Monday, September 26, 2016

Journals of a lumpen-Proletariat—Homelessness

By SJ Otto
A few years ago I remember reading about groups of people trying to duplicate the experiences of being poor and/or homeless. I can understand the desire to want to know “what it is like.” But trying to live in the streets for a few days or a trailer for a few days really won’t do any good. These experiences don’t allow people to feel the stress and fear that people who experience these things feel for real. The problem is that the experimenters can just go home if they get tired or demoralized. Once they get home they can kick back, watch TV and forget the problems they didn’t really HAVE to live with. The real people don’t have that option and that makes a big difference.
I decided to write about my days as a lumpen-Proletariat[1] in the late 1970s. The idea is to let the reader know what it really feels like to be one of society’s throw-away people. So here is my piece on homelessness—my first article in this series:
It was in the summer of 1980 that I found myself without a home. I was living in Lawrence KS and I was going to school off and on.
I came from a middle class family and my dad had agreed to pay for my college costs. But I met a girl I wanted to live with. He disapproved of me living “in sin” so he cut me off from the money for my college education. After one year, I married the live-in girl-friend and we moved from Wichita KS to Lawrence, about 300 miles away. We got married and after one year we got divorced. So I stayed in Lawrence believing I could make a living on my own and go to college off and on over the next few years, until I got a degree that was supposed to allow me to get a great job, making lots of money.
I was living with a room-mate, a guy about my age, who I met at a previous job. It was a large spacious house and we both had our own bedrooms. We shared a kitchen and all the other rooms in the house.  The house was conveniently located in an old neighborhood in the middle of town. After two years my room-mate decided to move elsewhere. I could never afford rent for the entire house. Almost 1/3rd of my income went to paying for my share of the rent. So staying in this big house alone was just not an option.
While he was moving out, I had just got fired from my job at a Van Camps pork and bean factory. I had been involved in a strike that lasted about three months.[2] I had refused to cross the picket line, so when it came time to call us back to work I was told they “didn’t need me.” I was not the only person who got fired or not allowed to come back, but that didn’t help my situation.
Since I was technically laid off, I was able to get unemployment. That was the good part. However, I was now without a home. I had a friend, Red (not his real name) who I occasionally hung out with at parties and at the house of a girl, Frieda (another fake name), we both knew.  He was a bit of an intellectual and he liked to party. He had been introducing me to a lot of punk rock bands I was unfamiliar with. Punk rock was still new to most of us in Kansas, so at that time I was trying to learn all about it. He knew I was looking for a place to live, so he agreed to let me stay at his modest apartment on the edge of town. There was just enough room for the two of us and I kept a lot of my stuff packed up since I only planned to stay there for about a month or two. As for pets, I had an aquarium with about one fish that was left. So I put the fish in a Styrofoam cooler and cleaned out the aquarium for storage until I could set it up again.
While I was used to working full time, I also tried to make a little extra money by selling small amounts of drugs, such as locally grown marijuana. A few friends and I had been harvesting plants that were ripe and ready. One night after harvesting several garbage bags full of marijuana, I had taken it to my bed room to let it dry.
At that time, many counter culture people thought drug dealers were heroes. Also it seemed as if it was a very exciting and an action packed lifestyle. After all, the TV cop shows were full of successful drug dealers—until they got caught. Throughout history many lumpen-Proletariats have been petty criminals of some type, such as drug dealers or prostitutes.
 In real life that excitement and adventure turned out to be an illusion. I rarely made enough money to make it worthwhile and I averaged no more money than I could make at a minimum wage job.
The marijuana led to some real problems with my new room-mate. One night I came home and found he had removed the drying bags of marijuana. After waking him up and yelling “where’s my pot!” it turned out that it bothered his sinuses and he put it outside. After that night I decided to leave. I was then living in my car.
Having nowhere to live I called my old land lord to see if he had anything he could rent to me. When he asked where I was working I told him I was on unemployment. That was a big mistake. I soon realized that he and every land lord in the town would not rent to someone on unemployment. So even though I had the money to rent a room or small apartment, no one would rent to me. It was like a “catch 22” situation. If I had a home, I would have an easier time looking for a job. Without a job I had no way to rent myself a home. Landlords in that town were careful and checked to make sure their renters had a steady income. I did not, so I had no place to live. I ended up living in my car a lot longer that I had planned on. 
