One of the photo essays shown in class today (11 Feb, 2013) documenting the life of a so-called ‘motel family’ and their struggles with poverty, unemployment and homelessness.
The issue of homelessness and unemployment are definitely serious pressing matters in the United States to be discussed and dealt with right now. The topic itself is emotional and even personal to me as well.
During the time of my stay in the United States (which has been almost 2 years now) I were in the ER twice and coincidentally had the rare opportunity to speak and get to know a couple of homeless people personally.
What I have learned from the experience is that the problems are often more complicated than it seems on the surface. There are many stereotypes and even prejudices that people have on homeless people, be it that they are drug addicts, people without families, or people who are not responsible enough to take care of themselves. While some of those might be factors, it is not the whole story. The reality is often more complex, with more than one factors entangled together creating this loop of desperation, and helplessness, sucking people in and the chances of escape are slim.
Barbara Ehrenreich in her book Nickel and Dimed:On (Not) Getting By in America (2001) explores the life of the low-income, working class people, many of them end up becoming one of those ‘motel families’. It seems to be a strange phenomenon at first, that Ehrenreich reckons that the cost of living in a motel room is far more expensive than renting an actual apartment. Yet as she finds out, that many of those low-income families simply can’t pay the security deposit that is often required while renting a place. They do not have a basic ‘saving’, all they have is what they earn everyday and spend almost immediately on everyday spending. A living day by day kind of life.
It is not an ideal living situation for anyone; not for adults, and definitely not for children.
One of the issues/concerns brought up in in-class discussion was the well-being of the children shown in the Motel Families photographs. It might seem absurd or even irresponsible of the parents to even have children under such condition when they can’t even support themselves.
There is this tendency for families with lower incomes and lower education to have more children, and the reason behind it is far too complex to be discussed together in this pose. But if only from what I’ve heard from the homeless girl I met, who was a mother of 7 kids (of different fathers), all in the system because she couldn’t support raising the children. Why did she keep having kids then? We asked her. And her answer was rather straightforward and astonishing. “I just want someone to love me.” she said, “And someone to give my love to.” But because she can’t afford to have children, she was stuck in this endless loop of having kids and having them taken away and then having kids again.
It was months ago, and it was only until today did it suddenly strike me of what it truly meant to be homeless*. It means to be an outcast, to be at the edge and bottom of the society, struggling to grip on to the very limited resources one could have; it means loneliness, it means that you know you came from somewhere but you don’t know where to go next; it means cold dark nights wondering if anyone would care or help. And a lot of times, for some of them, it means no way out.
The only, real, permanent solution I could think of is only through education. Through education people gain a better social standing, more opportunity and are more resourceful while facing a difficult situation. There are, in fact, government programs and organizations dedicated to help people with those kinds of problems (poverty, homelessness, childcare, mental illness, etc…). I wondered if the Motel Families in Melissa Lyttle’s frames knew they had those resources available, that there might be help within reach, that they were not completely alone.
*I’m talking about ‘homeless’ in a broader sense not only limited to actually sleeping on the streets but those ‘motel families’ or ‘modern Gypsies’ as well; those who have to be constantly moving from place to place, willingly or not, without a place to keep them grounded, to really call ‘home’.