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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Couch Surfing the Waves of American Poverty

For every American who is “officially” homeless, there are many more who exist in a precarious state of limbo. To survive, poor people must devise their own networks and support systems.

When most people think of “couch surfing,” they picture the adventurous European travels of college students during summer vacations. But the term is also used by homeless people to describe their own efforts to avoid the streets by temporarily staying with friends, family members, or (oftentimes) complete strangers. This type of couch surfing is a sort of purgatory that exists midway between sleeping in the abandoned ruins of factories and the relative comfort of one’s own subsidized housing. If the couch surfer is staying in someone else’s subsidized housing unit (as is often the case, because poor people tend to shelter with people from their own social networks) that is likely to draw intense bureaucratic scrutiny. For both couch surfers and those harboring them, there is risk from landlords, housing authority officials, and caseworkers who (often in concert) have the authority to harass, evict, and even terminate precious subsidies. Couch surfers then become the targets in a high stress game of cat and mouse. For millions of Americans there is no assurance that the bed, sleeping bag, or undersized couch they slept on last night will be available the next day. But in a country where the “official” social safety net exists more in theory than practice, poor people have few other options. 

Couch surfing is a form of homelessness, but the U.S. government refuses to recognize it as such. To appreciate this conceptual failure, one has merely to scan the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) 2019 Homeless Assessment Report to Congress. The 98-page document begins with a statement by HUD secretary Ben Carson, accompanied by a photo of his sleepy face. The thing that most struck me about this document, however, is that the term “couch surfing” never appeared. Not once. The report mentioned, in passing, that many homeless people stay with relatives or friends prior to becoming officially homeless, but “staying with relatives or friends” is a rather euphemistic phrase that does not capture the anxiety and desperation inherent in the struggle to keep a roof over your head when you can’t pay rent. 

The 2019 HUD report on homelessness estimated there are fewer than 600,000 homeless people in America on any given night. However, this is equivalent to concluding that the only Americans who eat are those who are within the walls of a grocery store on “any given night.” The HUD’s numbers refer only to people who stay in an official shelter, or no shelter all. The total would be far higher if the HUD included people who fall under the Urban Dictionary’s definition of a couch surfer, which refers to anyone “who is homeless and finds various couches to sleep on and homes to survive in until they are put out.” It is both concerning and darkly amusing that an extensive, supposedly definitive government report provides less context than an anonymous quip posted to illustrate vernacular speech.

I am an eyewitness to the government’s failure to take the poverty crisis in good faith. Over the last 25 years, prior to my retirement, I worked as an outreach mental health clinician in Greenfield and Turners Falls, Massachusetts—two remnants of former American glory. These rural mill towns feature stunning Mesozoic geology, splendid old factory ruins, and fine 19th century architecture. Franklin County, where these towns are located, may not seem like “a poor place” at first glance (at least to people who associate poverty with urban settings, Blackness, Hispanic heritage, southerness, or some combination of all of these). But consider that Turners Falls, once a booming center of tool manufacturing, is 95 percent white with 19 percent of the population living below the poverty line. The beauty of the area belies its harshness. Most of my clients lived in large projects carved into bucolic landscapes: all three of Greenfield’s housing projects are situated along the bubbling Green River. There, one can find bald eagle nests, beaver dams, and pristine swimming spots that would have pleased Norman Rockwell. Most of the homeless encampments are along the Connecticut River in Turners Falls where the fishing is better.

The vast majority of people I worked with belonged to one of four categories (which tend to be fluid rather than fixed, unchanging states): 

  1. The “utterly” homeless surviving in tents in the woods, sleeping in abandoned buildings, or secretly crashing in basements and hallways of occupied structures. 
  2. Couch surfers who bounced from one apartment to the next and were likely to suffer some nights of “utter” homelessness. 
  3. People who’d obtained enough support from “the system” to be free of imminent catastrophe.This group included people who qualified for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), Section 8 or other housing subsidies, and/or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (SNAP, commonly known as “food stamps”). 
  4. The working poor who toiled at low-paying jobs with no union backing. A few had tenuous employer-paid health insurance with crushing co-pays. Sometimes they’d also qualify for SNAP, but most made just enough income to be disqualified for government benefits.

Of the four categories above, couch surfing was the most universal. Not everyone has the wherewithal to live in a tent or sleep in a shed, and obtaining SSID and a housing subsidy is a little like hitting the lottery. But anyone can couch surf, and it is a critical practice among those who are stuck in the clogged pipeline for federal housing subsidies. According to estimates from the Public and Affordable Housing Research Corporation, tens of millions of people are currently waiting for subsidized housing approval. So if there are fewer than 600,000 homeless people on “any given night,” and tens of millions on HUD program waitlists, where are those people waiting?

