Friday, March 03, 2006

Invisible homelessness

For a period of months a year or so ago, an old blue van was parked in our neighborhood at regular intervals. It seemed to show up before 10 a.m., and then sometime late at night it disappeared. (Except on weekends, when it didn't show.) Occasionally you could glimpse the driver as he walked up a gravel road back toward the van from, presumably, some place down on Morgan Creek. A homeless man working a night shift? So I would have been willing to guess, but we didn't know. Then he was gone.

His usual parking spot was just around the corner from this house (which is still on the market, if you're interested).

A person living out of a car and holding a job might well not show up on an annual count of the homeless. Indeed, he or she might take great pains to disguise the fact. How similar, I wonder, is the story of the man in the van to this one offered by William Alford, a homeless man in Northern Virginia?

During the day, I am among you, taking special care to seem no different. I bathe, shave, wear clean clothes daily, and otherwise keep a low profile. That requires effort. The suburban homeless quickly learn to make no offensive, intrusive, or otherwise attention-drawing manifestations of any kind. Tom Star-King, a 30-year off-and-on homeless “veteran” from Fairfax County explained it on a 2002 segment on PBS’s Religion & Ethics Newsweekly titled “Homeless in America”: “You’re gonna get discriminated against if you appear to be homeless. That’s why you have to keep up a fa├žade.”
Indeed, you’re not going to see the urban variety of homeless here in the ’burbs. If you make a nuisance of yourself, you’ll end up locked away in a jail cell or doped up in a psych ward. We don’t want to live indoors that badly.


Alford hates shelters. (He's not the only homeless person I've heard to say this.)
Of the nice, clean shelters where the truly offensive are screened out—such as the Embry Rucker Community Shelter in Reston—most are likely dormitories clustered with guys of varying standards of hygiene snoring, farting, yammering, and thrashing in their bunks. If you can deal with that, bully for you.

He prefers to take his chances in his car, exposing himself to "a certain cadre—mostly young males—who simply cannot abide leaving unmolested those who seem vulnerable."

Alford's remarkable story relates his fall from a CAD drafter for a defense-related corporation to a cab driver not quite making it on his own, his putting himself through college where he was able to polish his considerable writing skills, and a marriage that fails for lack of money. Degree in hand, he looks for work but faces blatant age discrimination. Graduate school tantalizes but is not an option. Finally he is back on the streets, or rather the unwelcoming shoulders of suburban roads.

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