By Charles M. Kelly
One of journalism’s most destructive myths hold that there are two sides—and only two—to every story. Life is more complex than a football game—and a rougher contact sport, too.
Take the “homeless.” Recently, while covering the question of whether there needs to be a homeless shelter in Seal Beach, I’ve run across two very different views of the homeless.
They are victims or they are bums.
You know, I can understand these two views because each represents a fragment of the truth. Trouble is, they are only fragments. I know this, because I have known five people who experienced being homeless. Four of them fought their way back. It was a hard road.
One was my father, who voluntarily joined the ranks of the homeless during the Great Depression. (Considering the state of the economy, I should have listened more closely to his survival stories.) He lit out from home at 16. His father was the kind of man who would steal from his own son, so perhaps my father’s decision to go—go anywhere—was a wise one.
My father was luckier than many teens that ran off for … whatever reason. Some of the kids who flee to the streets are fugitives from physically or sexually abusive homes. Now, I suppose you could argue that those kids “chose” to be homeless … but I can’t bring myself to judge young people who have to choose between being raped (by someone who has access to them 24 hours a day, 365 days a year) and the harsh realities of life on the street.
I met another homelessness survivor when I was in college. Another survivor I knew got a job as a furniture repossessor. I’m guessing he lied about his homeless status, as most employers would have considered that an undesireable quality in an employee. Steve, that was his name, presumably saved up his money until he had first and last month’s rent and made his way back to the middle class. I don’t know how Steve became homeless. I only remember something he wrote in our college paper: that the hardest thing he ever did was the first time he ate a hamburger that he’d pulled from a dumpster. I don’t know if I could have done that. He did—and survived to escape the gutter because he could endure it.
Another survivor I know put up with the drawbacks of Salvation Army housing while she looked for a job and a home for her two children. Her ex-husband was the classic deadbeat dad. He kept a roof over his head and indulged his own needs. His wife and kids had to fend for themselves—and escaped the sidewalks only because the Salvation Army was there to lend a hand. This woman now lives in Orange County and as far as I know is employed. Does it make me a bad person to hope her ex gets hit by a large truck?
I nearly ended up in the street myself, once. I could have avoided long-lasting financial woes if I’d followed the advice I’m going to give you: never take your credit card to Las Vegas the week before your biopsy. If the cancer doesn’t kill you, the credit card debt just might. Had I ended up in the street, I would have been someone who volunteered to be stupid. I expect many a fool has ended up in a homeless shelter. My advice to those guys: get smart, get tough—and do it fast.
There are many roads to the street. Some will get there by foolish financial decisions and drag their spouses and children with them. Others will simply cast off the shackles of normal, middle-class life and the struggle to make money to buy things you can’t take with you when you die. Some will drink booze or abuse other drugs until all they can focus on is getting their next substance-induced stupor.
I wish people who support or oppose homeless shelters would take a moment to realize that thinking of the “homeless” as a single mass will not rescue anyone from anything. That’s collectivist thinking. They are individuals. And I have no earthly idea how to help the ones that can be helped. I’m afraid a good deal of the heavy lifting belongs to them.
This is a story with thousands of sides—maybe millions, considering the size of the United States. It’s far too big a story for one small-time journalist to tell. But I’ll try to keep tabs on what happens here in my home town—and hope I never run out of money to pay my mortgage.