It’s unlikely that either Craig Richardson or Mark Twombley would fit anyone’s stereotype of homeless men.
They each have a post-secondary education – a university degree for Craig, Mark a junior college diploma. They’re in their late-30s and call a picturesque town of about 100,000 people their home town. Neither drinks nor use drugs, both are clean, clean-shaven and wear decent clothes, and each used to have solid middle class jobs.
They’re also a gay couple who’ve been together for nearly 10 years.
Homelessness hit them like a double-barrel shotgun. Wincing as he speaks, Craig says, “When I came out 12 years ago, my family and and a lot of my friends deserted me like they were afraid they’d catch ‘the gay.’ It happened all over again when we became homeless.”
“It was like seeing an old movie that I didn’t like watching the first time,” adds Mark, who also had problems with his family when he came out.
While the specifics of their story are unique, it parallels the path of how others became homeless.
Mark had been a job site supervisor at a construction company that built cozy three–and-four bedroom homes in suburban developments. He became injured after slipping off a roof and falling two floors to the basement. Unable to work, Mark didn’t have disability insurance and is still fighting for Social Security benefits after several years.
“Our Tea Party Congressman doesn’t think government should help anyone, especially people like me,” Mark states bitterly. “Well, he hasn’t. His office has been useless in helping me deal with Social Security.”
He is suing his former employer’s insurance company – the contractor went belly-up in 2010 – alleging negligence and unsafe working conditions because he hadn’t been provided with either a hardhat or safety harness. But Mark says his lawyer figures it could be another two years before the insurer either settles or the suit goes to trial.
While the loss of Twombley’s income pinched the couple’s finances, they got by and were able to pay the rent on their town house, buy food and other necessities, and keep the lights on although they fell behind on Mark’s medical and physical therapy bills. But several months later, Craig – who had worked his way up to a middle management job at a telecommunications company – was laid off. When his unemployment benefits ran out, the couple’s financial problems escalated.
Within eight months, they’d been evicted and were on the street.
“We used up our savings, my 401(k) and Mark’s IRA,” Craig explains. “We still lost our home and most of our stuff, and had no place to go.”
For the first year, the couple stayed mostly in shelters because they couldn’t always find a place to crash for the night. Mark notes that “friends helped us when they could but many nights we ended up in as ‘charity sleepers.’
Although estranged from much of his family including parents and both siblings, when Craig’s aunt finally learned of the men’s situation, she invited them to move into the basement family room at her home.
So, technically they aren’t counted as being homeless anymore because they now live in a house rather than on the street. Some activists think this distorts the numbers downward, masking the true extent of the problem.
“If I’m crashing on a friend’s sofa for a few nights or move in with a relative because I have no place to live, that’s still homeless even if I’ve got a roof over my head tonight,” insists Carla Rengotti, who works with the homeless in New York. “So, I don’t get counted.
“The problem with most statistics,” she adds, “is they’re often based on surveys of shelters or rely on municipal figures. They miss a lot of people.”
“We didn’t choose not to have a home,” Craig says. “Just because my aunt is letting us stay in a spare room doesn’t mean we have a place. If we have to leave here, we’re back on the streets.”
“We don’t count for much right now,” Mark states. “I’d at least like to be counted as homeless. It’s what we are.”
A Founding Family
Craig hasn’t been able to find employment in his chosen field because “there’s only a few employers around here who need what I bring to a company.” They’ve thought about moving elsewhere but feel trapped.
“Mark’s doctors and therapists are here,” Craig says, “and we don’t have the money to just pick up and go to another city.”
He tried other fields. Craig worked at a car dealership for three months but admits, “I don’t think I could sell heaters to Alaskans.” He was let go after selling only five autos in 12 weeks. He’s also worked as a waiter, a part-time landscaper and tried his hand at writing technical manuals. But none of the jobs paid enough or offered steady work so he moved on. Currently, he has had two interviews with a bank where he’d be a teller and is being considered for a position with a collections agency.
“I dread the thought of harassing people who are in the same position as we are,” Craig says, “but I need to do something that brings in steady money.”
Craig can trace his family’s arrival in America to before the revolution, and a thought keeps nagging at him.
“My family helped build this country and now this country can’t help me rebuild my life,” he says ruefully. “Something’s definitely wrong.”
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Charley’s next book is about his experience becoming homeless. When published, he will donate a percentage of his royalties to homeless organizations.