Racked: Homeless Doesn’t Always Look the Way You Might Think

Secondhand clothing,  donations, and more mean that people experiencing homelessness might not stand out.

Photo: Caiaimage/Sam Edwards/Getty Images

When most people hear the word “homeless,” a very specific image comes to mind, and it’s not pretty. But as Liz Waite, a 24-year-old undergraduate student at Cal State Long Beach points out, “the visible homeless, those on the street and who are mentally ill, are just the tip of the iceberg.” With a parent addicted to opioids, she left home at age 18 and spent six years couchsurfing, until May of 2017. “I was unmoored, staying at other people’s homes. It was really hard, excruciatingly difficult.

“You can’t judge a person’s socio-economic position by their clothes,” she says. “Designer clothes don’t mean anything.” Nice clothes cost less than a meal when purchased second-hand. However, Waite learned that dressing well can be a detriment. When heading to the welfare office in a vintage dress, her mentor stopped her, saying, “You can’t walk in there looking like Audrey Hepburn and expect to get help. You have to look the part.” She laughs, “It’s not good for your PR as a poor person [to dress nice].” People tend to see things superficially, she points out. “If you see a middle-class person driving down the street in a nice car, it doesn’t mean they are not drowning in debt. People are very biased creatures.”

While Cal State Long Beach doesn’t supply clothing to needy students, it does have a food pantry and occasional student group-sponsored collections for professional attire. “We should probably start working on a clothing pantry,” says Waite. “And handing out laundry cards as well. There are times you can’t afford laundry and have to hand-wash your clothes in the sink. It takes a lot of effort and time.”Waite has become an outspoken advocate for food- and housing-insecure students. She established a closed Facebook group where she serves as an intermediary to help find resources and is in the beginning stages of creating a nonprofit to help economically marginalized students in Southern California. “When someone contacts me, I can point them to the resources they need. It cuts down the red tape and promotes beneficial relationships.”

Her mentor, a woman she met through a friend when she was 17, has made her life a little easier by scouring eBay. “She would find a nice piece of clothing for $10 (sometimes designer), so I could go to an event and people wouldn’t think I was poor,” Waite says. “I have a couple nice pieces I can throw together to look sleek and nice” for an interview. Most students have to rely on thrift stores, where you “cross your fingers you will find something that will pass.”

Niya Kelly, state legislative director at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, works as an advocate to make policy and legislative changes with the goal of lessening and ultimately ending the problem of homelessness; her focus is on the Illinois budget, youth advocacy, and removing barriers for people experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity. She prefers to use the term “people who are experiencing homelessness,” she says. “When you are 17, 18 and someone is labeling you as different, it can be mind-altering.”

She explains that definitions of homelessness differ greatly at the federal, state, and local levels. Even at the federal level, the Department of Education and HUD use different criteria: While the Department of Education includes those doubled up or in unstable housing conditions among the homeless, HUD reasons that those doubled up are not in danger of being street-based and are not homeless. Kelly says that local agencies tend to base their definition on whether their funding is federal or locally based.

The Inter-Faith Housing Alliance in Ambler, Pennsylvania, is one such agency that works to provide temporary housing for families. Founded in 1982, Interfaith is now part of Your Way Home of Montgomery County, a HUD-mandated coordinated effort that brought all the shelters in the county under one umbrella to provide resources and referrals to those in need of shelter. Last year alone the agency served 43 adults and 71 children, with help from over 900 volunteers.

It is a surprise to many in the county (the second wealthiest in the state) that homelessness exists locally. Sue Zomberg, community resource manager at Inter-Faith Housing Alliance, says you wouldn’t know it from appearances. “Your kids are going to school with them. You work with them. Maybe your bank teller is homeless. They may be going to work, yet sleeping in the parking lot.” She points out, “All mothers tend to prioritize meeting their kids’ needs. They worry about keeping them well fed and well dressed.” She notes that at the holidays, when asked for a wishlist, most families asked for practical things such as a gift card to purchase clothing for their kids or clothing or shoes for work, disappointing some people who wanted to lavish them with frivolities.

This past year, one of the congregations that helps provide emergency sheltering wanted to purchase a gift for each of the children. She suggested an Eagles T-shirt, thinking, “What if they win and schools have a spirit day? This would give them something to wear. They want to look normal, like they are just like everybody else.”

Kelly agrees that appearances are misleading. When seeing someone who “looks homeless, people have a tendency to think ‘I don’t want to be around that person’ and cross the street.” Recently, she saw someone she works with walking in downtown Chicago. “If I didn’t recognize him, I wouldn’t have known he was experiencing homelessness. He looked clean, [and he] was carrying bags: a duffle, a grocery bag, a book bag. People might think he was visiting the area and walking to his hotel, but he was carrying all his things with him.” She says this is not typical; carrying bags can attract attention and possibly lead to a confrontation with the police.

Chicago Coalition for the Homeless provides up to five scholarships to graduating high school seniors. (As of June 2017, scholarship recipients had a 39 percent graduation rate, higher than the national average for that income level.) “College is difficult for anyone to adjust to. It’s an additional burden for those experiencing homelessness,” says Kelly. “They may be first generation or concerned that their family will be losing income while they are studying instead of working. They are thrown into a situation with others who have always had a place to stay.”

