MEEKS: Living without a net

July 31, 2013 

A few months ago a young friend of mine called to inform me that he had been fired from the job he had gotten with a major corporation a few months earlier. He was part of a team, and the entire team was fired for reasons that continue to remain unclear to them.

On that particular day, several other teams similar to his were fired and they were given the same explanation as his team. The particular practice for which they were fired was one that the five-year veteran on the team reported as having been used during his entire time at the company. In the past, no complaints had been made by any of their superiors to them regarding its use. The entire team was dumbfounded. But their sense of shock, anger and unfairness grew as they went through the process of applying for unemployment and being denied because the company protested their claims. They lost their appeals as well.

The corporation is a multi-billion dollar company that was hardly going to be affected by the few thousand dollars that would have been subtracted from their unemployment insurance account for the folks who had lost their jobs.

My young friend was left with no income for several months and finally was forced into an eviction from his apartment because he was not able to find enough odd jobs to make his full rent payments and to buy food. There were times when family members and friends had to supplement the small amounts of money that he was able to make.

As I sit at the Open Door, an intentional faith community providing hospitality to homeless persons, I realize how thin the line is between being able to maintain a fairly stable life of providing food, shelter and basic necessitates and becoming a homeless person. Granted there can be a variety of reasons why people experience homelessness, but for many people, such as my young friend, it is a simple matter of having safety nets. The net of a few friends or family members who are able and willing to offer a helping hand.

When people do not have this kind of support system it is very difficult to avoid falling into a space that leads to homelessness and all of the other pitfalls that come with it. The folks who I have spoken with over the past three months have a variety of stories to share about their journeys into homelessness.

Many of them are making as many strides as possible to move into a more stable place. I have not met anyone, thus far, who relishes living on the streets. It is a difficult life and it is rare that anyone would choose it over the stability of a safe, clean and comfortable place to live.

Those of us who have never had the experience of being on the brink of homelessness, or who have not lost the job that stood between us and such dire circumstances, might find it difficult to comprehend how quickly and easily this fate can befall anyone.

Too often there is an attitude that exists in our culture that is accusatory toward those who are struggling in this way. There is a sense that the victim is somehow responsible. There is some flaw in the person who made it possible for this fate to become theirs.

Perhaps, some of this attitude comes from the fear that if this can happen to a somebody without it being their fault, then it can happen to anyone. Some of the disdain for the poor might be rooted in guilt. This guilt can be minimized if there is a flaw in the poor person instead of some cause outside of the person, because then, the observer can be exempted from compassion.

The challenge of poverty is not going away. New and better responses are needed.

This column by Catherine Meeks, Ph.D., appears twice monthly. Meeks is also a contributing writer for the Huffington Post. Email her at kayma53@att.net.

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