When I first met my client Rhonda, a Black woman in her 30s, at her apartment in downtown Turners Falls, she pointed to the shirtless man snoring on her living room couch and told me, “That is my gas money.”

As Rhonda explained, “Don’t anybody drive around here but me, and they all got to see the doctor, all got to eat, all got to go here and go there, and that’s on me. Do any of them give me a nickel for gas?” Rhonda received $750 a month from SSDI and another $75 apiece for her two boys, aged nine and 11. She drove her sister and her sister’s four children to appointments, as well as her aged mother who was living alone but showing signs of early dementia. Couch surfing is a way for people like Rhonda to squeeze a few dollars out of an underground economy that makes a life of poverty nominally viable. People with a housing subsidy can “sublet” a corner of their apartment to those who are even less fortunate, and Rhonda collected about $60 a week from this man. She was participating in an informal system that extends the meager generosity of the state’s so-called safety net to encompass those who are arbitrarily excluded from protection. Poverty hurts many people, and destroys others, but no one should assume that poor people passively succumb to brutal economic systems. People invent, improvise, and find ways to circumvent a bureaucratic structure that looms over life with nihilistic indifference.

However, the couch surfing system is a very unstable one, and Rhonda soon ran into bad luck. The shirtless man on her couch, who she had met at the laundromat, apparently had a record for domestic violence. The perfect storm came down hard. A neighbor had some “beef” with Rhonda and reported the visitor to the property manager, who called Rhonda’s DSS caseworker. In such contexts, agencies and officials are like pinball flippers operated by a blindfolded player. People file complaints against one another for child neglect all the time. In most cases, these accusations result from nothing more than private animosities. The consequences for the accused, though, can be dire. 

Running afoul of the DSS is an ever-present worry for many poor people, and Rhonda’s experiences showed why. First, the DSS worker argued that Rhonda had a long history of exposing her kids to dangerous boyfriends. Then, the property manager served an eviction notice because Rhonda allegedly had a history of taking in people whose names weren’t on the formal lease. Finally, the housing authority moved to terminate Rhonda’s Section 8 subsidy. The tempest took many years to resolve, with Ronda’s children being taken from her by the courts and put up for permanent adoption. Both children ran away from their separate adoptive families years later, back to Rhonda, who was couch surfing in another complex after being evicted. At this time, she was assigned a new DSS worker who supported family reconciliation, and helped her get a new subsidized apartment. 

Rhonda was lucky, relatively speaking—most similar stories don’t end on such an “upbeat” note. I do not want to suggest that DSS workers routinely take children from their families for frivolous reasons. In most cases such workers try hard to keep kids with their families. Nor do I wish to malign frontline housing authority staff. They generally try to do the best they can in a system designed to give too much control to private landlords. There are, however, enough instances of questionable DSS intervention and arbitrary punishments from housing authorities to make poor people terrified about interacting with these agencies. In my caseload everybody knew somebody who had lost their children, and many more had been threatened with that possibility. When you’re poor, critical moments in your life are often shaped by bureaucratic whim.

Before I started working as a therapist in Franklin County, I had little idea what poverty felt like on a visceral level. Everybody knows that poverty is a monstrous problem in America, born of wealth inequality, capitalist greed, public indifference, and so on. But few people who are not poor themselves have the chance to view poverty with intimate detail over time. At close range, one observes that poverty has predictable patterns and wounds people in repetitive and familiar ways. The poor do not suffer from random acts of fate, but rather from frighteningly mundane methods of cruelty and humiliation. To be poor is to be pressed on one side with the challenges of basic survival, and on the other side by the indifference of bureaucratic institutions—the proverbial rock and a hard place. 

My client, Richard, was a prime example. He had a few unpaid parking tickets that doubled and tripled over time, until finally the Registry of Motor Vehicles (RMV) suspended his license. He was working as a house painter and had to get to work, so he drove anyway and got caught—repeatedly. I can’t recall how many times he was stopped before the accumulation of charges mounted up to a penalty of jail time. Richard couldn’t pay his fines, so the state decided to lock him in a cage. The disruptions caused by small fines are, for people with no savings, potentially life-altering. Events that would have little impact on a person with even nominal financial security can obliterate the tenuous stability of poor people in an instant.  

For Richard and people like him, the loss of freedom means that time will slow to a crawl. The tedium, boredom, and emptiness of prison life has been described to me unfailingly by many clients. Since poor people are given less time on Earth than their more prosperous peers (the medical journal, Lancet, reported that there is a 14-year discrepancy in life expectancy between the top 1 percent of earners and the lowest 1 percent) robbing them of a portion of that time is particularly cruel. Life is objectively shorter for the poor, and I have heard many distraught people telling me how neighbors and family members had passed away in their 40s, 50s, or 60s.

