On Blogging About Homelessness

I’m not a news junkie, I don’t have a Facebook feed and my favorite flavor of ice cream is not Heavenly Hashtag.  In some respects, I feel as if I embody my generation’s version of my parents’ refusal to text message.

Blogging is the medium for which I feel affinity, both in the writing and in the reading.  I find myself exposed to many more viewpoints in the blogosphere than are presented to me by CNN or Fox News.  I try to remain at least minimally conversant with the issues of the day, which seem to change every few seconds, not unlike the electronic billboard at Shaw and Blackstone in Fresno that flips through a half dozen ads before the light turns green.  The Malaysia Airlines twin tragedies —  the plane that vanished in the Indian Ocean and the one that was shot down over Ukraine.  Missiles and murders in Gaza and the West Bank.  The execution of James Foley.  The drought here in California.

Mike Brown.

And yes, even the hullaballoo over the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, as petty as that may seem in comparison to the above.

In reading the comments on a blog post about the tragedy in Ferguson, I sat up and noticed when one commenter accused another of wanting a soapbox rather than a discussion.  After thinking about this, I realized that both are essential elements of good blogging.  At least for myself, I know I want both a soapbox and a discussion.  Yes, I appreciate the opportunity to report on events as seen through my own eyes and the partiality of my own filters.  The best part, however, is the discussion that ensues, the comments that challenge me, encourage me to stretch my thought processes and help me to see contrasting viewpoints and approaches that I could never begin to imagine on my own.

I like to think that my commenters help me to improve my writing in that they encourage me to consider multiple angles rather than merely committing my raw thoughts to pixels.  While inflammatory remarks do have their place in the pantheon of rhetoric, my commenters provide appropriate checks and balances that often cause me to pause and use the backspace key more than I did, say, a year ago.  They give me a reason to take time out to think about how my words will affect those who read them.

Nevertheless, I am sometimes way off base, and I am grateful to my commenters for setting me straight.  At times, my shortcoming is in the realm of making assumptions that may not be apparent to readers.  My understanding of how something works may be very different from your understanding of how it works, particularly if, although brought together by the digital world, we are widely separated by culture and geography.

I think about readers like Belle, who have, in my opinion, provided some of the most insightful comments in this space.  In her comment yesterday, for example, she asks why I haven’t pursued various enumerated avenues in my efforts to rejoin the workforce.  In an “I could have had a V8!” moment, I had to smack my forehead at the realization that there is so much back story that I have never adequately explained.  I have fallen victim to the fallacy of assuming that everyone else knows what I know.

And then there are the blessings bestowed upon me by fellow chroniclers such as The Art Bag Lady, who yesterday went toe to toe with me on her own blog.  She pointed out a number of my prejudices in writing about homelessness, including conflicting opinions that I have expressed and things that I can’t possible appreciate, never having been homeless myself.  Aside from being deeply honored by her lengthy critique, I genuinely appreciate the opportunity to benefit from insights born of working with the homeless regularly and of actually having been homeless, both of which are outside of my personal experience.

I think also of Dennis Cardiff’s blog, Gotta Find a Home, which consists almost exclusively of transcriptions of his conversations with the homeless of his Canadian city.  In at least one respect, Dennis has succeeded where I have failed.  He is an excellent listener; he allows the homeless to tell their stories in their own words.  By contrast, I don’t spend a lot of time just listening to the homeless individuals whom we serve through our ministry in this community.  They come to the door of the parsonage seeking help with a particular need, and I enjoy doing whatever I can to help fill that need.  Biblically, I believe this is called “standing in the gap.”  Ezek. 22:30  I have to laugh, because this is such a “male” thing.  It seems we always want to solve someone’s problems rather than taking time to just listen.  A lot of us men only feel satisfied when we have actually done something, taken some sort of affirmative action.  Unlike many of the women in our lives, we tend to forget that being a listening ear is an action, too.  And that sometimes it is exactly what is needed.

So here in the parsonage, we make some sandwiches, pack canned food and pasta into grocery bags and start thinking about places to stay the night and residential treatment programs and who needs a ride to where.  But dare I suggest that such pat solutions close more doors than they open?

Just as blogging provides us with a forum (a soapbox and a discussion), so does lending an understanding ear and a sympathetic shoulder provide an empowering forum to the homeless.  Listening more and speaking less provides a voice to the voiceless.  It makes the invisible visible. And it allows them to tell the rest of the world about the abuse they suffered as children, the odds that have been stacked against them from the very beginning, and the lack of viable choices that has pervaded their entire lives.

And perhaps I would be less prone, as The Art Bag Lady points out, to alternate between empathy and irritation if I were to stop telling it as I see it and allow the homeless to tell it like it really is.  If for once I would just shut up and listen.

