Thursday, April 11, 2013

Exploring the" Below the Grid" Lifestyle


One of the tunnels where homeless people have been living in a camp in Kansas City.

  This week, police in Kansas City, Missouri were investigating the thefts of sizeable amounts of copper and metal from area businesses. While they were investigating the area, they discovered several homeless persons camps, one of which had a network of tunnels.  The tunnels had supplies and diapers, indicating that babies and young children had likely stayed there recently.  Local agencies who work with the homeless came with the police officers in an attempt to aid in a peaceable relocation from the camp to an organization which could provide showers and clean clothes.
              Homelessness is a big problem worldwide.  In the US, the problem began when President Kennedy closed most of the mental hospitals in the US forcing people who might not be able to cook three meals, hold a job, or obtain a room or an apartment, into the streets.  The problem of homelessness, particularly in the US is extremely complex, and can't be solved with a politician's waving of a wand.
               As an intensive care unit nurse, I have had many homeless patients.  They come to us in serious trouble with either a hypothermic body temperature with pneumonia, or with an out of control chronic medical problem, like diabetes mellitus.   We get them well and we make sure they are aware of the services locally.  With their permission, I cut their hair, and the nurses buy them new shoes, socks, underwear, and some clothing.  We release them to a regular unit, and a day or so later, they are released to the outside world.  Generally, they are cooperative and grateful patients.  I talk to all my patients and I have often asked them what persuades them to live a life which is so difficult, when for most, there are alternatives.  My eldest son also spoke with homeless people while he was in a large urban university.  There is actually a Phd who lives as a homeless man, making enough money for food, or trades tutoring for an evening meal with a student.    There are many reasons that people become homeless, but most interesting, I believe, are the reasons they choose to remain this way.   In my discussions with homeless people there are often commonalities.   Many of them have a problem with a history of a mental illness, some type of drug addiction, or alcoholism.   Many of them have had serious problems with their families of origin, and do not trust them.  Some of them fear being sent to a mental hospital by their families, and so sustained homelessness is a way of dodging interaction and supervision of sorts by families that they consider controlling.  Some of them just don't want to be tied to an address.  "Once you are" some of them have said, "Everyone knows where to come and find you, and they bring the bad stuff right to your door".  Many of them equate homelessness with freedom, and in a strange sense, safety.   A few of them continue as homeless individuals because they actually like the challenge of living in essence, as a survivalist on a daily basis. Several of them have told me that they "feel alive" and free when living homeless, and that they just don't think paying all that money just to have an address is worth the trouble.  I must admit, paying a ton of money for an apartment when I was a new college graduate didn't feel good to me either.  It seemed to keep me poor.   They have also verbalized that they are most comfortable running from something, even though, they are not actually fugitives from the law. I was struck by how intelligent a great many of them are.
              Of course, a lot of people in the economy of the past few years are homeless without the homeless mindset I mentioned above.   Most people in the US are three paychecks from homelessness.  When a job is lost, a lot of people either move in with relatives, or into their car.   A few use an inexpensive recreational vehicle in an out of the way campground, where they try to live under the radar, especially if they have children and are seeking to avoid the prying eyes of local social services.
              About five years ago when I was teaching college, I had a student who lived in her car.  She had complex arrangements for showers.  She effectively lived from a suitcase. She knew where to eat cheaply and how to eat on holidays when everything is closed.  She had all her work in on time. 
               The police in Kansas City seemed amazed that people had created underground dwellings.  I have news for them. There are likely to be many more of such dwellings, and many more homeless people living in a subculture than anyone realizes.  Sadly, the present economy will likely generate more people whose lives become eating, finding a place to sleep safely, finding seasonable clothing, battling depression and low self esteem, and staying hidden from social services and police.

Some of the references to this post:

Notice the blankets set up on the left of this particular tunnel.

                    Given the economy, and the job outlook for many, this looks like simply the beginning of homeless family camps.


Gorges Smythe said...

Underground living certainly gives a new meaning to "out of sight - out of mind."

JaneofVirginia said...

It certainly does. If someone, likely from the camp hadn't been "salvaging metals" a little too efficiently, this place would not have been discovered. I do worry about collapses while people are inside, and I do wonder why someone skilled enough and strong enough to dig out such a network is not employed somewhere. A lot of jobs are easier !

lotta joy said...

I would not know where to go or how to survive. This is why they cluster together, and god help them. I have always said that if the day comes when I'm homeless, that's the day I will pretend I'm robbing a bank and hope I get caught.

Just the picture of that hole clutched at a couple of intense phobias I have.

JaneofVirginia said...

Yes, I found it interesting, that I would do many things long before climbing down into a dirt hole with pretty good collapse potential. One of my fears would be snakes which happened to enter when I wasn't looking. Although I think I would rather be homeless than imprisoned.

lotta joy said...

I couldn't make it homeless, needing ostomy changes and diabetic supplies. I would much rather donate my body to prison. Either way, you would be missing life, but in prison I'd have a degree of medical care and could wash my hair.

JaneofVirginia said...

Certainly an honest and well reasoned response ! I try not to consider either very much.

Linda said...

I am amazed the tunnel has not collapsed. Eventually it would if the authorities had not filled it. Where the blankets were was carved an alcove, amazingly symmetrical, dug out like someone claimed it, maybe sleeping there.

People do have reason not to trust their families and have reason to fear hospitals. They are not paranoid at all.

Many of the homeless are ex-military, so they know the power of someone controlling their lives.

I always said that when I am homeless, I will just kill the ex, then I will be warm, fed, and have medical care, be kept warm in the winter and cool in the summer, have access to a computer and a library right on site. (now don't report me as planning a murder. I would torture him into madness.) (I did not say that.)

JaneofVirginia said...

Watch what you say, as some of the folks who read here might not know you are kidding ! It saddens me to think that people with the level of skill and work ability to have created those tunnels are homeless. Perhaps you are right, and they are former military people. I hope they found safer dwellings afterward, but I suspect they did not.