It’s a Scary World, Jane Doe

Jane Doe is on my mind a lot lately. It’s her fault I can’t sleep tonight. So, I sip at a mug of chamomile tea and write a bit about Jane Doe.

If you read this blog regularly, you’ve come to recognize Jane as a fictional character I write about in flash fiction. Her stories can be found under the “Flash Fiction” tab above, or click here.

Jane started her life as the protagonist in my 2015 NaNoWriMo novel. I won NaNo by completing a full draft of a novel consisting of at least 50,000 words (I finished with 73,270) in 30 days. She was born there, but she hasn’t taken shape or come into her own yet. That’s rewriting and editing to be done, a lot of it. I love NaNoWriMo. I’ve participated every year since 2008. It’s crazy creative fun and a wonderful way to choke a story out, to by-god get that first draft written so you have something to bitch about having to rewrite and edit, and it’s expected to be shit, because as Papa Hemingway said, the first draft of anything is shit. So, I love NaNoWriMo. But the drawback to NaNoWriMo is that with a crunch of a deadline like that, you’re not going to get a lot done in the way of character development, or logical story arcs, or well-crafted settings, or subplots, or any of that novel-y stuff.

Enter flash fiction. I stumbled across the weekly flash fiction challenges held over at Carrot Ranch Communications, and not only am I enjoying participating with other writers and having a ball with flash fiction in general, but I’ve been using it for little Jane Doe vignettes, and Jane is fleshing out far more than she did on the pages of that draft novel. I might be on to something here.

The defining thing about Jane is her homelessness, and that’s why I named her Jane Doe. That’s who she is to the majority of the people who pass her on the street: a hapless unknown, a lazy good-for-nothing, a nameless, voiceless nobody. I want to give her a voice and make her a somebody, help the world see that she is a real person, with fledgling dreams and broken dreams, loves and losses, starts and stops and failures, and she’s still out there trying, and surviving. Barely surviving.

Another defining thing about Jane Doe is that she is Anywoman, she is Everywoman. Any one of us could be Jane. I was hit by the bad economy in 2012-2013, when I lost my job in Nevada, moved to Washington because that was the only place that extended an offer of employment, and immediately lost two more jobs once I got here. I’d intended to keep my Nevada home as a rental and sell it when the market recovered, but I couldn’t hang on, and I lost it. If I hadn’t had a 401(k) to cash out, I don’t know what we would have lived on. Poof, home and retirement, gone.

(That could be my own fault, because I was unable to figure out how all these lazy unemployed people are riding high on unemployment benefits. My benefits were good for less than a year and didn’t even cover groceries for a month, let alone rent and all those luxuries like electricity and prescriptions and gas for the car and tampons and a phone and an Internet connection so I could look for another job, and if you think this paragraph is two barrels of snark aimed at unemployment haters, you’re absolutely right.)

I’m not bitching, not really. I’ve lost what I had invested and put by, but I did find another job and I’m still here. The Tominator and Dream Girl and I have a roof over our heads and food on the table. But it’s scary. I’ve heard it said a lot lately that most of us are one paycheck away from being unable to pay for that roof, and I’ve been close enough to believe it. I didn’t end up homeless, but the thought of it haunts me. I lost more than my house and my retirement. I lost security in my own capabilities and worth, my sense of my place in this world, my faith that I’ll always be able to take care of myself. Because for every one like me who had resources to fall back on and was able to find another job, there are thousands who didn’t, and couldn’t. How easily that could have been me. How easily it could still be me, at any time.

One of the things I did in response to my economic crisis was go back to school. Part of it was bucket list, part of it was a genuine desire to prepare myself for a new career, to make myself more marketable generally. But all the rah-rah you hear about a college degree guaranteeing you a good living is just that: rah-rah. I have a good friend who is highly educated, highly intelligent, highly capable, a powerhouse of get-things-done-genius, with a killer resume – who has been in various stages of unemployment for more than eight years. He would be homeless and without all his possessions, right now, if not for the kindness of his friends. And it’s not laziness. He estimates he’s applied for half a million jobs in all this time, and he has worked, happily, whenever someone invited him to, even temporarily. Overqualified? He doesn’t care. He’ll take it, and be grateful, and he’ll stay with you just to prove his gratitude. Unemployed too long? That’s bullshit. Those are the people who should be getting preferential treatment, if you ask me.

I did a bit of research about college degrees among the homeless but I didn’t find much. I found this story on Huffington Post about homeless college students, and this story about a well-educated and highly qualified man who is homeless, and this blog about being a homeless college grad. Nothing’s been written on the blog for a while, and I hope it’s because she found a job and was able to move in with her boyfriend and is now insanely busy and happy with her new career and their life together. I really hope that. But I would be interested to know how many of our homeless population are college-educated professionals who hit the wrong luck on the wrong day and don’t have anyone in their lives who will help them.