Parasol

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The food line in front of the church on the other side of town extends from one end of the parking lot to the other.  This is the monthly food distribution in our small locality, a combined effort of the regional food bank and a state grant to the county.  You have to be signed up in advance to get food, a process that includes income and residence verification.  Yet every month, some people come join the party even though they’re not signed up.  Not only do these folks hold up the line for everyone else, but they provide a distinct element of drama when they begin yelling, crying or otherwise throwing tantrums.  We all get to hear about their disabilities, their children, their lack of transportation.  The workers try to do the best they can to accommodate their needs.  You don’t have a car to get to the food bank?  Sure, we’ll come to your house with the paperwork for you to fill out.  Be sure to have a copy of your Social Security check, rent receipts and recent utility bills.  No, we can’t give you any food until you complete the paperwork.  They’re coming to audit us this month and we’ll lose our grant.  That’s when the wailing usually begins.  “What am I going to feed my kids tonight?”  A worker hands her some bananas and a loaf of bread.  Everyone else online fidgets and rolls their eyes.  Why can’t they get their act together like the rest of us?

You can plan on waiting in line in the hot sun for an hour and a half to four hours, depending on how early you arrive and how many people show up.  Get there too late and you’ll be summarily told “Sorry, we’re all done for today.”

We try to occupy ourselves while we wait.  One woman repeatedly scolds her three little kids in Spanish.  The young couple in line in front of me take selfies with their phones.  The woman directly behind me sits in her wheelchair and sets up a large blue umbrella as a parasol against the sun that beats down on all of us.  “I can’t be out in the sun with the medication I’m taking,” she explains when I praise her ingenuity.  Neither can I, I think silently.  Note to self:  Buy parasol.

With my water bottle beside me, I sit in my metal folding chair, borrowed from the church fellowship hall.  When the line moves, I stand up and move the chair an inch forward along the sidewalk to avoid the wrath of the impatient lady in the wheelchair behind me.  I think she wants to poke me with her parasol.  When we run out of sidewalk and dump out into the parking lot near the food bank’s truck, I fold up the chair and text my wife to come get it and return it to the car.  There are still five people ahead of me, however, including two who haven’t signed up and are making a scene.  I can barely stand on my feet, so as soon as I get near the truck, I lean against it and then sit on the bumper.  This is a no-no, but it’s either that or fall down.  My poor wife, who has been dying to use the rest room for some time, has walked to a nearby barber shop to borrow their facilities.  As the bags and boxes of food are handed down to me from the truck, I set them on the ground where I can keep an eye on them until my wife gets back and can help me transport them to the car.  I know from past experience that if I take one load to the car, the rest of the food will be gone upon my return.  No one will know what happened to it, and it will be my fault, sorry.

Later, I will tell my little grandniece about my adventures on the food line.  She stares intently into my eyes as if she understands what I am saying.  She will be two years old next month.

We carry the packages in from the car and cover the kitchen table and counters with boxes and cans as we start to break down the government’s largesse.  Some of it will go to my niece to help with the little one — juice boxes, raisins, whatever meat and fruit she thinks her daughter will eat.  The rest of the meat and baked goods go in the freezer.  Cans and boxes are divided into what we will use and what we will give to others.  Our stuff goes on the open shelves in the kitchen, the rest of it into the “give-away box” in one of the cabinets.  This way, when folks come to the door of the parsonage needing more than a sandwich and a drink, we are all ready to make up a bag of food for them.  We always make up a bag for the elderly woman who lives on the other side of the fence.

There are always a few items that we still have to buy at the store.  Fresh bread, milk for my grandniece, tofu and hummus and other vegan stuff for me.  Almond milk.  Ice cream if we’re feeling lavish.  We try to wait for when things are on sale, adjusting our purchases accordingly.  We try to always have extra lunch meat and bread on hand to make sandwiches for the homeless.

The Food Stamp money on our EBT card never lasts until the end of the month, but we do what we can to make up the difference.  I might get a $100 check for some freelance writing assignments.  My wife will get a few bucks for babysitting.  Pastor Mom is on a fixed income but is always kicking in extra money.

With the help of family and God, we’re making it.

 

The Rules

Today was supposed to be box pickup day at the office of our local Headstart preschool program.  This is where families in our community can go on specified days of the month to obtain free boxes of nonperishable “drought relief” food.

To fill in those of you who reside in other parts of the nation or the world, California has been experiencing an unprecedented drought that has caused the water levels in reservoirs, lakes and rivers to drop to record lows.  We have been doing our best to water the rose bushes as well as the pretty flowers planted just outside the parsonage door, but the church lawn is starting to turn brown.  We are permitted to water only on specified days and between particular hours.  Today was a watering day, so we were able to turn on the sprinklers for a couple of hours and even allow our little grandniece to run through the garden hose spray and get soaked.

However, our minor inconveniences are nothing compared to what California’s farmers are experiencing.  Even as the price of gasoline has started to come down a bit, the price of food has been steadily rising due to shortages caused by lack of water and the resulting importing of foodstuffs from distant states.  Hence, drought relief food boxes.  Pasta, tomato sauce, canned veggies and fruit, peanut butter.

Today, however, there were no drought relief food boxes to be had.  Apparently, the regional food bank’s stock has been depleted.  There won’t be more until September.  And Headstart says they will no longer be able to distribute the free food anyway.  I called the food bank and they told me to call back in September.  They don’t yet know where the new food distribution point will be.

