“Dead”, said my table-mate.
I paused. Homeless people use pseudonyms a lot. When the one thing in the world which you have left is your identity, you guard it. Jealously; and with everything you have left - which most of the time, is little enough.
‘Soup Bone’ was a fellow with a long black beard and a blanket; you’d see him wandering downtown Portland, Oregon, looking through garbage cans and muttering to himself. At one point he had, by most accounts, led a productive life. He’d been ‘downsized’ (that’s a sanitized term for ‘fired from his job as a construction worker’) some years earlier during the last recession, or so the story went. As with real names, personal information is sketchy, hard to come by, and harder to verify.
“Froze to death during the big storm last Christmas. Cops found him a few days before New Years.”
While a lot of people were celebrating Christmas, ‘Soup Bone’ was acting out the last chapter of his life – in the cosmic game, some people drew cards which said, “You get to stay with friends and family this year, eat turkey, open presents, and wonder what to do over New Years”, while ‘Soup Bone’ drew a card which said, “You get to freeze to death when the temps hover near zero in a back-alley in Portland, Oregon.”
A word of background is probably in order.
Over Thanksgiving, as I’ve done nearly every year, I volunteer at an outdoor soup-kitchen. The regulars, members of several local charities, erect a big tent in one of downtown’s parks, then set up a kitchen inside it. There’s a dining area, and those of us who volunteer do our best to keep a smile on our faces and treat all-comers as if they’ve chosen to dine with us that day out of choice; as if they were in any of downtown’s restaurants.
The only things missing are fine china, a menu, individual tables – and a bill.
There are those of us who have been volunteering for years. Us yearly-volunteers have gotten to know some of the people who frequent the kitchen on holidays – as opposed to the full-time charity workers, who know these people up-close-and-personal, we only see them once a year.
Some are memorable. “Soup Bone” was one of these. He’d been coming for several years, and was usually one of the first in line. We’re not supposed to, but we’d usually find a way to save him an extra plate.
“Seconds” aren’t permitted, you see – we’re usually out of food long before we’re out of customers.
There were people I’d seen for years – and a lot of new faces.
One woman and her husband; obviously new to the business of homelessness, huddled together. She did nothing but cry and eat; cry and eat. He sat there, stoically; in between bites of turkey and dressing and cranberry-sauce.
We see the news-stories of people who’ve gone from homeless to successful, but those stories are few and far between - and are the product of a feelgood-media, intent upon preventing us from knowing the Real Story. The reality of homelessness is that depression, loneliness and PTSD are all common among the homeless; usually, the circumstances which caused their fall from financial security are swift, merciless and difficult; the result leaves them looking shell-shocked.
The lucky ones make it out. Most wind up, sooner or later, like Soup Bone.
(The nonsense which has passed for domestic economic policy over thirty years is largely responsible for this catastrophe. With an 'official' aggregate unemployment rate of 17% - closer to 25% if every person in a tent-city is counted - and one in ten homes in foreclosure with one home in four ‘underwater’, we’re on track as a nation toward a proto-feudalism; with most homes owned by banks and rented to people for what they’ll fetch.
On occasion, I've seen homeless people who've chosen the lifestyle, but they're few and far between. If you want to see the face of the New Homeless in America – you need only look as far as a mirror. Homelessness is the fastest-increasing economic condition in the United States.)