Women on The Street :
Have you ever rushed down the street and felt that nagging feeling of guilt, as you breeze by someone lying in a doorway? Is she alive? Is she ill? Why do we all rush by without finding out is she's all right? People sit in train stations, bus stations, parks, doorways, unmistakably sick, with what, we don't know. All are seemingly alone. Some beg. Some don't. Some have open sores that ooze and bleed. Some are drunk. Some talk to themselves or formless others. They have no homes. Street people make up a small percentage of the homeless population. Most homeless people blend into the daily flow of urban life. Many families are homeless. Many babies go from the hospital into the shelter system, never knowing what it is like to go home. Women are another subgroup of the homeless. Solutions to homelessness are not easily found. But before we can solve problems, we must be sensitive enough that we create the will to find the solutions. Often if we do not feel the problem, if some emotional response is not made, we are not moved to seek solutions. We are often unmoved to even recognize the questions. We cannot afford to keep walking by. Work is a fundamental condition of human existence - said Karl Marx. In punch-the-clock and briefcase societies no less than in agricultural or hunting and gathering societies, it is the organization of work that makes life in communities possible. Individual life as well as social life is closely tied to work. In wage labored societies, and perhaps in every other as well, much of an individual's identity is tied to their job. For most people jobs are a principal source of both independence and correctness to others. It should come as no surprise that, in the work force or out, work and jobs are important in the lives of homeless women. There are women who want to work and do, and women who want to work and do not. There are women who cannot work and others who should not work and still others who do not want to work. Some work regularly, some intermittently. Some work part-time, some full-time and there are even those who work two jobs. At any given moment, there is a lot of job-searching, job losing, job changing and job avoidance. Within months or even weeks, these may all appear in the same person. The process is almost routine. A homeless woman registers with an unemployment agency. Since there is no way for them to call her when a job comes up she calls them - three, four times a day. By the third day they usually tell her, "Don't call us, we'll call you." If she confesses there is no way to reach her, they lose interest. Although since 1985, the shelters help reach people. Several women reported losing their jobs or the opportunity to get them when their homelessness became known. One woman had been working as a receptionist in a doctor's office for several weeks when the doctor learned she was living in a shelter and fired her. The doctor told her if he'd known he wouldn't have hired her, shelters are places of disease. The jobs homeless women can get do not pay enough to enable them to support themselves. But, the women desperately want and need the money, the independence, and the self respect that most of us have come to take for granted from a job. But, for women to get a job and keep it, the women must run an obstacle course at the end of which is a low-pay, low status job that offers a little more than they have without it. The women - perfectly socialized to the values of work - continue to value work for what they know their jobs cannot provide. Even with the starts and stops and the periodic surrenders to a workers shelter life. There is an importance and complex connection between family relationships and homelessness. For the never-married women, family usually meant family of orientation - the families they were born into. For women with children, family included family of procreation – their husbands and children. Perhaps predictably, mothers and sisters were more likely to be sources of support than fathers and brothers. Homeless women had not always been families. Like everyone else, they were born into families or family-like networks of human relationships. On the street and in the shelters, one meets many homeless women who had been kept afloat by family members until, for one reason or another, the family had to let go. For most women, living with relatives or receiving significant financial or other support form them was the last stage in their descent into homelessness. Peter Rossi reports that the time elapsed since last being employed is much longer than the time homeless. From this is properly inferred that while they were unemployed, even for years at a time, they now homeless persons managed to stay in homes mainly through the generosity of family and perhaps friends. This is an ongoing process and many people continue to avoid homelessness through the support of family members. Of course, we do not know how many about-to-be-homeless there are, but it is reasonable to suppose that they far out number the real homeless. In New York City, it has been estimated that the doubled-up families in public housing outnumbered the officially homeless by 20 to 1. Shelters are dynamic social systems whose moods are in constant movement. If, for a moment, the system appears to be in a steady state, it is a balance of forces rather than a state of rest. The forces are many. They operate at different directions. At the individual level, personalities clash and personalities mesh, producing smaller groups within the system. Some forces enhance group solidarity, some of which work against it and some of which can go either way. It is unlikely that the staff people and shelter rules by themselves could have contained the explosive forces of racial animosity, social class differences, competition for resources, overcrowding, individuals who were not always in control of their actions and individuals who wanted to disassociate themselves from the group. But came against these forces and born mainly out of shared homelessness and common needs, was a powerful impulse to group cohesion and solidarity. Most of the time, the impulse to solidarity was strong enough to hold the negative forces in check, there by providing the minimum of peace and good order that made social life possible. On many evenings, as the women came together in the shelter, there was sufficient good feeling and fellow feelings, when coupled with their common needs and circumstances, to allow a sense of community to sputter into life. For most women, the loneliness of their homeless state was a terrible burden to bear. This fragile bit of community, however small, was precious indeed. Homelessness is the sum total of our dreams, policies, intentions, errors, omissions, cruelties, kindness, all of it recorded, in the flesh, in the life of the streets.
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