Returning home in the car, my wife and I started discussing Homeless Guy #3 and his request for a ride to a residential placement program.  He’s done this before, said my wife, and he has no intention of going anywhere.  My wife, who has the most incredible gift of discernment of anyone I have ever met, turned out to be completely correct.  #3 didn’t show up for a ride today.  So what was all that palaver last night?  Just his regular tactic of telling Pastor Mom what he thinks she wants to hear so that we’ll give him food.  I don’t really understand this, as we’d feed him in any event.  But I guess that’s how his mind works.

I told my wife that I’m actually glad it worked out this way, since the residential program isn’t accepting new intakes right now and I don’t know what we’d have done if #3 had been in earnest.  There’s another area program he could have gone to, my wife said, but he’s not interested in going anywhere.  Why?  Because he doesn’t want to follow rules.  And every residential treatment program has those.

I don’t know whether Homeless Guy #3’s inability to follow rules is a product of his drinking and drugging (and the long-term effects of those practices on his brain) or whether residential program proscriptions against alcohol and drugs themselves constitute the rules he chooses not to follow (whether due to his perceived need to self-medicate or just his fear of leaving behind the comfort zone of his destructive behavior patterns).

But I have come to realize that, whether he is aware of it or not, #3 has made a choice to reject society’s rules just has he has made a choice to be homeless.  As I am famous for wearing my heart on my sleeve, I tend to see the homeless as victims who ended up in their sad predicament through no fault of their own.  However, as a fellow blogger recently pointed out, it’s complicated.  Homelessness was the only option left for some; others had more than one choice, with homelessness being the best option remaining open to them.  Better than being in a physically, sexually or emotionally abusive relationship.  Better than staying at a shelter where one is exposed to assault and rape and one’s few possessions are likely to be stolen.  Or, perhaps, better than getting thrown out due to one’s unwillingness to follow the rules.

Logic would dictate that we should withhold our sympathies from those who have rehabilitative options that could reintegrate them into the mainstream of society, but choose to forego those options due to “the rules.”  Every aspect of life has rules, we say, from the rule that you must raise your hand to ask a question in class (I know, I’ve been watching too much Sesame Street with the little squirt) to the traffic light rule that “red on top means you gotta stop, green down below means you better go.”

After all, we don’t want everyone in class shouting out at once, nor do we want deadly traffic collisions resulting from cars entering an intersection from every direction simultaneously.  Rules are designed to promote the orderly functioning of society. 

Or are they?  I often found myself shaking my head in amazement when middle-aged men and women in my graduate school classes would endure the indignity of raising their hands as if they were in kindergarten.  I think of Congress, where our senators and representatives follow the rules of parliamentary procedure.  They may ask the chair for permission to take the floor for three minutes before yielding to the gentleman from Minnesota, but they don’t have to raise their hands, for heaven’s sake!

As for the traffic light rules, I learned a valuable lesson driving home from a trip up to Yuba City on a recent evening.  Due to some issue with the power lines, the traffic lights were not functioning at every intersection all the way through the center of town.  Pacific Gas and Electric had three or four trucks out working on repairs.  Meanwhile, the lights all blinked red.  The behavior of drivers was rather instructive.  Everyone stopped at each traffic light, looked both ways for cross traffic, then slowly inched into and across the intersections.  Not wanting to be killed by drivers on the cross streets, everyone was very cautious and allowed the cross traffic to go first.  The result?  There were no accidents and everyone got home safely.  Why?  Because people were courteous of other drivers rather than relying on them to follow “the rules.”

Homeless Guy #3 may be unemployable and a substance abuser, but does that mean that his choices should prevent him from having a roof over his head and regular meals?  Oh, you use drugs?  No food for you!  I suppose that, if he violates the rules with sufficient impunity, he will end up in jail where the good taxpayers of California will see to it that he is housed and fed.  But does it really have to come to that?

Surely, we can find a way to allow the homeless to enjoy the perquisites of basic human dignity without requiring them to follow rules that are, at base, arbitrary.

 

 

Scribes and Pharisees

Sitting in the parsonage this evening, we remarked that we haven’t seen Homeless Guy #3 for a while.  I’m surprised that he hasn’t come by for food for several days.  Perhaps he got his Food Stamps for the month and walked over to one of the mini-marts down the street to shop with his EBT card.  I barely know him, but it seems that a large part of his problem is his inability to get along with others, a problem fueled by drugs, drinking and a lifetime of hardships and heartaches.  I’m told that he has a history of making threats, including to his own family, and that he’s not above pushing someone around to get what he wants.  For a while, he’d been sleeping under a tree that I can see from the front door of the parsonage.  Lately, however, I hear that he’s been seen sleeping on a couch on a neighbor’s porch.

