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Cover Story: How Far to Homeless?

It's closer than you might expect

By Elizabeth Wu · November 25th, 2003 · Cover Story
I never gamble, because I always lose. The only thing I've ever won was a limbo contest, which had nothing to do with luck.

I do consider myself an extremely fortunate person. I've never had a broken bone, a sprained ankle or a bad relationship.

When my wallet was stolen two summers ago in Chicago, it was waiting in my mail pile when I returned home, with all the credit cards and IDs still inside (I had lost $6). Out of all the people in the voting pool, I was recently selected for jury duty -- but also dismissed.

I have to admit, in general, fate smiles on me. Not before having a good laugh at my expense, though.

I have often been saved by the kindness of strangers. I've accepted more rides from people I didn't know than I could ever bear to tell my mom. Maybe it's my big, brown, "doe" eyes or an angel on my shoulder -- but for as many scrapes I've found myself in, there has always been someone there to pull me out.

Flirting with the streets
About two months ago I found myself stranded on a bustling Saturday night in Mount Adams after receiving poor directions to a try-out gig (playing tambourine, of all things) that was in fact somewhere near Oakley. My cab driver waited impatiently while I asked around for the place, and my heart sank when I realized I was far from my destination.

The fare box was already up to $10, and that's all I had. I was completely broke, at the time unemployed and had gambled the last of my cash hoping to get involved with a new group and generate some income. As it was, I didn't have enough to get there or make it home.

As I prepared to try to argue it out with the cab driver, the man who had informed me where the venue actually was slipped $20 into my hand and smiled, saying, "This will take care of your problems."

Having had my share of adventures that evening, I decided not to push it and gratefully went home. On the way, I thought about what I would have done had the taxi driven off without me.

I might have put on my most pathetic look and begged around for a ride. Maybe I would have gotten myself in trouble for panhandling without a license.

I have flirted with homelessness since I was a child but never actually consummated the act. When I was 5, my mom left my dad, taking my 2-year-old brother and me with her. I guess the trend of receiving help in need began then, as a friend of hers chipped in to keep us off welfare, for which we could have easily qualified.

Over the next few years, mom worked day and night to keep a roof over our heads, while I babysat my brother and learned to cook at a prodigious age. We made ends meet.

Fast forward to graduation. I received a full scholarship to the University of Cincinnati, leaving only the dorm to pay for. I'd saved up a fair bit in high school and also had a little left from the grant to cover books and other supplies.

When I accepted the mandatory first-year on-campus housing, it was because I thought the $1,800 price was for the year. Turned out it was per quarter, breaking down to $180 a week to live in a cramped, dim, depressing, smelly room with three complete strangers, in which the TV and stereo were on constantly and simultaneously, where giant roaches roamed the halls enjoying their rent-free status, where broken glass on the bathroom floors and showers were the first things you'd see in the morning and last thing at night, where people you didn't know wandered into your room at 3 in the morning to see if anyone was around to prevent them from stealing your stuff.

A precarious balance
At the time I had a job at a bakery, which required early mornings. I needed a quieter and saner place to study and sleep. So I moved in with a friend for the remainder of the quarter, after having blown my entire savings account on a sub-standard room I couldn't bear to live in.

Because of university rules requiring all freshmen to live on campus or at home, which wasn't an option for me, I ended up having to pay the dorm fee for the entire year. My first year as a full-time student I mostly spent working three part-time jobs to cover the cost of an empty bed.

Through my sophomore year I stayed in my dad's office, a dark, dank basement with no shower, heat or kitchen (but lots of roaches). By then I had made it into the College-Conservatory of Music's highly demanding Jazz program. While most of my peers were sweating over their music history and theory exams, I was more concerned about washing myself -- standing in a small plastic tub while pouring water over my head -- without catching pneumonia.

The only thing that kept me going was the generosity of friends and family. The bakery let me take home leftover bread, which I enjoyed at night dunked in salad dressing. (Don't try this at home.) Other friends donated money or bought me groceries, and family gave what they could. If it weren't for them, I certainly wouldn't have been able to stay in school.

Even now, two years after graduation and with a decent job, I have the occasional money scare. Sharing a lease with someone means that, if something happens with him or her, you owe their share. I recently went through a period where all my earnings were going toward my and my roommate's rent. The old adage about being only a paycheck away from eviction almost became a reality last month.

Because I have always been fortunate enough to have good friends and family, I don't think actual homelessness would have ever been a real possibility for me. But I have been close enough to have an idea of how quickly one's situation can change and how precarious the balance really can be, even for those who work hard.

My heart goes out to those without a support net when times are tough. "It" can and does happen to anybody. ©



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