When my partner invited me to move in, I naturally inquired about the rent. We share a 15-year age difference and career income gap. So, I felt my bank account’s high heart palpitations at the prospect of splitting his luxury two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment in Hell’s Kitchen. Previously, I lived in a converted one-bedroom with my best friend. And every monthly rent payment cleared out my funds like a tsunami crashing down on land already bare.
As so often happens, life decided for me when my boss emailed that he would not be renewing my contract a couple of weeks later. Against my will, my contribution would be zero. As a freelance writer, I was used to jumping from one gig to another but made the deadly mistake of falling comfortable with an employer I worked with for three years. This was pre-pandemic when losing a job wasn’t understandable but shameful.
“Don’t worry about it,” my boyfriend insisted. So worrying was all I did late at night and waking up every morning.
Had I stayed with my roommate, she would have suffered the consequences as well. This haunted me: What would we have done?
As an independent contractor, I didn’t qualify for unemployment. My savings were not in liquifiable stock or gold but clothes, so many clothes, which my twin brother immediately criticized. A Harvard graduate, he understood complex math and science but still failed to comprehend a gay man’s passion for fashion. “You know, I have a lot of student loans,” he said, scared to feed a brotherly stray dog that will only ask for more.
The warning was clear: Keep your boyfriend happy.
My story isn’t unique but more fortunate. The only barrier shielding millions of Americans from homelessness ends up being a loved one able and willing to provide shelter, whether an extra bedroom or a couch. Without this safety net, many who fall never manage to get back up. Like cancer, you’re diagnosed as unemployed. Then the symptoms begin gradually – like choosing public transportation instead of Uber, abruptly finding yourself debating between the phone or the electric bill.
However, it’s not an illness, and the vaccine and cure are compassion and action. Why are we so quick to dismiss homeless people as helpless instead of voting for leaders with empathy on their agenda? We must demand more from our legislators!
Marie Corbeil’s, 31, happily-ever-after began like so many New York romances. After experiencing a heartbreaking divorce, she moved to the Upper East Side from California to embrace a fresh start with a new home and bangs.
“I was separated from my ex-husband for a few months and visited the city for the first time in September,” she said.” I fell in love the moment my taxi crossed the Manhattan Bridge. And I instantly felt more confident in the divorce. I rented a van and chased my awe for the city across the country. I felt free but also aware that excitement can be dangerous, like living on an island of millions but knowing no one.”
She understood the luxury of having a person who provides for you, but was yet to discover the risks of financial dependency.
“I had money when I moved, so I was not really worried about finding a job right away. I applied to the available positions I found related to the United Nations, and later started to look in interior design and furniture. Since the opportunities were not exactly fruitful, I decided to start a coaching program for six weeks. It cost me a lot of money, but I thought it would help me get into the consulting business and show leadership skills in my applications.”
“Early spring, I started to be less fussy and applied to retail jobs because it seemed easier, and I was overqualified. Once again, the reality became hard to accept since even in retail, I struggled to get interviews; nonetheless, the jobs in a city of too many qualified applicants. It was late May that I got my first retail job.”
Homeless people don’t rise from the dead overnight. It happens to regular people from all ethnicities and backgrounds like a slow trickle of lousy luck, bad news, and lifestyle adjustments.
“Towards the end of summer, I began to reduce my shopping, then my groceries. Suddenly, I unconsciously chose to eat a lot of cereal and dollar pizza to buy food and litter for my cat. I canceled my membership at Equinox, offered my apartment on Airbnb for three months but never had anyone interested. At one point, I was considering doing degrading jobs that I never imagined … going on dates for meals.”
It’s an emotionally impossible decision to choose between feeding yourself or a pet. Typically, most pedestrians will reach into their pockets at the sight of a homeless person with children but quickly criticize those caring for an animal, like if they chose to adopt the moment they began living on the streets. That’s because we treat “homelessness” as an identity rather than a misfortune.
3.5 million Americans are homeless. Five to 10% of homeless people have dogs and cats.
Pets of the Homeless, a non-profit organization spreading awareness and aiding homeless care for their pets, fights against this dehumanization:
“Finances don’t indicate who a person is, what they are capable of, how much love they deserve, or where it should come from. Poverty is not a character trait. A struggling person deserves the same intimate connections as everyone else. More importantly, having money doesn’t give us the right to make those decisions for others — it doesn’t give us exclusive dominion over animals or children. For many on the streets, these animals provide them with security from other homeless or from those that discriminate against homeless people with beatings or from others who may steal their modest possessions.”
Like Marie, most of these pet owners would prefer to split meal portions with their animals than seal their fate in a pound. Would you recommend a homeless woman give up her child for adoption? Maybe, judgment comes easier than offering: How can I help?
“It was November when everything fell apart,” she said. “I realized that the funds from the divorce settlement completely ran out, and I would not be able to make it. I hated myself for not demanding alimony. But I never expected to need it to survive. I was scared of ending up homeless and losing all my belongings. My grandmother sent me money from Canada, and I sold my furniture to pay for rent. The last month of my lease, I maxed out every available credit card to eat and cover the bills, without any idea what I would do next.”
Millions suffer through their version of Marie’s story. But what happens when a pandemic injects the unemployment rate with steroids? Not to mention, a global crisis doesn’t pause the perils and struggles of everyday life.