No sooner did I finish writing the above paragraph than Homeless Guy #3 appeared at the parsonage door, his gray hoodie pulled up against the evening breeze.  Nine o’clock at night.  Pastor Mom went in the kitchen and started putting together a food package.  We made him two sandwiches; I asked him whether he prefers mayo or mustard.  We packed up some chips and clementines.  I stepped outside to chat for a minute, and he told me that he’s done staying in the neighborhood and is ready to move on.  He says he grew up here, but that he’s no longer happy in this location.  “Some people just like to step on you, make you miserable, you know?” he tells me.  I encourage him to forget about those who have hurt him and to start over, move forward into a new future.  “Why be unhappy when you can be happy?” I ask.  He asks whether we’ll give him a ride tomorrow to a church residential program two towns north of here.  We assure him that we will, but encourage him to call first.  As far as we know, the program isn’t taking in any new participants right now. 

We don’t know whether Homeless Guy #3 is serious about wanting to turn over a new leaf.  He’s talked about going into a residential program numerous times in the past, but has never acted on it.  Perhaps he’s serious now, ironically at a time when the program will be unable to take him.  The man seems to be trapped in a vicious cycle in which words are meaningless, you violate others and they violate you, and every day is the same as the last.  It’s sad to say that he might be better off if he ends up in jail.

Jail.  It seems as if most of the homeless in this area end up there sooner or later.  Online, I read vicious comments from those who urge the homeless to sober up and get a job.  When a person has nothing — not a roof over his head, not a sandwich in his belly, not a hope for the future, not a person who cares — who can blame him for self-medicating with alcohol and street drugs?

I had my first appointment with the cardiologist today.  We had to make a 70-mile round trip for that, just as we did last week to visit the gastroenterologist.  Local specialists won’t take Obamacare, so the primary care physicians have to send us up there.  Among the things I’ve learned on my journey is that “Obamacare” is something of a dirty word.  You’re supposed to say “the Affordable Care Act,” or better yet, “Covered California.”  The clerk at the registration counter took one look at my insurance card, sneered and asked “Are you maybe employed somewhere?”  I could hear her voice drip with contempt.  “No,” I responded, feeling somewhat ashamed.  Yes, ma’am, I’m one of those worthless human beings who contribute nothing to society but demand high-cost medical care.  I’m one of those leeches who have run out their unemployment insurance and stand in line for food distributions.  I wondered whether I should show her my notebook, a hard cover composition book like kids use in elementary school, in which I’ve documented each of the 143 jobs for which I have applied.  But I know it would be useless, that it would not change her opinion.

After waiting for a while in the examining room, the young doctor enters, followed by an even younger “scribe,” who rolls in a laptop on a cart to take notes on our conversation.  “What, no Pharisees?” my wife quips when I tell her later.

The doctor asks the standard questions that all doctors seem to ask.  The scribe records my responses.  Do you use tobacco?  Never.  Do you use alcohol?  Never.  Do you use recreational drugs?  Never.

I may be among the long-term unemployed, doctor, but at least I’m not homeless yet.  My wife and I rely on family for help, as well as on federal government programs, and the state, and the county.  Yes, we had to come up here because my health insurance is Obamacare (that word again).  But I don’t need to self-medicate with all those substances you mentioned, because I have love, and hope.

Not like the residents of the homeless encampments in Fresno that the police destroy when they show up with bulldozers.  Not like the homeless up the road in Chico or those over in Berkeley, where police recently threatened to remove a homeless camp as a “nuisance” and then did so at 4 in the morning.

Not like Homeless Guy #3, who shows up at the church for a sandwich and asks for a ride to a place where there’s no room at the inn.

For information on the proposed California Homeless Bill of Rights, click here.

 

 

 

Something Good About Facebook

My wife and I are sitting at a gray Formica top table in the tiny diner that we always seem to find our way back to, the one with the black-and-white diamond parquet floor, a vague nod to the middle America of the mid-20th century.  We already know what’s on the menu, but we listlessly take a cursory glance anyway.  The only thing that’s changed over the years is the prices.

I order a salad with oil and vinegar (no croutons) and a baked potato — no butter, no sour cream.

“You want it plain?” the server asks quizzically, uncertain whether she didn’t hear right or whether I’ve lost my mind.

“Yes, please.”

The salad consists of a small pile of lettuce in the center of a glass plate, flanked by two cherry tomatoes and two slices of cucumber.  The gold and red shakers that are my salad dressing appear in their little silver holder.  We bow our heads and say grace.  We are quiet about it and most often no one notices.  Occasionally, out of the corner of an eye, we catch someone at a neighboring table gawking or making a whispered remark to his or her dining companion.  But we’ve been doing this for years and we’ve long ago ceased to care what anyone thinks.

We each have our iPhones out, swiping and scrolling at our tiny screens in between bites.  Watching us seated next to each other but bent over our phones, seemingly transfixed by the characters and images, people often get the wrong impression.  They don’t understand what they are seeing any more than they understand what they are hearing when we pray over our food.  We are not holy rollers, but we do worship God, and not the god of technology either.  We are not using our phones to avoid talking with one another, nor are we using them to text each other about the garish outfit of the woman sitting alone near the door or about the bratty kid misbehaving at the next table.  Quite the contrary, our phones have become the source of subject matter that has made for some of our most interesting conversations.  The medium of choice?  Facebook.

