Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Blog Action Day 2008: Poverty - Through My Former Lens of Homelessness

According to Inter Press Service over 1 billion people around the globe lack adequate housing. It says another 1 million people have no housing at all. Wikipedia says that the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) defines a "chronically homeless" person as "an unaccompanied homeless individual with a disabling condition who has either been continuously homeless for a year or more or has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years."

Today is Blog Action Day 2008. The subject is poverty. The day began when two bloggers hit upon an idea. They wondered what would happen if the bloggers of the world united to speak out against a common cause. The result for this year has led over 9,000 bloggers to unite as one voice to raise awareness of global poverty.

Unfortunately, this is a subject I know something about on both a professional and personal level. (Update 7/2/12: A family member took me to task for my use of the term "homeless". The doubling up definition provided by the National Center on Family Homelessness clearly applies. Denial isn't just a river.)

My story begins when my parents met. Mom was born and raised in the small town of Rossville, Georgia. She was a proud Southern Baptist with conservative roots. Dad, nearly 20 years mom's senior, was the son of immigrant Italian peasants. His mother, father and older siblings migrated from Naples to New York City. A staunch Roman-Catholic, my father was known to be the gregarious life of the party. Mother never had much use for alcohol. She was the quiet stay at home type.

My parents met and fell in love in Alabama while they were both working for the space program. That would be the last paying job that mother had for the next two decades. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that the marriage was doomed from the beginning.

Pretty soon baby makes three and along came me. By then, the pattern toward homelessness was beginning to evolve. When my brother came along 20 months later, my parents were deeper entrenched in the pattern.

By my 2nd birthday my parents had already lived in Tennessee, New York, California, Vermont and moved back to Tennessee. By the time I was four the addresses included Ohio, NY again and back to Tennessee to move in with my maternal grandparents.  My brother, mother and I would remain in their home until I moved away and married at 20.

My cousins had no problems attending what passed for my birthday party. My uncle, his wife and their three kids moved into my grandparents home. The tiny house only had two bedrooms and one bathroom. My grandparents were in one room, the three of us in another and my uncle's family was in the living room. Things got a little tense. I don't remember much of my early years which is probably just as well.

My grandparents owned a ceramics shop. Mother worked in it from late morning until early morning. She got paid in verbal abuse instead of money. She got a "pay increase" if she mentioned getting another job or wanting to leave. Since she couldn't do anything right she may as well do it in her parents business. We were fed and clothed. Wasn't that enough? We must be too stupid to be grateful - or so we were told daily, or hourly.

There were no days off for any of us. On days the shop was closed items had to be created for customers. Mother owned no car and could go no place without the approval of my grandparents. She had no friends and neither did we. We had no health insurance and no playmates. My brother and I were unloading trucks regularly by the time we were 9 and 10 years old. If we didn't work hard enough we got yelled at. If that didn't work mother got yelled at and she would yell at us or worse.

I grew up being told how lazy my mother was. She didn't work hard enough and was a stupid lousy mother. Nothing was ever right. Everything was controlled by grandmother. Everything. Later, I owned a car before my mother did. That didn't strike me as strange until years later.

My mother couldn't see good things for me because she couldn't see them for herself. Poverty isn't just about money. It's a mindset. I see this in my clients and I lived it with my family growing up. I was never going to amount to anything because mother didn't. That was my life. I was told to accept it but I never did.

Every milestone was a major battle. I could not enroll in clubs at either my junior high school or high school. Schoolwork was a problem. Studying was impossible. My grandmother poked fun and yelled at me for having homework. She said that since I wasn't going to amount to anything anyway I shouldn't study. Besides, if  I was too stupid to get the work done at school then I deserved a bad grade which got me in worse trouble. I learned to hide my studying or not do it at all. By high school I was forging my report cards. It was easier that way.

Fear (of everything) was constant. In high school I studied Romeo and Juliet and had to write a paper. "No excuses. No late papers." said my teacher. The paper was due on a Friday and I was terrified. I had been screamed at all week when I tried to work on it. By Friday, my paper wasn't ready and it wasn't any good. Flunking the paper meant flunking the class. I knew if it came out that I failed the class I would be yelled at or worse. It was a vicious cycle.

Then, I got a break.

My grandfather had befriended a stray dog. The morning day my paper was due I and saw the dog tearing something apart on the carport. Suddenly I knew what I had to do. I grabbed my paper from my backpack and gave it to him to rip apart. When it had enough muddy footprints on it to be thoroughly illegible I stuffed it back in my bag and ran to catch the school bus.

My knees shook all the way to school. In English I stood in front of my teacher with paw printed crumpled paper in hand. She docked me for being "irresponsible" but gave me extra time to rewrite it. I remember two things: one, sneaking up early Sunday morning to work on it and two, getting a D and being grateful for it.

These hurdled continued through the day of my high school graduation. I wasn't sure how I'd done on a final exam and made the mistake of saying so. Mother hit the roof and began calling family. She told them not to come to graduation because I had flunked out of school.

In tears, I called my best friend. Her mom taught at the school and intervened. She went to the school and pulled my record. I passed the exam and would graduate on schedule. If my best friend's mom hadn't been able to convince my mother I would have missed my high school graduation.

College wasn't on the radar screen. Mother said I would never make anything of myself and not to bother trying. When I did try I learned to hide my studying. When a letter arrived saying I made the dean's list I was told that it must have been a misprint.

Getting a job was a nightmare. I was allowed my first job because we thought I could ride the school bus to get there. It ended in disaster and was a relief. I was allowed my second job because my mother again thought that I could ride the school bus to work. I couldn't but after begging management to hire my brother I was allowed to keep the job. Otherwise, I knew I would soon be made to quit.

Breaking free was difficult and largely accidental.

It wasn't enough to marry and move out of the house. I knew I had to break the mindset of my growing up years. After I was out of the house a friend gave me the book Toxic Parents. This was so helpful to me that I gave a copy to my mother. Yes, you read that right. I gave it to mother as a gift.

My mother not only read Toxic Parents but said it helped. You have to understand, by this time my grandmother had grown tired of the shop and was in the process of closing it. Mother was finally able to get another job and had moved out. While she didn't see herself in the book she said that she did see a lot of her mother. It wasn't the desired result but it was a start of a better - but never a good - relationship.

It has taken a lot of counseling and support for me to overcome the first part of my life. In many ways the poverty and mindset I grew up with left me ill prepared for life. Coping mechanisms that protected me as a child have had to be unlearned and set aside. I thank God for my faith (another blog entry to be) and for the positive role models in my life. Without them, I do not know where I would be.

My husband and I have been married for twenty years. Counting the two year engagement we have been together just over twenty-two years. To this day, we still hold hands in public places and tell each other "I love you".

At times I look at my life and shake my head in wonder. I have a husband and two beautiful college age daughters. I love them and they love me. Both are college bound. This is called God's grace. I am light years from being the person I was and am grateful for it.

Last year I was participating in a legislative event in Washington, DC. A series of meetings had been lined up for me to attend on Capitol Hill. Walking down the street the enormity of the occasion in light of my background hit me like a ton of bricks. I had to stop and take stock thinking "WHAT am I doing HERE of ALL places?" Then I looked at my watch and realized that the "14 year old who wast going to become nothing" was about to be late for an appointment with the staff member of a member of Congress! (A few years earlier I had a similar moment when I was named a national Daily Point of Light.)

Counseling, positive role models, reading and watching others have made me a better parent to my daughters than my mother was able to be to me. They are both accomplished high-achievers who are doing well in college. I have high hopes for them and can't wait to see what the future holds!