While some grow up experiencing homelessness, others are living it for the first time in college. Waite is one of many college students who fit this profile. Those who find themselves homeless may stay at a shelter, campground, or tent in the woods, spend nights couch-surfing at friends’ homes, or even resort to sleeping in campus buildings or their vehicles.

here has been growing awareness of the problem, largely due to the work of Sara Goldrick-Rab, who heads up the Wisconsin HOPE Lab and the soon-to-open HOPE Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University. The research has been increasingly collaborative, and colleges are getting involved in rooting out the causes and helping to find solutions. The most recent data indicates that approximately 14 percent of college students nationwide are homeless and even more are housing insecure. In 2016, over 150,000 FAFSA applicants indicated they were homeless or in danger of being so. Since many do not apply for federal aid, it is assumed that the true number is higher.

Amarillo College in the Texas panhandle has made fostering student success a priority. Jordan Herrera, director of social services at the Advocacy Resource Center (ARC), says, “We are on the front end. We are educating others on how to implement services. A lot of schools are coming to terms with who their students are and how their services need to change, and have come to us for advice.

“When you’re living in poverty, the way out is through education. We’re saying we’re going to help you and make sure you get there. Some schools have clothing closets, lots have food pantries, but feeding them is only one part of it. They still have basic needs that need to be addressed. If basic needs aren’t met, then what happens to them?”

The food pantry, clothing closet, and other services moved to one central (and public) location in the summer of 2016. While some were concerned that this would put students in a fishbowl, Herrara says, “It is one of the best things we have ever done. We are making it known loud and clear that these services are just as important as student advising, financial aid, and student life. It is normal for us to have these sorts of resources.”

Now it is easier to accurately identify the needs of students, some of whom have experienced domestic violence. “We say, ‘While you’re here, let’s get to know you. Do you need clothing?’” Herrara says. “‘Do you need a job?’ We are being proactive in telling them about available services before a crisis. If we can’t physically [meet their needs] here, we can direct them to other resources.”

She admits that the clothing closet is not used as much as the other services and attributes this to its limited selection. They are meeting the need for professional attire, but need more everyday clothing, including shoes, socks, gloves and coats. “Shoes are a real need,” she says. “Our clients spend a lot of time walking, and high heels are of little use.” She points out that this is one area where community partnerships make a difference. Mission Amarillo, an agency dedicated to providing shoes for K-12, is sometimes able to step in to help. “We can call them if we see a need,” she says. “It’s like having a shoe fairy.”

Waite echoes this. “Shoes are the real issue,” she says. “It is easy to find clothing. Shoes are more expensive, and I wear them into the ground. I don’t have a car, so I walk everywhere.” Jeans and shirts are in abundance, but footwear, and even underwear, is a challenge.

Herrera is also frustrated by the underwear issue. “We need to make undergarments an easier thing to talk about,” she says, mentioning another concern: Students may need specialty undergarments to play a sport that can’t be purchased at discount department stores. This may be “taking an opportunity away from girls because they don’t have $60 for a sports bra.

“We’ve learned a lot about people in poverty,” she adds. “They get judged a lot. If they have the same or even a nicer purse than mine, there is the misconception that people manipulate the system. The reality is that people in poverty buy these things to fit in. Just because they have name brands doesn’t mean they spent all that money; maybe they found it at a secondhand store. They have the sense that they are dressed ‘less than’ others.”

This is common, says Kelly. “These kids want to fit in. They try by their appearances to say, ‘I’m one of the thousands out here, and I’m just like you.’”

Waite agrees. When asked about college-branded clothing, she says, “It was one of my few indulgences. When my financial aid came in, I let myself buy a Cal State sweatshirt. I did feel deprived. It’s special, it’s important to me.” It may be a bit frivolous, but it’s warm and durable. She adds that one becomes minimalist, but that storage of essentials is a challenge.

As Kelly is quick to point out, “Chicago is cold.” Like many other advocacy groups, her agency provides donated coats to those who are homeless. “They don’t want to lose their coat when it warms up and is not needed,” she says. In Chicago, community organizations have considered these needs, providing lockers for storage as well as drop-in centers for laundry and showers. The lockers also are invaluable for safekeeping important documents, like birth certificates, that they don’t want to carry around all the time.

Waite had no secure storage option. “When I was displaced, I kept a lot of stuff at another person’s house and it was all stolen,” she says. “It’s a common problem. Keeping things neat is not too much of a struggle: You simply fold and roll and keep it in a garbage bag to keep it clean. Then you need to keep it on your person and keep track of it. When you go to classes, you ask someone to keep it at their place and hope it doesn’t get stolen.”

Kelly says this is not uncommon. There are certain times when it is inconvenient to carry everything, such as for a job interview, so some people put their things in public trash cans. They then have to worry that it might not be there when they come back.

It’s been said that clothing “makes the man.” What we wear impacts not only how we look and are perceived, but also how we feel about ourselves. In some cases, we are able to mask our shortcomings and “dress the part,” but all too often, we look only at the surface and neglect to see what’s beneath.