My wife has an account on Facebook; I do not.  I was once on Facebook for a spell, before backing away about four years ago.  For a little while, I had been thrilled with the prospect of keeping in touch with former coworkers, former subordinates, college acquaintances whom I hadn’t spoken to or thought about in 30 years, and all those “people you might know” — mostly members of churches that my wife attended as a teenager.  My initial enthusiasm waned as I became increasingly disappointed with everyone I knew on Facebook, most especially myself.  I find it convenient to say that what finalized the divorce between me and Facebook were the profanity-ridden, hateful comments posted by my nieces and nephews.  I like to say that I was tired of feeling as if I were back in junior high, a voyeur to an endless stream of bickering and vitriol.  But I know better.  That wasn’t it.  It was me!  I could no longer tolerate the way I had begun to treat Facebook as a talisman, the first thing I did when I opened my eyes in the morning and the last thing I did before going to bed at night.  I was so embarrassed with the way that I had allowed myself to be sucked into entirely too many games on Facebook.  And I became disenchanted with the superficial quality of my online relationship with people whom I barely knew, and in some cases, never knew.

These days, I take every opportunity to point out the downside of Facebook.  My wife says that my antipathy toward Facebook is no different than my promotion of vegetarianism; in both cases, I act as if I am better than everyone else.  She’s right, of course.  I do tend to harbor a rather smug attitude.  But I also believe that it is everyone’s right to pick his or her poison.  Although I no longer waste my time on Facebook, I now waste it on other things (like what I’m doing right now, for instance).

In spite of the above, I am pleased to relate that my wife and I have found a use for Facebook that we can both agree on.  And it is this in which we were engaged at the little table in the diner as we munched our dinners.

First, my wife opened her Facebook feed and passed me her phone so I could read about what’s going on with several members of our family.  This led to discussions about nieces and nephews, our little grandniece and upcoming plans.

Then she flipped to a screen on which she showed me a photo of a little old lady at a sewing machine, explaining her devotion to the charitable organization Little Dresses for Africa.  This is a woman who spends her time making one dress per day for penniless African children.  She hopes to reach a total of 1,000 dresses by the date of her upcoming 100th birthday.

But not all the stories that my wife shares with me from Facebook are so encouraging.  Next, she showed me the photo of a grisly auto wreck in our former hometown of Fresno.  Apparently, a woman strung out on meth had stolen a car and ran a red light, crashing into three vehicles.  26-year old Matthew Harkenrider was killed on his way to work as a radiology technician at a local hospital.  He had recently graduated and purchased a house; his wife had announced her pregnancy that very day.  Then my wife showed me the Go Fund Me campaign taken up for the man’s widow, an effort that has already raised thousands of dollars.

Whether inspiring or tragic, family-related or world news, my wife has probably read about it on Facebook.  And she shares it with me on her iPhone over a meal at a little diner, often leading to some of our deepest conversations.

And that tells me that there is indeed still something good about Facebook.

The Scarlet U

I have now been unemployed for 10½ months.  This is the longest stretch of time that I have been out of work in my entire adult life.

It’s not as if I’ve just learned to ride a horse and this is my first rodeo.  I experienced a nice little spell of unemployment in 2009-2010, at a time when the American economy was truly in the toilet.  Duration:  8½ months.  Having always worked for private industry, I thought that now, finally, I had a solid public sector job that was not likely to tip over and blow away with the first gusts of recession.  Three years and three months later, I was laid off.  State funding had been cut for five consecutive years, the organization was out of money, and one of the managers had to go.  I had the least seniority, so adios, amigo.  But first I had to lay off half my staff and figure out how the other half would continue to run the operation.

When I started my last job, amazed friends would tell me “Wow, you’re the only person I know who lost their job and is working again.”  When I lost that job, my long-retired parents tried to make me feel better by admitting that almost everyone they knew was out of work.

There are some things that most unemployed Americans have in common.  We applied for unemployment benefits and most of us received them, at least for a while.  We gussied up our résumés, filled out job applications, went on interviews.

Once we get past those basics, however, everyone has his or her own coping strategies.  For my wife and me, we picked up stakes and relocated 650 miles north to save money by doubling up with family in a church parsonage.  My sister, on the other hand, changed careers by going back to school with the money from her divorce settlement.  Then she had a hard time locating work with a certificate in hand and no experience.  Finding herself unable to make the accommodations necessary to live with family, she ended up camping out in a weekly motel room in Reno (because it is cheaper than California and because it is near one of her, ahem, “boyfriends”) with her cats and her laptop and cell phone and résumés.  She eventually found a job in Idaho, but couldn’t manage to keep it for more than a few months.  Problems with personality clashes.  Panicked at her lack of income, she began bouncing around the country taking short-term assignments.  New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon.  I can’t keep track.  There aren’t enough lines in my address book.