If life is shorter for those who have nothing, this hardly means that it proceeds at a gallop, regardless of whether they’re free or imprisoned. Bureaucratic time has a uniquely slow cadence even if life itself is quickly running out. My client Alex, for example, spent 10 years in prison and another 10 years couch surfing while waiting for the approval of his SSDI application and subsequent Section 8 housing voucher. Since most low income units are operated by private landlords, there is no mechanism within the housing authority to assure that former prisoners are not discriminated against. Thus, it took Alex an eternity until he found a single room in a building directly managed by the housing authority.

Only a month after Alex moved in, a resident down the hall knocked on Alex’s door to complain about loud music. The neighbor was over a foot taller than Alex. Alex grabbed a bottle, smashed it against the door frame and brandished the jagged glass. The next morning, police arrested Alex and he went back to the Franklin County Jail for three months. When I met him there, Alex explained that when he first went to prison people beat the shit out of him because he was small. He learned that one had to display craziness quickly and often. Sometimes things that work well in prison don’t work on the outside. When Alex was eventually released, he had no government benefits and nowhere to go. Today he is still homeless and couch surfing while hoping for his number to come up on the housing authority waitlist once more. 

Aside from the interminable waiting periods for government benefits, the rituals that poor people must perform to receive them are seemingly designed to reinforce the idea that being poor is a personal failing. Applying for SSDI is an arduous, soul-obliterating endeavor that can take anywhere from a year and a half to three years or more.  It requires psychological testing, multiple forms and questionnaires, and piles of documents from doctors and therapists. Applicants must face down a gauntlet of hostile, bureaucratic functionaries searching each narrative for contradictions–and especially for evidence of non-prescription drug use. 

This is from a brochure put out by a for-profit business calling itself “The Legal Disability Benefits Center”: 

“The SSA will not grant Social Security Disability benefits based on a Drug Addiction. In fact, a Drug Addiction may prevent you from obtaining the Social Security Disability benefits you may otherwise be entitled to. For example, if you suffer from bipolar disorder and are not undergoing proper treatment for the condition and are trying to self-medicate with illegal drugs, your Social Security Disability application is likely to be denied. You will need to recover from your addiction and undergo necessary treatment for your bipolar disorder in order to qualify for Social Security Disability benefits.”

I always coached my clients who applied for SSDI benefits to hide their drug issues, and cautiously edited my own entries to their applications. However, many (if not most) people dealing with addiction have a substance-related offense, or else their addiction history turns up in a medical record or past psychological evaluation. Some 25 to 30 million Americans suffer from substance use disorders, which means almost 10 percent of the population is intentionally excluded from safety net protections. The SSDI protocol depicts substance abuse as a personal, moral failing—flagrantly dodging medical research indicating that substance abuse disorders reflect genetic predispositions

Antiquated moralizing about substance use is just one of the humiliations inflicted upon people trying to get help from the government. If a person is lucky enough to procure SSDI, an almost Herculean task of persistence, luck, and multi-year patience, there is another mountain to climb: the subsidized housing application process (since applicants need a source of income to even qualify for subsidized housing, applying for SSDI almost always comes first). In Franklin County, where I worked, the wait for Section 8 housing averaged three to five years. The number of available units is so small that people are forced to apply for units that are nowhere close to where they currently live. A recent conversation I had with a staff member at the Franklin County Regional Housing Authority revealed that there are over 244,000 individuals and families on the Section 8 waitlist for Greenfield, a city of under 20,000. This reflects that many people in the Boston vicinity are so desperate for housing that they have put in applications for subsidies throughout the state. Nationally, it is estimated that there are 35 subsidized units for every hundred families who need one. 

People who are lucky enough to be admitted into HUD-subsidized housing projects are still kept at arm’s-length from “respectable” society. Concentrating the poor into projects is a form of ghettoization that virtually mirrors the concept of prisons. Poor people are sequestered from the larger community and the intricacies of their lives are carefully hidden, like those of prisoners or people condemned to leper colonies. Where I worked, the project construction involved the strategic use of woods, hills, rivers, and other geographic features to isolate the complex from the surrounding community. For example, the Greenfield Gardens housing project is set in a valley carved by the Green River and abutted by an abandoned field that once served to grow crops for prisoners at the Franklin County Jail. Known as “the Gardens,” this project is a privately run complex with some 200 units constructed in a manner that gives children, enjoying the playground swings, a vertiginous view of the jail’s barbed wire loops, chain link fences, and cinder-block structures that loom from atop the adjacent hill. One wonders if the town planners envisioned the jail and the housing project as a rendering of the entire life cycle that poverty maps out. A person is born in the projects to a family with a housing subsidy, winds up in jail, and is released with no housing subsidy to begin couch surfing down the hill. The whole odyssey takes place within a square quarter of a mile, and involves, almost invariably, a net loss.

