The homeless culture of people in America has reached epic proportions due to the downward spiral of the economy, mental illness and lack of affordable housing. I chose the homeless culture of people for research and field observation to find out first-hand how this culture of people actually live and survive under such horrific conditions. I wanted to get a first hand perspective on the reasons these people are homeless, what they do to survive on the streets and what, if anything, that they think their futures may hold.
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Yes, the experience was painful to me, but it was, I believe a valuable experience. I found the situation of the homeless to be both shocking and sad. The living conditions of this culture of people was deplorable. To cope with these feelings I always tried to look for ” the cloud with the silver lining.” Dealing with culture shock was difficult, but I kept an open mind, remained flexible and didn’t spend excess energy on the things that were beyond my control.
I utilized cultural relativism in this field observation, as I accepted this culture of people’s values and beliefs and did not judge them based on my own values and beliefs. (Miller, Barbara D.) I also utilized participation observation methods for gathering research data in the field. Prior to embarking on this field study, I researched and compiled a list of free services that one can obtain if they are in a homeless capacity, to give to the homeless culture, in the form of flyers.
Robert Reosenheck conducted the very first study which observed homelessness as a real national paragon in our society. This study could quite possibly be the first study of its kind to come close to the real extent of this phenomenon in this culture of people. The major findings in the homeless study revealed that 744,000 United States citizens experienced homelessness between 1985 – 1990. Today these numbers are at an astonishing 1.6 million and rising.
The homeless in America pose a very serious health threat to society. Tuberculosis and other communicable diseases such as HIV infection, AIDs and Hepatitis Type B are rampant in the homeless culture.
A new finding in Rosenheck’s research , was the study challenging the insight that homelessness is confined in its reach. Homelessness appears to be no greater among one race than another. Previous studies of this nature were typically conducted in larger cities, however Rosenheck’s study was observed from the nation as a whole. We have learned from this study that homelessness may be of a much greater magnitude than was first thought. Impressive action is needed especially in the areas of health care, housing, as well as educational and employment opportunities. If something is not done sooner rather than later, the health and welfare of our nation is at great risk. ( Rosenheck, R.)
There has been a sharp rise from the stereotypical transient homeless male (hobo) to homeless families in the past 15 years and is the fastest growing component in the population of the homeless culture. The typical homeless family in our society today consists of a single mother, with an average of 3 children, with the eldest child being around 5 years of age. Most of these families are not new to homelessness and most have never rented or owned a home, instead living with family or friends.
The undereducated and unemployed make up the vast majority of homeless people. Most have worked at some point in their life, but there are many that have never worked. 59% of the homeless receive some type of public assistance ( TANF, WIC and etc. for their children. 49% of the homeless in our nation stated that they became so, due to cuts in public assistance. Appallinglymany of our homeless are United States veterans of foreign wars. The causation of homelessness is complex in nature and varies widely from area to area. (Nunez, R. & Fox, Cybelle).
I spent the weekends of July 2010 observing and interacting with the homeless in Dallas, Texas. Dallas is the third largest city in the state with a population of 1.3 million people. Over 8,000 of this population is homeless. (USA Today)
I encountered three distinct types of homeless people on the streets of Dallas. The first type was those who were homeless due to the loss of a job in the face of the tough economic times that we are suffering, or a devastating illness that wiped them out financially. I also encountered a lot of homeless individuals and families that are refugees from hurricanes Katrina and Ike.
The second type of homeless people was those that have been in and out of homelessness for years. Most of these homeless people are runaways, high school drop outs, teen mothers, abused wives and the chronic alcohol and drug abusers.
The final type of homeless people that I encountered are those with varying degrees of mental illness, the elderly and the infirm. Most of these people need some level of supervision in their daily lives, and even institutionalized in some cases, either in a nursing care facility or psychiatric facility.