So what is a typical day like in the summer when a person is living out of their car? I had arrangements made with a friend to have my unemployment check sent to his house. He also let me store a few things there and one of them was my pet fish, which I had to check on at least every other day to make sure he was OK and to feed him.
The hardest part of the day was finding a place I was allowed to be. I often visited friends.  We would sit around discussing a number of topics and that allowed me to be someplace where I could relax and not have to buy anything.  
There were many days when I spent a lot of time in bars, where my presents was tolerated. After all, a lot of places would kick me out if I spent more time than money in them, such as a store or restaurant. Bars put up with my presence as long as I bought a drink once and a while.
Sometimes I went to parks or public places in the country, such as a swimming lake, where I could relax and enjoy the scenery free of charge.[3] But in town there is not much sympathy for those who are homeless.
At the end of the day I had to find a place to spend the night.  It was time to go home—a home that really didn’t exists. One place I stayed was an old abandoned farm house in the country about five miles out of town. There was a driveway, a stone wall structure that still stood and piles of old boards and remnants of the old home inside the walls. That building was absolutely useless. So why stay there? First there was a drive way that went behind the house and I could park there without being harassed for loitering, trespassing or a number of other legal offenses. The motto of most businesses was “don’t stay here unless you are spending money on my business.”
If the weather was pleasant I could put out a blanket and sleeping bag and sleep under the stars. If it were raining I could put the blanket or sleeping bag in this large empty silo that stood near the deserted farm. It was not a comfortable place to sleep, but it did have a roof so I didn’t have to get wet while I slept at night. 
Some nights I was invited to sleep over at a friend’s house. He was very generous to let me stay there but I didn’t want to wear out my welcome and stay there every night. So I tried to stay there just a few nights a week.
Right after pay day, I often stayed in a motel for the night. That gave me a chance to clean up and get a good night sleep.
The worst part of being homeless is the stress that comes from always having to BE SOMEWHERE. All readers of this who go home, sit in a chair or couch, grab a beer or favorite beverage, and sit down in front of a TV—to rest and relax—imagine not being able to do that—EVER!
Our society has few places outside our homes where people are welcome to just make themselves at home. Most restaurants, bars, stores, etc. want you to buy something or you are just taking up their space for no pay off.
My car was filled with my stuff. My car was actually my home and it was very cramped when I had to sit in it or sleep out of it at night.
My life would have gotten a lot worse if I had to live there through the winter. I have no idea what I would have done in the long run to live out of a car during the frigid cold of a Kansas winter.
My problem ended when a friend and I got arrested for trying to steal a few cases of beans[4] from the factory I used to work at. I finally contacted my parents who came to Lawrence, bailed me out, and invited me home. They told me I should have let them know I was in so much trouble. I moved to my parent’s house in Wichita, got a job and began to go back to college. I also quit selling drugs permanently.
I really don’t recommend trying to intentionally become homeless just to understand that problem. But trying to duplicate it in some way is just plain stupid and it doesn’t work. I do recommend going to places where it is possible to meet homeless people and hear their stories. Not all homeless people have the same story I have. Some don’t have cars. Some have never sold drugs.
My story was that of a middle class kid who moved out of his parent’s house only to find himself falling into “life on the streets,” which is how most Americans refer to the lumpen-Proletariat. I fell down to the bottom and learned what it was like to be hated by the rest of society. Street people are often talked about as if they are human trash and hopelessly destined to be losers.
That provides me with insight into that part of the problem. Homelessness is a big problem in the US. It is estimated that 243,627 Americans are homeless, living on the streets, in cars or in abandoned buildings.[5]

[1] This term represents a sub-class of poor people who may work, full or part-time or may not work at all. They are below the actual proletariat, or working class, and they often use criminal activities to survive.
[2] This will be another story I post later.
[3] Just recently Sedgwick County, where I live, voted to charge “user fees” in all public parks were a person might fish, campout or just picnic. It seems that local governments today just don’t want poor people to have anything to do at all.
[4] I also plan to post a story about the US prison system and my view of it from the inside.
[5] “Homeless In America, A Snapshot,” Scope, November 2013, Vol. 62 No. 3, page 7.

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