November 2012, for a writing class
It's difficult to admit being homeless. Our culture has stigmatized it; our country has made it illegal. Why would anyone want to be homeless, or choose to live in a car? Certainly they must be loony. Surely an apartment is the better choice. Anything with four walls and a roof that slightly resembles a house will keep a person safe from police harassment.
People these days generally don't understand. If you're homeless, it's your fault. You're stupid, you're lazy, you're good for nothing, you're going nowhere and doing nothing with your life. Because the American dream is to own a house, own a car, have a family, and a stable job. Not having, or wanting that lifestyle is absurd. To choose homelessness over the "dream" makes a person crazy.
Portland has sit-lie ordinances, forbidding people from parking themselves on sidewalks and benches. Normal people take it for granted, luxuries like living rooms and couches, tables and chairs. Homeless people don't always have a place to go during the day, or a couch to surf on at night. Living in a car means more protection from the elements; but finding safe places to sleep at night where the likelihood of being disturbed is minimal, that's difficult. Colleges and public parks have no-camping rules. Laws prohibiting necessary bodily functions as innocuous as sleeping in public, right there is anti-homeless legislation at its finest.
Bathrooms are almost non-existent. Outhouses are few and far between in the Portland metro area, portapotties are generally off limits to passersby, and you must purchase something in order to use the toilet in a general store. We all know that homeless people don't have bathrooms of their own, since those rooms are built into houses. Restricting access to restrooms hurts the homeless much more than it hurts the people trapped in housing.
Imagine why a person might choose to be homeless despite the stigma. Maybe they're in a transitional phase of life. There are some appealing factors to consider: paying no rent, signing no lease agreements, owning fewer possessions, even the challenge of homelessness itself. Perhaps they wanted to live in their car because they had nowhere else to go. It's no secret that housing is very expensive. The cost of living rises every day. Unfortunately those who want to live the nomad life are met with criticisms and assumptions. "Oh, what happened with living in your aunts house? Don't you have anywhere else to go?" "I don't like the idea of you living in your car." "What about your dog?" "Don't you realize how dangerous that is?" "I can only imagine what might happen to you at night when you need to go potty your dog." "Oh noes, you gon' get raped!" – and other such things.
"Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" is a well-known part of the declaration of independence of the United States. Some people aren't happy living within the System. Of course, as with any major life changes, choosing to be homeless requires a bit of planning. It takes thinking to determine what things are really important and what things are superfluous-American-consumeristic-disposable-crap. Picking the right vehicle is a very important factor that should not be overlooked. The best cars to be homeless in are those that get good gas mileage, don't leak, and have enough room to sleep.
People are being pushed into homelessness because there are no jobs. Maybe they had one and lost it, maybe they thought their savings account would hold them until they could find one. Maybe they were kicked out of the place they were previously living. Maybe they have nowhere else to go. The ones forced to be homeless often don't have time to plan. Over time they lose faith in humanity and in themselves; many give up hope.
Helping the homeless means removing laws that make the state of homelessness illegal, and setting up programs that actually help. Affordable housing needs to be provided, or parking lots need to be open at night for sleeping purposes. More public restrooms need to be constructed, or public urination must be decriminalized. Give sidewalks and parks some more benches. Allow the homeless to use PO boxes as a valid address so they can apply for food stamps and vote. Open more buildings with services specifically for homeless people: wireless internet, a free clinic, an art room, toilets and showers and mirrors, tables and chairs and lunch. Job and apartment search services are obvious enough they shoudn't even be mentioned. Keep these buildings open at all times of day!