I do think one’s success as an unemployed person (if there is such a thing) often comes down to one’s personality.  If you’re a “Type B” personality (like my father and myself), an easygoing sort who works and plays well with others, you’re more likely to be able to make life’s little (and big) adjustments until you’re back in the saddle again.  If you’re a “Type A” personality (like my mother and sister), however, your alpha ways are likely to keep you flailing (and failing) at the headwinds that knock you down repeatedly.

These days, a person who becomes unemployed cannot help but wonder whether he or she will ever be able to get back in that saddle.  In the past, such a thought would have been preposterous.  Self-indulgent at best, delusional at worst.  But times have changed.  Once you creep past that six-month mark, you’re kind of out of luck.  With no more federal unemployment extensions, one is likely to face an income of zero for the foreseeable future.  As if that weren’t bad enough, the prospects of reemployment are poor once you’ve been out of work that long, and diminish with nearly each passing day.

Back in March, New York Times business writer Binyamin Applebaum published a piece titled “Unemployed? You Might Never Work Again.”  Sadly, the numbers demonstrate that this assessment is not some bit of facile hyperbole.  While unemployment as a whole has been decreasing in recent months, evidence seems to indicate that if you don’t find a new job within six months of losing your old one, you may be permanently forfeiting your right to work.  Of course, everyone from Congress to the Federal Reserve to newspaper reporters gets to play little games with the numbers.  For example, just because you’re out of work does not necessarily mean that you’re counted in the unemployment statistics.  If, after being unemployed for quite a while, you finally give up and quit looking for a job, then (ta-da!) you’re no longer unemployed.  You’re simply “out of the work force.”

I wonder where exactly I fall on all those neat little line graphs and bar charts that the economists like to include in their reports.  I suppose I’m still considered among the long-term unemployed, as I’m still looking for a job.  Sort of.

To date, I have applied for 141 advertised positions.  For many of these, the process included filling out lengthy applications, writing a series of essays and supplying a cover letter, a résumé, my college and graduate school transcripts, and a list of references.  When combined with creating files in PDF format, preparing envelopes and going to the post office, this rigmarole can take most of the day.  And that’s just for one job.

If I’m lucky, I’ll be called for an interview, which generally means packing up dress clothes, making hotel reservations, getting in the car and driving hundreds of miles (thousands, in a few cases) only to find out that an internal candidate was hired.

Then there are the dry spells.  Those are the times when you go weeks without seeing any new job postings for which you might remotely be qualified.  In order to minimize those dry spells, I steadily broadened my job search parameters.  So it’s in a field that is only peripherally related to my experience.  Apply.  So they want a few more years of experience than I actually have.  Apply.  So it’s 2,800 miles away.  Apply.  So it only pays half the salary I was earning before being laid off.  Apply, apply, apply.

After a while, however, when you repeatedly come up empty handed, you start to slow down your job search.  My wife, God bless her, has encouraged this to help me save my sanity.  So I do other things.  Write a couple of freelance articles for nine bucks each.  Work on my blog.  Work on my book.  Spend time with family.  Sleep more.

My mother reminds me that my brother-in-law’s father applied for more than 300 jobs when he was laid off.  When even that didn’t work, he was fortunate that he had enough years in at his company that he was able to retire and draw a pension.  Then he died.  And indeed, some days, those seem like the options.  Retire.  Die.

“Retirement,” of course, has become a fuzzy concept.  In the 21st century, most of us long-term unemployed people aren’t eligible for pensions.  Retirement becomes a de facto kind of thing as we gradually face up to the reality that we aren’t going to work anymore.  And that we have no financial cushion to get us through once our savings and 401(k)s are gone.  Many of us apply for disability payments, although those are harder to come by these days.  And there are plenty of us who continue to make halfhearted stabs at applying for unlikely jobs right up until the end of our lives.

The number crunchers insist that the economy is improving, both in terms of job creation and new hires.  So why are the long-term unemployed having such a hard time finding work?  Many answers to this question have been suggested.  One factor is that the long-term unemployed are getting older.  While one might think that a prospective employer would jump at the prospect of hiring an over-50 applicant who has years of managerial experience well-documented in a lengthy résumé, this is often not the case.  For one thing, it’s not a good long-term investment to bring on an employee who is likely to retire in a few years.  For another, employees with extensive experience are more expensive to hire.  You can’t reasonably expect a candidate with 30 years of experience to be willing to accept an entry-level wage.

For an analysis more rooted in economics, Applebaum points to a Brookings Institution paper indicating that there are both “supply side” and “demand side” aspects of the problem.  On the supply side, the long-term unemployed get more and more discouraged until they stop looking for work.  On the demand side, employers wrinkle their noses and just say “no” to applicants who have been out of work for a while.  After all, they’re probably not up-to-date on the latest developments in the industry and their professional contacts are likely attenuated if they’ve been out of the game too long.  This attitude among employers leads Applebaum to refer to the long-term unemployed as “people whose hopes are slipping away.”

