If you’re a lady, or you read lady magazines, you’ve undoubtedly come across the “What’s in my bag?” trope. In it, a celebrity or fashion blogger displays and discusses the contents of her purse including favorite brands of lipstick, fancy wallets and so on. I want to share something in the same vein, but with a goal that is entirely different from introducing you to a new make up company. Today I want you to understand a little bit of what it’s like to be homeless in America.
I work at one homeless shelter and volunteer at another because, among the issues that are present in cities, I believe homelessness is one of the most serious, and one that must be addressed before I feel I can start working on things like better parks or mixed use developments. Of course, many of these assets go hand in hand with ending homelessness, but right now I am focusing on the root cause. In my day to day, as much as it feels awkward and uncomfortable, I am often privy to the contents of homeless and low-income individuals’ bags. Whether they are unloading their items as they check in each night at the shelter (in which they literally have to remove everything from their purses) or just sifting through their bags to find a document that will allow them to sign up for food at the pantry downstairs, I’ve noticed a few items that show up consistently. I’m not revealing anyone’s personal information here, just hoping to give you a sense of what a homeless woman (or man) must often carry around with her every single day.
As you read over these items, consider the weight of them—literally and figuratively. What would it feel like to carry these items around with you every day? Consider also, how these items are not so different from what a wealthier woman might have in her purse, yet serve different or additional purposes.
So, what’s in her bag?
Every important document she possesses — The first thing to know is that when you’re homeless, you are constantly in need of documentation. You have to show it to the shelter where you’re hoping to get a bed. You have to show it to the cop who tells you you’ve been sitting on that park bench for too long. You have to show it when you arrive at the government office to sign up for food stamps. Not only do you need your own social security card, ID, and birth certificate, but you need the documents for all your children and any other relatives that might be with you. You carry it constantly in a folder, or sometimes in a plastic bag in case of rain. We’re not talking about making sure you have your driver’s license in your pocket. We’re talking about every important document mapping out your entire life, carried with you at all times.
Cell phone and charger — If you see a homeless person with a cell phone, you might initially think it’s a frivolous expense, but actually it’s one of the most important items to have if you’re without a permanent residence. Thankfully, most homeless individuals I have met in this country do figure out a way to afford a phone. Unfortunately, whereas homeless individuals could probably make better use of a smartphone than anyone else (being able to look up directions to a food pantry, respond to emails for job interviews, etc.) it’s rare that I come across anyone with an iphone or android in my line of work. Still, those trusty cell phones will help people through many a tough situation, and provide a way to connect to family who may be far away.
Make up — Everyone wants to look his or her best, including people who are struggling to get their basic needs met. She will undoubtedly have job interviews or meetings with social workers where she wishes to present herself in a certain light, and make up can really help with that. Access to basic hygiene is a huge issue for homeless people. Imagine not being able to feel clean each morning by taking a shower, or not being able to afford deoderant when you run out, or not having access to a bathroom when you need to change your tampon (there was recently an enlightening article about that topic in the Huffington Post). Not only are you without the safety and comfort of a permanent home, but you also lack the amenities of a permanent home. Make up is a small way to take strides in the direction of personal hygiene and dignity.
Tissues and napkins — Similarly, having tissues or napkins with you (probably grabbed from a cafeteria or soup kitchen) can be an important way to keep clean. If your days are not spent inside a home or office or school, you’re likely on the streets or moving from place to place, anywhere that will allow you to hang out. There’s only so many times you can use the bathroom at a mall or McDonald’s before someone tells you to “move along.” I wrote about the need for better public access to restrooms in this post, but until that time, tissues will likely be found in the bags of homeless people.
Candy, condiment packets, other small food items — When you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, every little bit helps. Whether it’s a Snickers bar you bought for a dollar from a vending machine or even some condiment packets you grabbed from the checkout line at the deli, keeping forms of sustenance with you is vital. A homeless person cannot just head for her kitchen cabinet when she gets hungry for a snack. Furthermore, for homeless individuals who experience illnesses like diabetes, having food available can mean life or death.
A few cigarettes — You may be thinking, why on earth would someone who has so little money spend her precious dollars on expensive, unhealthy products like cigarettes? In fact, there are several reasons. First, if you were a smoker before you became homeless, its unlikely that in the midst of all you’re undergoing—what with trying to find housing and income and support—you’re going to decide that that’s the right time to try to quit smoking. It would likely only add to your stress. Second, when you’re undergoing the trauma of being without a home, probably juggling a few children, managing a health issue, trying to keep it all together—it’s natural to want a momentary stress reliever. These are two reasons why you might find cigarettes in a woman’s bag.
So, there’s a look into the life of a homeless American. Think about the weight of it. Think also, about how it’s not so different from what a wealthier person might have in his or her purse, but everything serves a much more life-and-death purpose. You’re not carrying around lipstick so you can freshen up on the way to a date; you’re carrying around lipstick because it’s a minute way to make yourself feel presentable for a job interview that could dramatically change the course of your life. You’re not bringing along a candy bar in case you get hungry in between the gym and your dinner plans, you have that candy bar for when you can’t make it to the soup kitchen in between doctors’ appointments and food stamp sign-ups, and you’re facing a night without supper.
Homelessness directly impacted more than 600,000 Americans last year, many of them children. That’s equal to the entire population of Washington, DC. I hope this post gave you a small sense of how homelessness is both normal, and not so normal, for many Americans–women, men, white people, black people, children, seniors and more.