The hidden homeless

May 15, 2011

When I look at the people pushing shopping carts and toting plastic bags of possessions, they look homeless. You know what I mean. Unkempt. Bedraggled. Dirty. Perhaps mentally ill. So sad.

But some homeless people can’t be so easily identified. Like the nice pandhandler/job-seeker at a strip center I frequent, whose khakis and collared shirt are always clean. Maybe it works against him, I don’t know.

The plight of homeless Americans has touched me deeply this year and I’m not sure why this year more than any other. Maybe it’s because I feel so lucky in my own life.

I saw a powerful, award-winning documentary called “It Was a Wonderful Life” the other day. Made in 1992 and narrated by Jodie Foster, it chronicled the life of women who were once middle class with homes and possessions. After a divorce (from deadbeat dads), job loss or illness, they somehow found found themselves living on the streets.

The film calls them “the hidden homeless.” To look at them, you’d never know they were homeless. They were educated, attractive, creative, articulate.

They could be anyone.

Any one of us.

A sweet young woman profiled on the documentary had lost her job due to illness. When she could drum up the money, she and her cat lived in the back of a rented U-Haul truck.

Imagine: the back of a truck.

Otherwise, she and her kitty camped out in the southern California mountains.

For some reason not clear in the film, she wouldn’t access county services for the homeless. Pride, maybe. She implied in an interview with the filmmaker that she didn’t think she was bad off enough to apply for assistance. Living in the back of a truck.

She was 37 when the film came out. I wondered what had happened to these women in the two decades that followed. When I searched online for an update, I found that she’d taken her life later that year.

I never forget how lucky I am.

Besides the poignant stories the women told, I was struck by how understaffed city and county government were to handle the load of deadbeat dads, requests for Section 8 housing and the great need other for public assistance. And that was 20 years ago.

Juxtaposed against the strain on California budgets today and the need to hold the line on or reduce staffing for many programs, it’s even clearer just what a conundrum we’re in.

There’s no way any single one of us can solve the entire problem. But for those of us lucky enough to have income, homes and a semblance of financial security, this might be a really good time to reach out to those who aren’t as lucky in whatever way is comfortable.

Giving money to worthy programs is always a good thing, whether it’s $10 or $10,000.

Extra furniture or household goods? Clothes? Donate them.

Do you have a skill a nonprofit can use? In-kind services can also be helpful.

If you can’t afford to give money, how about volunteering time with social service organizations that help the homeless and their children?

I looked at these women in the film and saw any one of us.


With a run of bad luck, illness, layoff, housing bust–they could be any one of us.

More of us should remember this.

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