspective. When you are working 60, 70, 80 hours a week, and your daughter is still living in a van, it's hard to feel like the traditional advice works.
Lesson 3: It’s so easy to fall through the cracks.
It was true in the 1990s and 2000s, and it seems to be true still today. Clawing your way out of debt is incredibly, incredibly difficult. Getting ahead after falling behind is incredibly difficult. Repairing your credit, establishing a savings account, and getting current on bills are unbelievably difficult. There is a reason you fell behind in the first place, and various systems seem to profit from you staying behind.
I think children are the largely silent victim of this devastating financial landscape. My mom was a single mom, and that often meant that I was left alone while she did her level best to get us enough food to eat. What was her other option? Spend hundreds of dollars we didn’t have so god knows who would watch me? When you can’t even keep a roof over your head, luxuries like childcare are out of the question.
Sometimes there are government programs, but so many people don't qualify. Or the barrier to entry is ridiculously high. Or there is such massive shame and stigma around receiving help. Or you involve protective services and case workers who are often seen as the enemy because they are held to the standard of doing the “correct” thing over the “good” thing.
I think one of my aversions to looking back on my childhood is not wanting to feel bad for my former self because I think that self-pity is limiting and unproductive. But now that I live in what some would call a “third world” or “developing” country, it is fascinating to me the parallels and differences between poverty here, and poverty in the richest nation in the world. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying American poverty is worse because, by all conceivable metrics, it absolutely isn’t.
America is rich, but many of its people are not. And part of the cultural landscape of American society is pretending like you aren’t poor, or that your poverty doesn’t bother you. It’s one thing to be poor in a poor neighborhood. There’s a sense of camaraderie. It’s another to spend your days going hungry while the children around you stuff their faces.