And then, of course, there is the thinly-veiled antipathy to the long-term unemployed that was exposed with such virulence among conservative Republicans in Congress earlier this year.  Because, as you know, we’re all no-good lazy bums.  Four years ago, at the height of the Recession, The New York Times dubbed this phenomenon as pinning the curse of “the scarlet U” on the unemployed.

According to this line of thinking, if we’ve been out of work so long, it must be because we really don’t want to work.  We’re obviously not looking for work very hard, and furthermore, we’re probably being too picky.  There’s plenty enough work to go around for everyone if you’re just willing to take what’s available.  Don’t tell me you’re discouraged!  Get yourself together, man, and pull yourself up by your bootstraps!  If all you want to do is sit home on your sofa and watch your big screen TV, then you are a LOSER and have no one to blame but yourself.

And it’s true, we are losers.  First we lose our jobs.  Then we lose our unemployment checks (thanks, Congress).  Then we lose our savings.  Then we lose that TV we’re watching and that sofa we’re sitting on.  Then we lose our cars, our homes, our friends, our families and our self-esteem.  As the months and years go by, the losses mount up until, as Shakespeare so eloquently put it, we end up “sans every thing.”

References

Applebaum, Binyamin, “Unemployed? You Might Never Work Again,” New York Times (Economix blog, March 10, 2014).

Guo, Jeff, “Uneven Recovery: They’re Hiring, but not for the Long-Term Unemployed,” Washington Post (Storyline, Aug. 5, 2014).

Kasperkevic, Jana, “The Ghosts of America’s Long-Term Unemployed,”  The Guardian (U.S. Money blog, March 27, 2014).

Norris, Floyd, “Economy: A Drop in the Long-Term Unemployed,” New York Times (Off the Charts, July 25, 2014).

Rampell, Catherine, “The New Poor: Unemployed, and Likely to Stay That Way,” New York Times (Business, Dec. 2, 2010).

See also: “Unemployed? Employers are Discriminating Against You,” A Map of California (Jan. 13, 2014).

Ninth of Av

Last week was the Jewish holiday of Tisha B’Av, or the Ninth of Av.  This fast day is arguably a minor religious holiday (compared to the High Holy Days, Passover or Sukkot, for example) and often passes unnoticed by all but the Orthodox.

We have quite a few fast days on the Jewish calendar throughout the year.  Like many Jews, however, the only one that I observe is the granddaddy of them all, Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement).  Growing up, however, I attended a very religious Jewish school and was quite observant.  My memories of Tisha B’Av are not the best, which I suppose is fitting, considering the nature of the holiday.  The fast day always fell during summer vacation, so I had to watch for it on the calendar in order to avoid missing the date.  I was aware that it was a day of obligation and that I was expected to fast.  My parents and sisters, however, were nonobservant and had no interest in fasting.  I recall stopping at Dairy Queen with them on a sweltering summer afternoon and then remembering that it was Tisha B’Av and that I was not supposed to indulge.  As I was always obese, my parents didn’t mind a bit that I chose to abstain.  I would stew quietly as I watched them munch their Dilly Bars and ice cream sundaes.

Tragedies, mourning and hope

Tisha B’Av commemorates the date on which both the First and Second Holy Temples, in which we offered daily sacrifices to God as required by the Torah, were each destroyed.  The First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians (under King Nebuchadezzar) in 586 B.C. and the Second Temple by the Romans (under the Emperor Titus) on this date in the year 70 A.D.  Other tragedies befell the Jewish people on the same date in later years, including the expulsion of the Jews from England (by King Edward I in 1290) and from Spain in 1492.  The latter event is known as the Alhambra Decree, signed by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in the very year that their speculative investment bore them vast riches when Columbus discovered the New World.  Interestingly, the Alhambra Decree was not formally revoked until 1968.

As you may imagine, Tisha B’Av is traditionally a day of intense mourning.  The destruction of the Second Temple and the razing of Jerusalem irrevocably changed the face of Jewish life, ushering in the exile (known in Hebrew as the galut) to the Diaspora that continues to this day.  Where we once were unified in the Holy Land given to us by God, our misdeeds resulted in nothing but sorrow and tragedy as we were scattered al arbah kanfot ha’aretz, to the four corners of the earth.  According to Jewish tradition, Moshiakh (the Messiah, Elijah the Prophet) will one day gather the dispersed from even the world’s most remote outposts and return us to Jerusalem where we will rebuild the Holy Temple and once again offer the sacrifices as prescribed by the law.  The Shemonah Esrai (18 prayers) that the observant recite three times daily reiterate our fervent wish for the return of Elijah, as we believe that constant prayers of yearning will hasten the Redemption “speedily in our days.”

Thus, while the theme of Tisha B’Av is certainly one of expressing grief over our losses, it is also tinged with hope for Redemption that we believe may be at hand.  The Torah closet is draped in black and we read verses prophesying doom (from Jeremiah), verses describing catastrophe (from Job) and the entire mournful book of Lamentations.  Yet we balance this with verses from Exodus describing repentance of sin and God’s grant of our request for absolutions.  Finally, we recite 16 verses from Isaiah, beginning with “Seek the Lord when He is found, call Him when He is near.  The wicked shall give up his way, and the man of iniquity his thoughts, and he shall return to the Lord.  Who shall have mercy upon him, and to our God, for He will freely pardon.”  Is. 55:6-7  We know that the pain of what has been taken away from us will not last forever and will, in fact, be replaced by the joy of restoration in due time.