On July 10, 2010, I took a step into a world that was totally new to me and that I could only have imagined. I believed that I was prepared for what I would see, but in actuality I was not. I met many homeless people, with varying circumstances and stories to relate, but due to space and time allotments, I have prepared a condensed version of my field study. Upon entering the new and potentially hostile environment, my first thought was, “Can I do this?” and my second thought was, “If these poor people can live this way everyday of their lives, then yes, I can and I will. Culture shock hit hard but I managed to rally and go forth with my field study. The temperature in Dallas ,Texas was forecast to be 101 degrees with a heat index of 108 degrees. It was 5:30 in the morning and the first family that I encountered was in the process of rolling up their sleeping bags, having slept in a local store front. I introduced myself and explained that I was conducting a field observation for my Cultural Anthropology final research paper. John, a Caucasian male aged 42, (last name withheld by request) Personal INTERVIEW, 10 July 2010 , replied “You about scared me to death,” ” I was thinking you were a cop or something!” Sleeping in a public place is a criminal act in Dallas, Texas. The homeless are accustomed to being roused by city workers, police and etc. Hate filled words and actions are used toward the homeless to accomplish this task.
John, continued to tell me about a homeless man named Lester, who had just recently been ousted from a store front. Lester was treated inhumanely by a member of a city crew, who roused him from sleep with a vicious kick to the ribs. Adding insult to injury, the work crew then destroyed all his belongings. John related that Lester told him later that he was homeless but he was still a human being and a member of society.
John and his family (consisting of a wife and two children aged 9 and 11 have been living on the streets of Dallas since hurricane Katrina in 2005.They were from New Orleans and lost their home and all their belongings. John stated, ” I didn’t even have a job to go back to.” We had nothing man.” John and his family use McDonald’s and other nearby facilities of its type for hygienic purposes. They spend their days in a public park. In inclement weather they stay in an abandoned building. They consume one meal a day at a local “soup kitchen” and “dumpster dive” at fast food restaurants for other meals and snacks. John’s wife (name undisclosed) stated that the restaurants wouldn’t even give them water without money. She further stated that when it rained they collected rain water to drink.
John also related the fact that many fast food businesses have stopped the homeless from using the restrooms in fast food establishments by erecting signs on the door, “For Customers Only.” If the homeless go into these restrooms, they take a chance of getting arrested, on the other hand if they void or defecate in public they stand the same chance of going to jail. It’s a “catch-22” situation.
The next homeless person that I interviewed was Fredrick (last name withheld by request) ,personal INTERVIEW 10, July, 2010. Fredrick is a 50 year old Caucasian male who contracted bone cancer and lost his right leg in 1995. He stated that he has been homeless since 1995. As he became progressively ill he subsequently lost his job and his home. John stated that he only had 10 years left to pay on his home when he became ill, but the chemotherapy, and amputation wiped him out financially forcing his family and himself into the streets. John said, “Sure I receive $ 700 a month in disability payments, but you can’t even rent an apartment here for that.” Fredrick went on to state that at the time they were forced into homelessness, his family consisted of a wife and four children aged 4-10. They immediately contacted a homeless shelter for assistance. The homeless shelter was going to separate the family due to a lack of room for the whole family. In order to keep their family intact, they deigned to sleep in the streets.
During my observation of the homeless culture I noted that many of the homeless ” flew cardboard” or placards asking for a job or money for food. This is illegal on private property, which puts the homeless person in danger , because they are forced to stand in dangerous intersections ,to prevent getting arrested for this violation. I also noted that several homeless people were playing guitars, performing magic tricks and etc. for what they refer to as “tipping money.”
As night approached more and more homeless people appeared on the streets. I observed that this culture had several modes of sleeping. Many simply unrolled sleeping bags or threw down blankets or old rags to sleep on. These people slept in store fronts at night. Most of the homeless were single, however there were several families observed in the area of my observation. Some of the homeless slept inside dumpsters. I encountered that most of these people would talk to you at night, but refused to give even their first names, or any personal information related to their being homeless. I surmised that this occurrence was most likely the result that the homeless didn’t believe that I was really a college student, but instead some type of local authority.
