Today I noticed something that really stunned me. I spend significantly less money now that I am housed. In fact, I spend even less money today than I ever did. While I learned survival skills through my homeless experience, which was a big part of it, I’m certain that the biggest contributor is simply a roof over my head. The fact of the matter is: it’s actually really expensive not having a home. It’s really expensive being poor. It’s even more expensive being homeless.
While I was homeless, I spent more money simply trying to survive than at any other time in my life. As my money and resources drained, my options drained, too. Lack of resources and lack of choices forces you to settle … not for what’s most affordable, or what’s the best value, but instead, for what’s available. Although I was poor and on the verge of homelessness for a long time, homelessness further removed me from the ability to choose anything. In fact, the threat of homelessness, the threat of no longer having a choice, further perpetuated my own poverty, my own homelessness.
Poverty Is a Monster
That’s how it looks to me – a monster too big, too great, too powerful for me to fight alone. I can’t take out this monster by myself. I’m not lucky enough. The cards are stacked against me. A lot of the time, I feel it growling, breathing down my neck. That’s what being poor feels like. And, believe it or not, neither the trend of minimalism nor “not spending more than you earn” is going to get rid of that monster.
Not to mention, you can’t save money you don’t have either. If you’re a paycheck away from the streets, you’re probably not able to save money. You probably don’t earn a living wage to begin with. You probably don’t have cable to cut, or a contract cellular plan to ditch. There are no electronics laying around to pawn. You probably don’t own a car you can sell. Perhaps you don’t even take the bus to work. Perhaps you walk several miles there and back.
When I made my way to El Camino, a family shelter in Jamaica, Queens, I was told I could not bring outside food into the shelter.
Although we didn’t have a refrigerator, we did have a big, spacious locker. With that said, I eventually sneaked in some bread and peanut butter, powdered milk, cornflakes, instant mashed potatoes, and tea bags. If I let the faucet in the tub run for a while, the water would get hot enough to brew some tea and nearly cook the pouch of flaked potato starch.
After getting the worse-case of food poisoning in my life within the first week, I avoided the cafeteria at all costs. Under-cooked meals and bruised, rotten fruit wasn’t worth vomiting uncontrollably over for three days.
I had no choice but to survive off of the iconic New York City dollar slice of street cart pizza. Of course, this was after I burned through my food stamps buying deli sandwiches at the only grocery store within walking distance from the shelter. This was also before I learned the instant mashed potatoes and tub water trick. Eventually, I spent a lot of time browsing the aisles of Dollar Tree.
It’s strange to remember how I felt then: Stuck, like I had no authority, no control over the circumstances of my life. It’s a weird feeling to be restricted in such a way, where the rules prevent you from helping yourself. In some cases, they further perpetuate your situation. Quite literally too! Because to not follow those rules of the shelter means to lose the very little you’ve managed to hold on to (including the roof). It’s not a pleasant feeling to choose between survival and survival with both options being kinda sucky.
Today, I’m glad to say I’m doing better.
Finally, I can take advantage of grocery delivery services, coupons, and buying in bulk. I could technically go to Costco, assuming I can get a friend to drive me there and back. When they go on sale, I can fill my pantry with basic goods such as sugar, flour, or rice. I can do this, not only because I now have the financial power to do so, but also because I have the space and opportunity.
I’m now the most secure I’ve ever been in my life, but that’s still not saying very much. Some months, I’m still barely scraping by. Just earlier this week, I learned that my husband was not getting paid on Friday because of an error with human resources. That paycheck, that is now coming in six days later than expected, is a fourth of our household income. We now have to wait until next week to pay our rent. Sure, there’s a grace period, and it’s nowhere near the end of the world. But when you’ve already met the end of the world, just this one tiny mishap feels a bit too close for comfort.
It’s a reminder that I’m still so close to going back there, to becoming homeless again. It’s not even a wild concept anymore. Thing is, I want poverty to be a wild concept. I want homelessness to be a wild concept. But the only way that will happen is if society acts as one to champion this cause.
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash