Lessons Learned in a Homeless Shelter:
Middle Class Misunderstandings of Welfare, Poverty, and People
I grew up in the suburbs. So suburban that I didn’t even know there was a difference between rural, urban, suburban. I grew up in Orange County California (Lots of mullah). Now I live in Lebanon, PA. (How do you describe Lebanon, really? It’s small urban city. Surrounded by farmlands. Racially, it’s predominately White and Puerto Rican. High unemployment rates and addiction (heroine and alcohol are the biggies in our town) are obvious – even just driving through the city. Many here would be considered low income households that live on the margins.)
Before moving to Lebanon, I had never met anyone on food stamps. And honestly I didn’t really think anything about “welfare,” per se. But I got a lot of messages growing up about what that is…We don’t talk about that. Some people “mooch the system” – they say discretely, politely, yet disapprovingly.
I also heard a lot of messages about money. I was told: Everybody has money. They just make their own decisions (bad decisions) about how to spend it.
Well…now as a grown person I know that’s not true. Not every household brings in 100+K a year. Some people really do live on less.
This story is always a striking reminder of that. A few years back I was talking with my co-worker about the annual Prayer Breakfast hosted in our community. I thought it was a great opportunity for people from different backgrounds to come join together for prayer (and pancakes! … everybody loves pancakes.) This guy in the shelter overheard our conversation. He expressed interest in attending but when he heard it would cost $10 for a ticket, he laughed. He laughed LOUDLY. He exclaimed between belly aching laughs, “Man, do you know what I could do with $10?!?! You know how long I could eat off of $10?” He went on to explain, how if he had $10 (which he didn’t) he would be able stretch that $10 well beyond a week…maybe further (which he has done on a number of occasions). The idea of shelling out $10 to go to a prayer breakfast was ridiculous, not to mention impossible. But how many of us, myself included, don’t even blink an eye at that type of thing? We drop $10 here, $25 or $50 there.
Growing up, I heard messages about food stamps. Single moms who don’t work –just keep having kids and in order to live off the earnings of other hard working Americans. The idea that people who receive food stamps don’t value work. That they are lazy. They choose this lifestyle. They like it. They get to live easy, while the rest of us work hard in order to provide for our families and have a respectable life.
We make a lot of assumptions about “people on welfare” without even knowing them. Or anything about their lives. We assume they are over there. We are over here. That there’s a great divide. We believe as long as we work hard and make responsible decisions with our money, we will continue to live lives that are safe and comfortable. We don’t think that poverty, need, or want is something that could ever happen to us. (Check out this article from The Washington Post for a story that addresses those same thoughts.)
For those of you that don’t know – I work at an Emergency Shelter. I have met moms who have raised their children on food stamps and cash assistance. I know men and women who have literally lived off of no income as they wait for disability benefits to be approved. I know men who have been unemployed (or on and off again) for decades. And families that have for generations been entrenched in, and dependent on, the welfare system. So here are some things I’ve learned. This list is obviously not exhaustive. I’m not an expert, but an explorer. A friend. Companion. Confidant.
This only reflects my experience in a little corner of a smallish urban town in PA. You don’t have to take my word for it, get out there and hear some stories of your own. There are plenty to go around.
Okay, lessons learned. Here we go…
1. It’s not glamorous
Here’s the honest truth: nobody’s getting rich off of welfare. If you’re under that impression, it’s just not true. Even those who do receive Cash Assistance (and very few qualify for those benefits anymore) are mostly families that have children under the age of 5. In most cases families on Cash benefits can’t even afford a 2-bedroom apartment in our town (and let me tell you the cost of living here is low). Most people receiving Food Stamps cannot just spend freely or lavishly and make it last the whole month. They have to plan, they have to budget, they have to be savvy. Welfare does not afford people a life of luxury – it’s about survival.
2. It’s not easy
It’s not easy to get on welfare. If you’ve been through this process you know – there is A LOT paperwork. It can be confusing to keep track of. There are tons of forms which require endless amounts of personal information, all of which also has to be renewed at regular intervals throughout the year. If any bit of your information changes – address, income, assets, members of your household, etc. – it’s got to be reported immediately or you could lose benefits or be prosecuted for fraud. And if for some unknown reason you receive extra benefits one month – by error or whatever – the overcompensation will most definitely be deducted the following month. Once you’re on welfare, everything about you is carefully calculated and tracked.
3. It can be pretty dehumanizing
I’m sure you can imagine (or perhaps you know firsthand) that documenting details of your life on countless forms to people you don’t know doesn’t feel great. Instead of a person with a story that has ups, downs, highs, and lows, now you’re a case: A case number with a case file assigned to a case worker whose case load is overcrowded with other cases just as tedious as yours. You’re reduced to details, seen through a grid that determines the minimum of what you need in order to survive. The rules and regulations can feel so arbitrary and intangible. How could these facts, figures, and percentages have to do with your life? Except that if you don’t have the benefits, you (and your kids) don’t eat. That’s when it gets real. And you (inevitably) decide to give in and sign that form AGAIN for the hundredth time.
That feeling of disempowerment and oppression is usually where I intersect with people. When people rely on the system yet they feel enslaved to it. They are inundated with messages –
You’re nothing. You’re not capable of anything. You’re not worth anything.
There’s a deep sorrow and sadness. Many of my clients are dealing with years of pain – generations dependent on the system.
That pain goes DEEP. So so deep. Too much to catch. Too much to calm. Too much even to comfort. So much weighing on them. Carrying the burden of shame, failure, inability to provide. Abandonment. Addiction. Despair. Living without the hope that anything can ever change for the better.
This is the human story.
These are people’s experiences.
People, the image of God, reflecting Him even in brokenness.
Will we listen to Him? Will we search for beauty in brokenness? Seeking to know the Light in Darkness? Mourn with those who mourn? Listen to His voice and His Spirit on display in these?
But He is in them. And they are His.