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I spoke with one gentleman (name and age withheld) who related to me that he had previously slept in the local bus station, sitting in a chair, but sleeping ( even for people waiting for a bus) was no longer allowed. He further stated that this was to prevent the homeless culture from spending time in the bus station utilizing the climate controlled environment.
This culture of people, (the homeless) are unique. These people have had their lifestyle radically changed and have found a way ) albeit terrible) to survive. Some of the homeless that I met have paying jobs, but the wages they receive are not conducive to providing shelter and other nec cessities. Most of these people are seen as unsuitable for employment due to their way of life. Many of these people commit minor crimes purposely to get sent to jail for the procurement of food and shelter, especially in extremely cold or hot weather. Many of the homeless do not have appropriate identification and cannot have access to social services such as food stamps, food pantries or even emergency shelters. (Shewmaker, H. & Wajda, S.)
The homeless are also at an increased risk of both violence and abuse. Homeless people suffer a vast amount of hate crimes from people who blame them for their circumstances that they are in, and group them as people to both fear and loathe.
I spoke to a man named Carl, (last name withheld upon request) personal INTERVIEW 17, July, 2010. Carl is a 60 year old African American male who related his story to me of being hit in the face with an unopened can of Alpo. The can of dog food was thrown from the security of a car passing by, as he was standing at the entrance to a shopping center “flying cardboard” which said, ” I will work for food.” Carl lost two teeth and received a busted lip from that incident, and was called a worthless bottom feeder, by the occupants of the car as it sped away. Carl still has the scar and the missing teeth to verify his story. Panhandling is just one of many identifiable targets for hate among the homeless culture of people. (Wachtolz, Sandra)
Candy, ( last name withheld upon request) is a 16 year old Asian/ American, who has been living on the streets of Dallas for two years. She was abused by her stepfather at home until she couldn’t take it anymore. She freely admitted to selling sex as a means of survival. Sitting inside a make shift, card board box shelter, Candy still has hopes and dreams of becoming a veterinarian someday
Arlene, (last name withheld upon request) Personal INTERVIEW 18, July 2010 is a 35 year old Caucasian female. Arlene is another victim of abuse, (in her case) at the hands of an abusive alcoholic husband. With no where to go, no education, no job and no income she became a street person nine years ago. Arlene related to me that on the streets was the safest place she had ever been. Having been abused as a child, she continued to be abused as a young wife. She shamefully admitted to aborting herself with a knitting needle, shortly after becoming homeless. She stated that she almost died from the self inflicted abortion, but she was glad that she didn’t bring an innocent life into this mess.
Ernest, (last name withheld upon request) Personal INTERVIEW 18,July 2010 is a 60 year old African American male. Ernest is a self confessed abuser of both drugs and alcohol. He told me that he has been homeless for 20 years. He gathers aluminum cans, stuff from dumpsters and etc. to sell to secure money for drugs and alcohol. He stated that he ate when he thought about it and hits the soup kitchen when he gets the notion to eat. He further stated, ” I will die out here, and there’s no one who cares.” Ernest lost his wife in a tragic automobile accident. Through the years he has somehow managed to keep a photo of her. He related that he began to drink to ease the pain of losing his wife, lost his job, his home, and even his automobile. Ernest stated, ” I lost it all, and here I am”. “I have no where to go and no way to get there if I did.” His parting words to me were words of encouragement. Ernest told me, ” Keep up the good work kid, don’t ever find yourself in a mess like this.”
In my weekend field observations I noticed four people whom I considered mentally ill to a degree that I did not feel comfortable approaching. These people bothered no one, basically stayed to themselves and seemed quite happy to be in solitude. As far as I could determine, these people did not appear to pose a threat to the safety of the general public.
