The Hidden Homeless

by Ted Schwartz

 The trouble with understanding homelessness in greater Cleveland is that the majority of the people afflicted are invisible. Most of us think we know the homeless. We have an image of the gap-toothed wino with the alcohol breath and a paper cup. Or the street hustler who needs a couple of dollars for gas, the bus, to feed his wife and six children who are vaguely “over there” or some other story which, if he is watched long enough, is obviously false. Or the schizophrenic having animated conversations with the voices in his or her head. They are the in you “in your face” homeless of our city, men and women who made bad choices, had bad genetics or lost the cosmic crapshoot for sanity. They are also in the minority among the homeless.

 Evelyn is homeless. She is 40, attractive, a former small business owner whose income often exceeded six figures. Before the divorce. Before the cross-country move, the days spent looking for new opportunities and the final failure, a business she started with what was left of her money and the promises of a backer who failed to deliver his share of financial support. By the time she realized she could not get adequate capital and closed her doors, she had $117 in a savings account, a $350 apartment rent bill $25 due on her telephone bill and other utility payment s to be made. Emotionally shattered, she spent time wandering shopping malls and reading in the library, trying to understand what happened, to consider what to do next.

It took 60 days to be evicted and a week in a shelter, her few possessions stored in a locker, before she admitted her problem to her minister. He arranged for her to act as the companion for the elderly parent of parishioner in exchange for what they were told would be a “guest apartment.” That turned out to be a small room she had to share with several potted plants, the litter box for the woman’s three cats and several cartoons of family memorabilia no one else wanted to keep. Although earning a small stipend, she does not have adequate time off to look for work, nor is she able to accumulate enough money for her own apartment. She is depressed and worried about the approaching time when the woman will need to be in a nursing facility and she will still have inadequate resources.

Bill is homeless, drifting among the Shaker Heights apartments of several friends who have made clear that his welcome is wearing thin. He has several advanced engineering degrees, but the company for which he worked restructured, eliminating his department. He taught for a while, then realized he lacked the temperament for teaching about the same time the university came to the same conclusion. His contract was not renewed and he began looking for work in earnest. “Nothing under $50,000 a year. A man with my education had standards. It was better to turn down job offers, ‘knowing’ they would be increased if I held my ground, then to sell my services too cheaply,” he explained. “That was eventually how I justified staying at home, sleeping late, sending out resumes to companies too far away for me to do adequate follow up. Then I began going to the science library, reading to keep abreast of my field when I was too scared to face reality. Finally my wife had enough. She didn’t care if I worked at McDonalds. She was the type who would do anything to hold body and soul together, even if it was outside her educational background. She just wanted me to be productive, and I wasn't.”

Divorce brought more depression. Denial resulted in Bill’s spending too much for rent, eating out in low priced restaurants, such as Denny’s, where the cost was still greater than cooking for himself, and gradually selling his possessions. Eventually there was no more money, no more “things” of real value and no job. While he now has the maturity to seek work whenever he can get it, he knows that even after he has a job it will be several weeks before he can accumulate the first and last month’s rent, plus security deposit, demanded by landlords. Until then he is hoping his friends patience won't wear out.

 The majority of the hidden homeless interviewed had one of several common factors. The first was excess pride. They were accustomed to being in control, to taking care of themselves, that they did not admit they needed help until after they had lost everything.

 The second problem was denial. Cleveland-area newly unemployed executives often followed a pattern common among all such individuals throughout the United States. Before they could bring themselves to tell friends and loved ones, they could “go to work” each day, though unemployed. In nice weather, they might go to a park. In the cold, the main library was popular. If they routinely had weekly evening meetings, they would avoid going home until the meeting would be over.

 Eventually the resources that might have kept the family afloat were gone, and the person had not started to look for work. Sometimes the family moved into a cheap motel. Other times they lived out of a car. (One school principal told me that she knew of a once financially comfortable family living in their station wagon, cleaning themselves in public restrooms and keeping their children in school. It was three months before the school learned they were homeless.) And still other times they moved in with friends or family, overcrowding the living space and increasing tension among everyone concerned.

 Short-term illness serious enough to last longer than sick leave, accumulated vacation time and other safeguards can create a crisis. By the time the person is well enough to work, savings are depleted and the former job has been filled.

 The needs of the hidden homeless are as great as those of the more obvious people on the street. Counseling to handle the depression and the fear, a permanent address for mail, a telephone for messages and some degree of job retraining and a refresher course in how to apply for jobs are among the common concerns.

But the hidden homeless have an even greater problem. How do they account for long-term employment gaps? Some create “consulting companies”, perhaps going so far as to have inexpensive business cards printed. Others say they are self-employed. The truth, though no fault of their own, would diminish the respect they receive. The unspoken perception by others often is that if someone is any good, he or she would be hired away from the downsizing, relocating or closing company before his or her previous job officially ended. And if not, certainly there would be headhunters, CEOs and others lining up with job offers immediately after the end occurred. Anyone without a job for more than a few weeks has great difficulty competing with less-qualified individuals who are switching where they work while still employed.

One couple, now employed, told of their crisis after GE released them following the sale of the company. Each told prospective employers that their spouse was working while he or she looked after the children for a while. “I wanted to try the ‘Mom Trick’, I’d tell them, always adding that I found I hated it and wanted to return to corporate America,” the wife explained. “My husband said he wanted to be ‘Mr. Mom’ for a while during which time I supported the family. Thank God they believed our lies, because it let us be honest about our resumes.”

Even worse is the difficulty of someone who takes interim wok in a lower-paying, unrelated field in order to earn enough money to at least rent an apartment. A communication specialist with a major corporation obtained a job as a checker with a Finest job (she was over qualified). She has to lie about her when seeking to get back into her profession, claiming that she has been freelancing. Yet when someone asks to see samples of her freelance work, she knows she is in trouble

.There are other issues for the hidden homeless. Finding day care for small children can be a nightmare. In one case, a single parent moved in with a working friend, also a single parent. Both had preschool children, but the homeless woman discovered that her friend viewed her as a godsend. She would be the in-house sitter in exchange for room and board. Yet that also meant that it was impossible for her to look for employment between 8:00 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. each weekday, when her friend was out the house.

The needs of the hidden homeless often parallel those of the people living long-term in shelters and vacant buildings. They need counseling, a consistent mailing address a telephone message service, day care for preschoolers, after-school programs for latch-key children and personnel directors willing to look at an applicants abilities, not the current living status. Until that occurs, the unseen nightmare will continue while too many of the employed think they are helping by dropping a quarter into a Styrofoam cup shoved into their face as they enter Tower City.

 Copyright Homeless Grapevine and NEOCH, Issue 5, Cleveland Ohio February 1994