Yesterday I mentioned in the comments that I'd be spending the day tagging along with my friend who is looking for an apartment for her mentally ill, alcoholic, unemployed, impoverished brother-in-law who is being treated for cancer (of the tongue, just to make things worse!). Whew. That's a load o' trouble. Fortunately, as I also mentioned, my friend is experienced in dealing with social services, but even so she was flying blind to some extent, never having done this particular task for him before.
It was, as perhaps only a writer would so cold-bloodedly say, interesting.
We went into four apartment buildings, all of them low-income, subsidized housing. (His total income is about $500 per month; our understanding, possibly faulty, is that they'd take 30% of that, which is really good compared to what he had been paying for years in the building where he had insisted on living before he got cancer.) We drove past four other places, too, but looked over at each other, said, "No way," and kept driving. In those cases, we were turned off either by the disrepair of the building, the crime rate of the neighborhood, or the appearance of the clientele
The four we investigated were nice, to the extent that we could see them. We didn't see any of the actual apartments, but only the lobby areas, because either they were full with no units available to see, or they required an appointment, which my friend hadn't learned from her extensive research on the internet. (I held a lapful of her printouts for all the places she'd selected to check.) The public areas were, in all four cases, clean and neat, inside and out. If there was landscaping, it was attractive; if there was a big lobby area, it looked comfortable and appealing, too, if you don't mind protective vinyl coverings on furniture. At least one of the buildings has a grocery on the premises.
These buildings were all well-located on bus lines. One was a downtown high rise, two were big old converted apartments in mid-town (where he lived previously and was badly beaten up once), and one was a high rise on the edge of town.
We were impressed with the employees. Every one of them was friendly, helpful, and efficient. They were stymied a bit by a new HUD regulation that requires an applicant to fill out the forms on the premises, and won't let you take them away with you to fill out, but we all worked our way around that.
Three of them have waiting lists, one has available units (He won't be ready to leave the nursing home he's in for at least a month, though he *really* wants out now.) The waiting list in one was 3-6 months, but it was clear to us in at least one case that because we look respectable, that could help move him up the list faster. Huh. Wait until they meet him. They're going to be screaming "false advertising."
In other words, because there were two of us--intelligent, fairly well-informed, middle-class women driving around a large area in a nice car, armed with internet research--it went very well. We found places we think he could live. The employees in those places couldn't have been nicer to us, or more helpful.
What if he were on his own? Sick, crazy, smelly, unable to speak (which doesn't keep him from trying). I don't think he'd have had to do it on his own, even then. Because he's in a nursing home, a social worker would have done this legwork. Somehow, he'd have been found a place to live somewhere. But this whole process--starting with his hospitalization and surgery--started because he has a brother and sister who care about him. He's not easy to find when he's on his own. He doesn't communicate well, and doesn't much want to. But his brother managed to track him down, get him in a car, and take him to a doctor, and from there the rest of it has unfolded. On his own, even with a bleeding mouth, I doubt he'd ever have gone for treatment.
The point of all this is not to make judgements about the system, but merely to write an account of some of what it's like out there, in the place where probably most of us have, at one time or another, secretly worried that we'd end up. As my friend said, with a smile, "I used to wonder how I could get one of those shopping carts." And I've had moments when I wondered, "Okay, so how do you actually get to a soup kitchen?" Haven't you had times of financial insecurity when those were your fears, too? In this society, material security is an illusion. For some, the illusion holds; for this man--from an upper-middle-class family, it broke when he broke.
In many ways, for some people, the social service system works okay, all things considered, though it sure helps to still have family who don't give up. And this is no judgment on families who do give up. Nobody knows their particular circumstances. Nobody walks in their shoes. I might give up, too. Most of the time even this man's family has to just let him be. When they can help, they do.
All we did was view that life, in mere glimpses, from the lobby. Even that tiny glimpse was enough to remind me that the only real security any of us have lies in whatever degree of acceptance and peace we feel inside, and in the love of our friends and family, and the good will of strangers.