Rituals and culture

On Tisha B’Av, many engage in symbolic gestures that, in the Jewish faith, are associated with mourning the death of a loved one:  Ashes, sitting on low benches and refraining from all signs of joy or luxury (even extending to not wearing leather or jewelry).  Weddings, parties and even haircuts are not scheduled on Tisha B’Av or the weeks leading up to it.  From the days of my youth, I recall much cultural ribbing associated with these proscriptions.  For example, I remember my mother singing a Yiddish folk song that began with the verse “The wedding was held on Tisha B’Av and no one came.”  And then there was the Allan Sherman comedy album song (played on my father’s stereo turntable) about lost love that contained the clever rhyme “Oh why did she have to fall in love/I haven’t seen her since Tisha B’Av.”  Before I was old enough to appreciate the solemnity of the day, I remember thinking that both of these were hysterically funny.  At the risk of being sacrilegious, I now realize that injecting a bit of humor into a black situation is a psychological coping mechanism that helps us get past the gloom that is the order of the day.

The prayers and scriptural readings of Tisha B’Av are actually the culmination of a three-week period of solemnity beginning with another fast day, the 17th of Tammuz.  A number of disastrous events befell the Jewish people on that date as well, including Moses’ breaking of the first set of tablets of the law (upon witnessing the worship of the Golden Calf), the end of the offering of sacrifices in the First Holy Temple (due to running out of sheep during the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem) and the Roman breach of Jerusalem’s protective walls that led up to the burning of the Second Temple.

The three weeks

The 21-day period between the two fast days is supposed to be a deeply introspective time, during which we reflect upon ways in which we can improve the state of the world through deeds of kindness and charity, and through forgiveness.  We all get caught up in our regular routines, spending our time in fulfilling professional and family responsibilities, and it becomes all too easy to overlook the needs of our community that stare us in the face daily.  Turning a blind eye to our homeless, our poor, our children, our elderly and our lonely is part of the reason that we suffered all the losses that we mourn at this season.  Our only hope of hastening the Redemption is to take assertive action to take care of those who most need us.

This three-week period of mourning that just concluded presages another time of introspection coming up at the end of next month.  The asarah y’mai teshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance, begin with Rosh Hashannah (Jewish New Year) and end with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  Informally, we refer to this period as the High Holy Days or, in Hebrew, as yomim noro’im (the Days of Awe).  Tradition holds that this is the time of the year that God judges us on our deeds of the past year and decrees our fate for the coming twelve months.  It is a time of prayer and repentance, of recognizing and confessing to our misdeeds and the needs of others that we ignored.  As many of us do on January 1, on the Jewish New Year we make resolutions for self-improvement.  Rather than focusing on personal goals such as weight loss, smoking cessation or increased fiscal prudence, however, our resolutions are other-directed.  We say in the liturgy that we “afflict our souls,” meaning that we search inside ourselves for the strength and motivation to bring our agendas closer to God’s agenda.  We seek to “avert the severe decree” by changing our ways, by being less selfish, by opening our hearts, our homes and our wallets.

Honoring our Father

While the month of Elul (an Aramaic word meaning “search,” as in “to search our hearts”), the final month of the Jewish calendar, is the direct lead-in to the High Holy Days, one could say that the current month, the month of Av, is the true start of our holiday season.  As we do at Halloween, we realize that the holidays are upon us even though we still have a couple of months to go.

The very name of the month of Av is fraught with meaning.  At its most basic level, av simply means “father.”  Many Christians are more familiar with another Hebrew word for “father,” abba, as the phrase “abba father” is found in many modern Christian hymns and sermons.  However, av is the word for “father” most commonly used in the Torah, perhaps most famously in the Fifth Commandment (kibbud av va’em or “honor thy father and thy mother”).

In our secular tradition, we honor dear old Dad on Father’s Day in June.  In the Jewish tradition, however, we have not just one day, but an entire month to express our appreciation to our av!  While, on one level, this underscores the deep reverence and respect for our parents that is an integral part of Jewish culture, the month of Av is equally dedicated to our Heavenly Father.   Av is a great time of year to increase the attention and affection we bestow upon our parents, or to fondly remember them and ponder the many things we learned from them and the many kindnesses they bestowed upon us.  But Jews the world over also find it an appropriate time to improve our relationship with God, to spend more time studying scripture, to spend more of our discretionary income on charity and less on Starbucks, and to spend more of our energy attending to the needs of our children, our elders and our community.

For the fasts of the 17th of Tammuz, Tisha B’Av, and the big one, Yom Kippur, are rendered meaningless unless our ritual practice spurs us on to action that makes our world a better place in which to live.