It’s easy to stereotype the homeless as people who had marginal jobs, lack education or training, or overextend themselves before falling behind on mortgage payments. Through no schooling, unemployment, repossession, bad luck or their own stupidity, the reasoning goes, these folks ended up on the street.
Some, like economist and occasional New York Times contributor Tyler Cowen even argues that the problems of income inequality and its accompanying social disasters such as homelessness that afflict far too many Americans, is simply nature’s way of protecting the rich. In effect, he insists that, “The poor shall be with us always, and it will be YOU!”
Yet not all of the nation’s homeless were factory hands, waitresses, truck drivers or held other low-end jobs that often are the first to go in an economic downturn and thus ended up without a roof over their heads. A noticeable number are highly-educated professionals who got caught in the whirlwind of the recession.
Tom Kane spent 14 years designing manufacturing systems. He also is an attorney with a degree from a top tier university and membership in the bar association. Yet the Mesa, Arizona, man is homeless, living for free at a friend’s house while he works at a call center and looks for a better opportunity.
“I have more education than my parents ever dreamed I might obtain,” he says. “I have proven experience and yet I live on the very edge of existence.”
Kane compares his situation to the life his parent’s led. “My father didn’t even graduate from high school but he was a maintenance superintendent for what might have been the largest bottling plant in the world.
“We lived a comfortable middle class existence in the middle of America,” he recalls fondly. But the recession tossed everything Kane planned for his life right out the window.
“I got pushed out of my own country for lack of a reasonable place in the economy,” Kane says, adding that eventually he got pushed out of his own home, too.
R. M. Weston of Greenville, South Carolina, observes bluntly how the problem is spreading up the social ladder. “First they came for the working poor. Then they came for the lower middle class. Now, they are after the middle and upper middle classes. Next, they’ll come for the … 98-percenters,” leaving the one percenter’s going toe to toe with those who are in the 0.1% for a piece of the pie.
Kane is bitter – and with good reason – noting, “I fell out of the middle class six years ago. Every day, I hear Republicans telling me it’s the result of my moral failing. I’m not sure I understand morality anymore.”
Grads On The Street
For every Tom Kane who is homeless despite more than a decade of solid work experience and multiple degrees, there are just as many young professionals and recent university graduates who have it just as bad – if not worse.
“I’ve almost given up thinking I’ll ever be an engineer,” says Bill, a 26-year old recent graduate of a large, Midwestern university who is now in Chicago. He doesn’t want his last name used because he is still trying to find a position and is concerned about how a potential employer will react if they learn he is homeless. Also, his
“I was in the top 10-percent of my class but I still can’t get hired,” he goes on to say. “I’ll move anywhere I can find a job.”
For the first few months after graduating, he lived with his parents in a community of about 18,000. “But it was too far away from where the jobs might be so I moved to Chicago.”
Bill didn’t think it would be so difficult to find work and lived on the money he’d saved working part-time while at school. But when his cash ran out, he ended up living between friend’s apartments and shelters.
Likewise, Susan – for the same reason as Bill, she doesn’t want her last name revealed – is a 25-year old law school grad who couldn’t find a job. So, she opened her own practice but says “the clients didn’t come as fast as the bills” and had to close her office. Now, she does volunteer work at a walk-in legal aid-type clinic in a Georgia town not far from Atlanta while looking for a paid position.
“I got evicted from my apartment because I couldn’t pay the rent,” she recalls. “I lived in a shelter for two months. Now, I stay with someone from the clinic so I guess I’m still homeless.”
Except for new attorneys who graduate near the very top of their class at major law schools, many with newly-minted degrees are finding it difficult to land a job. Speaking from her own experience, Susan says ruefully, “Everyone thinks a law degree is an automatic ticket to the top. It’s not.”
The problem is that except for a relative handful of large, corporate firms, the corporate law business has suffered from the recession like almost every other industry. A lawyer I’ve known for nearly 20 years explains that “most lawyers get their work from small businesses that need a lease reviewed or a bank loan negotiated, and individuals buying a house. It’s not from the headline M&A (mergers and acquisitions) deals and IPO’s (initial public offerings) like Facebook.”
The problem for recent graduates is compounded by the enormous loan debt facing many students. Susan says she is torn between “paying rent or paying the bank,” adding that she has thought about filing for bankruptcy but is afraid that doing so would make it impossible for her to ever get hired by a law firm.
An argument can be made that, as disillusioned as recent grads may be by their situation, they are young enough to recover. But the real tragedy is to be among men and women who thought they were doing everything right yet still became homeless.
“I got cheated out of the American dream,” states Don Jablonski, a 53-year old former vice president of a manufacturing company who has been homeless for more than a year. The company where he worked was acquired by a leveraged buyout firm in 2007 which proceeded to load it up with debt before stripping assets that forced the company into bankruptcy.
“I went to university, got a job, worked my way up and kept taking classes all the years I worked,” he says. “What’d I do wrong?”
At the time he was fired, Jablonski owned a house, a row boat he used when he would go fishing, and was considering buying a lake cottage. “Within two years, everything was gone. I couldn’t find a new job, the recession hit, my mortgage rate went through the roof and I was left with nothing” after his house was repossessed.
“What happened to my piece of America?” he wonders. Jablonski has been homeless for nearly three years now. “I don’t want to be rich like that asshole Romney. Guys like him got rich off guys like me. I just want to live in my own house, save a little money and go fishing once in a while.”
Out in Arizona, Tom Kane sounds depressed when he says, “I weep for the (lost) yearnings and dreams that my parents worked so hard for, as I did too.”
He despairs of ever having “a better future for me and for a posterity I cannot have as I can’t house and feed myself, let alone (think about creating) progeny of my own.”
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Charley’s next book is about his experience being homeless. When published, he will donate a percentage of his royalties to homeless organizations.