I noted that many of the mentally disturbed homeless people were actually veterans of our country who had fought in previous and also present wars. U.S. homeless veterans are growing at an astounding rate today. Many suffer PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), the effects of Agent Orange, ( a defoliant used in Vietnam) and etc. An excess of 200,000 U.S. veterans are homeless nationwide and have absolutely no place to go. ( dallas.fed) This pains me greatly as these veterans put their lives on the line to preserve our freedom.
The last two interviews that I conducted included a homeless U.S. veteran. Harold (last name withheld upon request) is a 59 year old Caucasian male, who is a veteran of the Vietnam war era. Harold related to me that he had been homeless for 35 years and that he returned home from the war suffering from the effects of Agent Orange. At that time the U.S. government refused to acknowledge that Agent Orange was indeed a causative factor in many of the illnesses that the soldiers arriving home were suffering with. Harold couldn’t keep a job because of excessive absenteeism, and any sudden noise would send him running in any direction available, as hard as he could run. The U.S. government refused to give Harold service connected disability and likewise the Social Security Administration denied him also. Harold further stated ” that if you can’t pay your rent, you get evicted, that that’s how I wound up out here on the street.”Eventually, the government did recognize that Agent Orange was a direct cause of Harold’s illness. He gets a very small SSI check and an even smaller Veteran’s disability check. After combining both of these meager allotments Harold said ” Rent is so damn high, I can’t afford it.” “In fact, everything is too damn high.” At least, out here, I can afford my medications, seasonal clothing and eat pretty good at least for a little while every month.” Harold also helps out when he can with diapers and other necessities for the little ones in his area. “These are the ones I feel sorry for, I have no kids of my own, so these are all my kids,” Harold stated with tears in his eyes.
I then interviewed an elderly female, Dora (name withheld upon request),aged 89, an African American female, personal INTERVIEW, 25, July 2010. I observed her pushing a shopping cart, loaded down with old rags, bottles, cans, a few old apples and etc. I surmised that this is what one would probably recognize as a “bag lady.” Dora was of a cheerful nature and told me that she had been on the streets for 40 years. Dora stated, “My husband Sam died out here, the city hauled him off.” Dora doesn’t even know what became of Sam and stated that she would like to be able to visit his grave, that is if he has one. She believes that he was probably cremated.
Dora stated, ” They burned him up like garbage, that’s what they think we areâ€¦..garbage.”Dora related to me that she and her husband Sam wound up homeless and on the streets due to Sam’s lengthy illness (diabetes) and his resultant kidney transplant. Financially, they were wiped out and the cost of the anti rejection drugs for his new kidney was astronomical. Dora further related that she and her husband did what they had to do, in order to live.
Laughing aloud, Dora stated, ” I don’t know why I got these apples.” “Somebody stole my dentures.” “Guess they needed them more than I do.” “Maybe, I can trade them for something I can chew.”
I watched Dora as she slowly ambled down the street, pushing her cart, and I couldn’t help it, tears came into my eyes. I wondered why God would allow innocent children, old ladies like Dora, and etc. to suffer a life such as they do. Then a Bible verse came to my mind. ” I will lead the blind by a road they do not know, by paths they have not known. I will guide them, I will turn the darkness into light, the rough places into level ground. These things I will do, I will not forsake them.” ( Isaiah: 42:16).
The majority of the homeless culture that I encountered seemed very appreciative of the flyers that I passed out among them. Many did not know that these services were available to them at no cost. I can only hope that I have given someone an outlet to perhaps see a doctor or dentist, get an extra meal, or a much needed medication. Most of these people are good people that got down on their luck with no other resources available to them.
In conclusion I have learned that the majority of the homeless are so, due to the downward spiral of the economy, mental illness, or lack of affordable housing. I also found that there is no great difference between the number of homeless people from one race to another. This field observation has resulted in my attaining a broader perspective of the plight of the homeless. My only hope is that a day will come soon, when all the homeless in America will be off the streets and safe and secure in a comfortable habitation.
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