Singing the Most Common Song in America
Standing on the corner of Belmont and Sheffield, crossing the street to grab some coffee, a 30-ish white man dragging his possessions in a beat-up rolling cart approaches me.
"Can you spare some change so I can get something to eat?"
"No. I only give money to street musicians."
"What? Why?" His sense of injustice and slight entitlement is palpable.
"I have to draw the line somewhere or I would be giving out money to every other person on the street. And I'm a musician. And I used to play on the street."
“Oh. That kinda makes sense."
I cross the street. He crosses with me. I go into Einstein's Bagels, get a large cup of Dark Roast and come back out. I light up a smoke. He bee-lines directly over.
"Can I get one of those?"
"Gotta get one for my fiance. She'd kill me if I didn't get her one."
"Alright." I fish out a second smoke for him. "You're getting married?"
"Yeah. I had to find the right time to ask her. But she said yes." He smiles.
And I stop. Here's a story I want to hear.
The myth proliferated by the government and media and those whose interests align with keeping money out of the hands of the masses is that the homeless are either mentally ill, criminals, drug addicts or stupid.
While I'm certain that there is a percentage of the country's homeless that are one or more of these things, I'm just as certain that that percentage is far lower than you think it is.
According to a recent federal study, there were 553,742 people were homeless on a single night last year. Of that, approximately 25% are mentally ill. 33% are non-white which is just another signpost on the racist highway of America.
In one sense the prevalence of homelessness seems odd, because the national poverty rate has fallen to around the same level as before the recession. Yet homelessness is linked to economic growth. In some of the nation’s more desirable major cities, housing is rapidly appreciating to a point where it is out of reach for lower earners.
"What's the story on that?" I ask. It's an open-ended question which gives him the choice to share whatever details he cares to.
It turns out that she has a job as a bartender. He's unemployed and has been for a year or so. Used to be a janitor at a Catholic high school but got fired. They can't afford an apartment on her wages so she stays with a friend twice a week. The rest of the time she spends with him, sleeping on the elevated trains or in the parks when the weather is nice. I don't ask about when it isn't nice.
"And she agreed to marry you?"
Oh yeah. She loves him. He loves her. They don't have much but they look out for each other, he tells me. They're saving up the money so they can get her a ring and then they'll go to City Hall and get it done. He's sad a lot - it's been really hard but he has a pretty optimistic view of life. His rolling cart is filled with stuff he finds in alleys and that he can clean up and pawn.
The InterWebs tell us that the top causes of homelessness among families were: (1) lack of affordable housing, (2) unemployment, (3) poverty, and (4) low wages, in that order.
I'd add a bit of bad luck and melanin are probably involved as well.
At some point, I offer to buy him a bagel sandwich - and he obliges. Turkey and swiss, please - and a bag of chips.
"Why?" he asks as I take his order. "I thought you only gave change to musicians?"
I don't really have an answer but I know, deep down, that but for blind luck, I might be in exactly his shoes. Poverty isn't about hard work or earning it. Poverty in America is about being lucky enough to avoid it.
“Hearing your story is a kind of music, I guess."
"If it's music, it's a sad ass song, isn't it?" And he laughs.