Jeannie stood in front of the group assembled at her home town university with her hands trembling and a slightly awkward smile. Her strawberry blonde hair pinned back, she looked tidy and pleasant.
“I have been raped three times since living on the streets. I didn’t want this. I was thrown away by my husband after staying home with our children. He had the money so he got the kids. He got everything.”
The National Network to End Domestic Violence reports that more than 90 percent of women who are homeless have experienced severe physical or sexual abuse at some point in their lives. A study sponsored by the National Institute of Drug Abuse showed that 41 percent of a randomly selected sample of 460 women staying in homeless shelters had been sexually abused by an adult before age 18.
There are web sites which promote raping homeless women. There is a man I know of in my town who brags about the sex he has with women 40 years younger in exchange for a roof over their head.
It happens to men as well.
In fact lots of things happen to both men and women who are homeless. Less than 1% of homeless people commit violent crimes yet they are victims of crime frequently. Much of it does not go reported because police contact may result in the arrest of the homeless person. The National Homeless Alliance tells us in 15 years some 1,437 reported violent crimes were committed against homeless people and 375 of those victims died from their injuries.
Yet at nearly any town council where homelessness is on the agenda you will hear housed residents complain that they fear the homeless. For some this is a ploy to avoid a homeless shelter near their property for fear of lowering its value but for many this fear is real.
Certainly stereotypes about the homeless being mentally ill, drug addicted or convicted felons adds to this fear. But keep in mind less than 1% will commit a violent crime–they are more likely to be a victim of crime. They are out in the open with no protection. The number of people burned to death while sleeping or being beaten by housed people while trying to sleep is far greater than the number of people housed who experience this. In fact, there are a handful of stories about the homeless being killed by strangers in these violent ways every year. The incidence of a stranger coming into your home to beat you to death or set you on fire while you’re sleeping is statistically zero. If that happened it would be a huge story and laws would change. When it happens to homeless people it’s page four in the local section. There are no new laws created.
Yet housed people fear the homeless.
Perhaps it’s this–the housed may see a homeless encampment and feel afraid. These camps do not look like a place most of us would volunteer to frequent because they are dirty, crowded, sometimes have open fire and garbage strewn around. We are taught that these things are “wrong” and “bad.” These camps and individuals do not smell good. There are no free showers or laundromats so how could one avoid stinking? Still, for the sake of argument if this is bad–is it the fault of the homeless or is it a larger question?
I have met few homeless people who are there on vacation or by choice. If a person struggles with a medical condition such as mental illness or physical impairment do they belong sleeping in the dirt? If they have lost a job or cannot earn enough to afford a place to live which is a growing problem in this country–do they need to be punished by trying to raise children in the back of an old car?
This fear brings up a fundamental question; do we get at the root of what causes homelessness or do we blame the victim of those causes?
Let’s get back to where we started-rape. For hundreds of years we have discussed how not to get raped primarily with women. We have only just begun discussing how not to be a rapist.
Women’s movements have been restricted, women have been told what times of day they may be away from their homes, what they should or should not wear and with whom to associate. This discussion pretends that rape is within the control of the victim. This is a foundational argument flaw built on a false premise. It is the fruit of a poison tree which is watered and fed by a failure to question the assumption that rape victims somehow control their victimization.
Rape victims are people who are wrongfully attacked and subjected to torture through no fault of their own. One cannot be blamed for the crimes of another. The criminal must be held accountable for his actions.
Victims of homelessness are people who are wrongfully attacked and subjected to torture through no fault of their own. One cannot be blamed for the crimes of another–or in this case–the crimes of a society which refuses to acknowledge that its system of operation grinds people up from birth who are born poor, remain poor and die poor.
Our society is a rapist. We assault and penetrate the well being of tens of thousands of people who, through no fault of their own, are poor. If I’m making you angry–that’s good–but hang in there with me. One cannot control being born poor. In our culture we tend to believe that poor people can pull themselves up by their bootstraps through hard work. There was a time when this was true. That time is not now.
You can work two jobs, 80 hours per week and not make enough for rent, car, insurance, health care and food. Even if you could physically manage that schedule you would be on the poverty line as a single adult. Add children and you go under. Bringing home two thousand dollars per month will not get you by when rent is half that, normally more than half that. Landlords will need a deposit equal to rent and often the last month’s rent in advance. How does one get that money?
The deck is stacked. Poverty is a political problem not a personal problem yet our solutions are almost always personal: get more work, spend less, live five to an apartment, don’t drink wine or smoke. Homeless people often have jobs, spend little and a ten dollar bottle of wine or pack of smokes is not the make it or break it point.
Here’s one of the most basic reasons people are poor:
Minimum wage was established as a benchmark in 1938. It was created to cover the basic cost of living. It was, however, deliberately set up not to rise with inflation. Congress must agree to raise it. Poverty is political.
In terms of real dollars minimum wage has fallen sharply since its highest point in 1968. Most folks who live in deep poverty are paid in minimum wage dollars. The same is true of people on disability and social security. These systems were initially created to keep people from becoming homeless. Now most people in these systems are the homeless.
Congress has not increased minimum wage, disability or social security to keep up with inflation. It has instead invested in other things. Poverty is political.
To those who say we do not have the money one could argue that we clearly do have the money but choose to spend it elsewhere–check out our military spending and spending on building prisons as compared to every other country on earth and get back to me on affording to care for people. Poverty is political.
Telling people how not to be poor is like telling people how not to be raped. It comes at the issue from a false foundation. Rape is a crime committed deliberately by a violent person of bad will. Poverty is a crime committed deliberately by a violent society of bad will. People die in the streets of crimes committed against them, they freeze to death or if they survive they live less than half a life.
If you have never been raped perhaps you may look at a victim and suppose she did something for this to happen. That thinking reassures you that it cannot happen to you because you make no errors—until one day when you forget to lock a door and you are attacked. Then you understand the issue is all about the attacker and that rape can happen to anyone.
If you are not poor you may suppose that if you work hard, keep your job, never get sick, have support systems and do everything right you will not be homeless. Until you get a long term illness, cannot work and your support system is no better off than you. Then you understand homelessness can happen to anyone.
Jeannie tells the assembled group as tears begin to roll down her face that she wants to see her children again, that she would love a warm place to sleep and that she doesn’t know why she was thrown away. She misses her three thousand square foot home. She did not know it could happen until it did. Now she struggles to dig her way out of the institutional systems which she assumed would protect her and did not. She speaks frequently at community meetings to create change.
She has learned. Poverty is political.
Rape is victimization. Poverty is victimization. She suffers at the violence of both.
Is this who we are and what we want?