So.

One of the things I’ve learned from my own experience is that once you start to slide down this slippery slope, you’ve been marked. One woman wrote to me that after a brief stint of homelessness followed by the blessing of a home, she is still afraid. My good friend lives in fear now, and may always be even if he wins the lottery and buys his own island. I didn’t end up homeless, but my experience with jobs disappearing from under my feet and being just that close to not being able to pay the rent have left me frightened as well. I have a job now, I’ve had it for more than two years, but it still keeps me awake at night, how easily a secure life can turn upside down. This is not imagination; it is a real phenomenon. It hurts us, and it leaves scars. I’d read The Grapes of Wrath again if I wasn’t sure it would only leave me teary and depressed.

Getting back to Jane Doe, I’m starting to think that her story can best be told through a series of interconnected short stories, rather than a longer novel. Her desperation calls to me, creeping in and making its presence known in different ways and at different times and in different places. Jane’s resilience and determination define her as much as her homelessness does. The twin antagonists of her stories are fear and shame.

Your world is scary, Jane Doe, and I do want you to tell me all about it, so I can tell it to others.

But for now, please, let me sleep.

Photo credit: Hanibaael via Flickr/Creative Commons

Homeless in Seattle *Updated

“I never use the words humanist or humanitarian, as it seems to me that to be human is to be capable of the most heinous crimes in nature.”
     ~Elphaba, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, Gregory Maguire

Because on one hand, we have this:

And this:

And this (no charge for the advertising, Tom Teifer):

While on the other hand, we have this:

Bryan Harvey/Creative Commons

And this:

And we have this, for Pete’s sake:

That is Seattle’s Federal Reserve Building, sitting empty.  It has been empty for six seven years and declared surplus by the federal government, which continues to pay the upkeep and maintenance of this wasted space. With almost 90,000 square feet, it could easily house several hundred people. Title V of the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act provides that when there is surplus federal property suitable for use to help the homeless, it must be provided at no charge to agencies who assist the homeless. The Compass Housing Alliance went for it and they had the private funding they needed, but no go. Denied. The building continues to sit empty and useless and soaking up taxpayer money, and will for who knows how long.

Meanwhile, we still have this:

Read the poster in that window and tell me — I couldn’t have got a better shot if I’d asked that man to throw his sleeping bag down in that spot. I didn’t ask him. He was sleeping there when I walked by.

Incidentally, I went no more than 20 minutes out of way to take my photographs. On foot.

I realize that banks do not exist for the purpose of providing housing to homeless people. But it can also be argued that banks do exist on the shoulders of the American people, especially in light of astronomical bailouts, and thus have a moral responsibility to give something back to the American people. This is especially true when bank-owned properties end up being bulldozed because the banks can’t do anything else with them. Perhaps I’m oversimplifying the issue, but when this country has $5 million to spend on its senators’ hair, well then, I really don’t see why it has to be that hard. I’ve recently seen a statistic that says there are enough empty foreclosure houses in this country to give six to every homeless person. What is wrong with us?
I’ve been told that “most of” these people are unsheltered because they won’t comply with shelters’ policies on drug and alcohol use. Some, sure, I buy that. Addiction is a bitch and I can believe some would rather be high than warm, at least some of the time. But not all of them, and not all the time. I’ve heard the other arguments too. “They wouldn’t be homeless if they’d just get off their asses.” “Nobody’s homeless against their will.” “They’re just not trying.” Blah blah blah. Can it. There’s a saying that most of us are one paycheck away from being unable to pay the monthly cost of a roof over the head, and I’ve been close enough to have no problem believing that’s true. I don’t want to hear what you would like to think they think. Go talk to a homeless person. The ones I’ve talked to are nice people who don’t ask for much, really. Listen to what they say they think.

How do any of us believe people want their children to live like this? Yes, there are children living in this camp. Or there were, before the authorities ran them out, to set up their tents somewhere else, where they will also be run off, to move elsewhere, to be run off again, and so on, until they set up camp right back here again.  Instead of moving people in circles, literally in circles, why don’t we solve the problem?
Seattle’s 2014 2015 One Night Count, in which volunteers tally how many people are sleeping outside or in their cars, in the frozen depths of January, was 3,123 a record 3,772.  180 of those were children. I’ll update the number of children as soon as I get it, but if there were 180 last year, it’s a sure bet there are a lot this year. As Real Change newspaper pointed out, that number is probably low, since a lot of homeless people are successful at hiding. What kind of society are we, one of the richest and most “advanced” in the world, when a privileged few have more money than they could ever realistically spend, ever ever, but we let our own go cold and wet and sick and hungry?

We can turn our backs and say it’s their problem, their own damned fault, they’re capable of taking care of themselves and if they’re not, they should be. Or we can do the kind thing, the humane thing, and take care of our own.

When is it ever a mistake to err on the side of compassion?