What prevented Nicole Rosal, 39, from immediately losing her home is a government that doesn’t abandon its people with well wishes and capitalism. Previously working a high paying job in finance on a visa in the US, Nicole experienced a gradual decline in health for 10 years until pain abruptly intensified, debilitating, without a doctor’s explanation. Dealing with a sexist healthcare system, her cries for help were often shrugged off or patronized, primarily due to the limited awareness and research on Endometriosis.
“I thought that a diagnosis would be the end of my troubles,” she said. “But my nightmare only began. I always worked in demanding positions, big-name companies, and international organizations, worked almost around the clock. You know, the kind of places where Type A males and females work.”
“I had given my all to my employers, you could say, at the expense of my health. I frequently missed my scheduled doctor’s appointments because I always put work first – never myself. Around 2017, when I reached my limits, my body began to push back. I started missing work more frequently and taking sick days or requests to work from home. When I tried to negotiate with my employer about working remotely on certain days of the month, I was met with zero understanding – even though I could have done my job from literally anywhere. It would have set a ‘precedent’ for other people to ask for the same thing, and they didn’t want that. (COVID-19 is laughing hysterically in the background).”
She lived in New York at the time, until relocating back to Switzerland that same year. This was followed by a series of eight surgeries and complications, an unimaginable experience that she’s still enduring. It was during these surgeries that her company finally let her go.
“I sometimes joke that my new job is being a ‘Professional Patient’ at this point, against my will. Honestly, I sometimes don’t know any more what is or was worse – the many years of suffering and medically not taken seriously … the actual physical element of having suffered through emergency surgery trauma and the recovery after that, plus the trauma of every one of my eight big surgeries over the past two and a half years … having to repeat the same horrific surgery over and over again, being on my fourth protective ileostomy by now … the physical pain after each surgery … or the insurance nightmare and existential worries in terms of finances and ensuring a place to live that was absolutely counterproductive for my post-surgery healing.”
Worrying about the Coronavirus proved to be a luxury Nicole had no time for. She was struggling through surgery complications and a landlord expecting rent. Being officially terminated in Switzerland was probably an unknowing act of compassion on behalf of her former employer. If she had relied on American insurance, well, Nicole can’t bring herself to think about those consequences.
“At first, it was absolutely devastating. By societal standards, you could say my life crumbled to pieces. But I always find a way to see the silver lining and recognize how fortunate I am. Despite my urgent financial and housing hardship, money ceases to have any value, besides useless paper, when you think you’re going to die. I choose to be grateful to be able to struggle, to be here still, and I will handle whatever comes next with that mentality.”
Her insurance will expire soon. And when Nicole isn’t fighting for her life, she’s fighting for an extension. The most troubling fact about her situation is that it would have been a lot grimmer, both medically and financially, on US soil, the proclaimed wealthiest land in the world. She would have been hundreds of thousands in medical debt, homeless, or dead a long time ago, perhaps all three. The hospital might only contact the family to figure out where to forward the invoice.
Redemption begins by stopping discriminatory assumptions and the generalization that we know their stories. Marie, Nicole and I live in palpably different circumstances. However, we’re forced to wonder the same question: Where do you turn to when you have nowhere else to go?
“No one chooses to be homeless,” Marie emphasized. “They are not losers, lazy, criminals, or however you want to call them to not feel guilty ignoring them. These people are strong enough to stand up every day on the street and keep trying to survive in a city that destroyed them financially and personally. The fear of losing everything is the worst feeling of all. So I think others need to put themselves in their place when it becomes a reality. Because they once had dreams and goals and expected more from life. I know I did and still do. But you have to live their story to understand their everyday pain and fear, or at least, care to listen.”
“My experience definitely taught me how fragile life can be,” Nicole admitted. “You can have a job that pays well at a reputable company – it can all change so quickly. You lose your job, your insurance, your home. Anybody could end up on the streets, without any of it being their fault. It happens to so many without mercy. And what if you have a family that depends on you?”
“In general, people with illnesses are brutally discarded instead of being cared for,” Nicole continued, “without a safety net. Most countries who claim to be ‘advanced’ in medical terms, the US in particular, have a sickness-care system and not a healthcare system. Humans are judged based on their efficiency at work and sales numbers and how much overtime they work. And it’s so disheartening how most people – colleagues, friends – have no problem turning their back on the ones left behind.”
Many will be spending the holidays alone this season. It’s an opportunity to experience the solitude so many individuals worldwide live daily, indefinitely.
If you’re lucky enough to be with friends, family, or a partner, take a moment to think about all the love you feel for them. Then, imagine them on a dark street corner, in ragged clothing. They are cold because it’s winter, and hungry because they haven’t eaten since yesterday morning. Begging to be seen, you walk past them, blind to that love. They plead for your help, and you scoff, disgusted, to let go of your leg. Homelessness cloaks their identity like a costume. They cease to matter to you or anyone else.
Ask yourself, what would it take for this alternate reality to materialize? How secure do you feel this will never happen to anyone you care about? How sure are you it hasn’t happened to anyone you’ve known? Why does pain and suffering have to be proprietary to matter?
As unemployment and sickness ravages the world, we’re all hoping to be spared and wondering who will be next.