Let’s return to the case of Richard. When he got out of prison after serving three months for driving with a suspended license, he couch surfed with his parents in Greenfield Gardens (their three grandchildren from Richard’s sister were also staying in the apartment). Richard no longer had a car, nor was he eager to risk driving again without a license, so he lost his painting job. He knew that his parents would be pressured to have him leave, so he moved in with an old high school friend in another project. Then, his friend died of a fentanyl overdose (opiate deaths are epidemic in Franklin County). Richard subsequently moved back in with his parents, provoking the property manager to threaten to evict his family.

In HUD complexes, people like Richard’s parents—who have almost nothing—often risk their all-important government subsidy in order to protect homeless family members. This sort of generosity, the normally laudable reaction of parents whose children are faced with deadly hardship, puts them at risk from property managers, nosy bureaucrats and vengeful neighbors. Once the authorities detect a couch surfer, the bureaucratic and legal mechanisms leading to eviction and homelessness become a consuming possibility for the holder of the subsidy. From here, the narrative can take many idiosyncratic twists. The lease holder might deny that the couch surfer is staying overnight, and devise ways to hide the person from authorities. The couch surfer might circulate back and forth between several apartments in a complex to avoid detection. Even under the best of circumstances, tensions and conflicts between hosts and couch surfers can quickly escalate and explode. Subsidized apartments are small and couch surfers often have little to offer hosts. Squabbles over food and small amounts of money are inevitable. 

In conditions like these, the term “poverty syndrome” can be useful for understanding the challenges faced by Richard and others. Poverty should never be viewed as a mere collection of external obstacles to success or happiness, but rather, as an amalgam of economic, social, and psychological components that (considered together) create a powerful drag on individuals and communities. In particular, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) plays a major role in the psychology of poverty. Poor people afflicted with severe anxiety disorders like PTSD are handicapped in their ability to undertake personal challenges. Internalized fear of rejection, failure, and humiliation become debilitating. All interactions with authority figures can evoke a reflexive sense of terror. 

Poverty syndrome also encompasses a range of more “tangible” factors. Most of my clients had the following obstacles constricting their social mobility: no high school diploma, no driver’s license, and no teeth. All three of these afflictions might be seen as rites of passage because they happen in a distinct order within a predictable time frame. (We generally think of rites of passage as cultural rituals conferring new levels of status. The use of the term here is ironic: the poor are ritualistically stripped of status as they enter adulthood.)  Most of the kids in my case load dropped out of school in 10th grade after failing the state-mandated standardized tests. These tests are the products of a lucrative industry and make tens of millions for their designers and promoters. Dropping out of high school may limit job choices, but it also formalizes a lifelong sense of existential doubt. It is rare that the ritual of leaving school does not manifest in a permanent habit of fierce self-deprecation. The second rite of passage for the poor can occur at any time in adolescence or early adulthood. It may happen the first, second, or third time that a young person fails the $35 test to gain a learner’s permit, or it may happen after gaining a learner’s permit, when the person realizes there is no one in their family able or willing to take them out on the road to practice for the actual driver’s license test. Acquiring a driver’s license is a hugely important symbol of adult competence and independence. The failure to achieve it becomes yet another component of self-doubt. The third rite of passage is an absolutely avoidable consequence of inadequate dental care—most of my clients had lost all or many of their teeth by age 30. The cumulative result of these rites of passage is a terrifying sense of hopelessness and being alone. It is not unusual to see people shaking and crying as they enter the housing authority office for a mundane yearly renewal of their Section 8 subsidy.

The callousness of the American welfare system does not go unopposed, though. I have been guilty of assuming—unfairly—that my clients were too beaten down, too exhausted from the daily exertion needed to survive, to engage in activism. However, in 2017 a group of Greenfield’s homeless people organized and took over the local town commons to erect a “tent city.” The episode sparked a rift between the progressive and conservative members of the town council as they debated the traditional choice between police repression or responsive social welfare. The ultimate resolution involved little more than sending local social workers to get the homeless activists placed on SSDI and housing waitlists, but the ability of homeless people to organize was nevertheless heartening. The activism and confrontational tactics of this small cohort of homeless people in Greenfield recalled the much larger protests and confrontations of the homeless throughout Northern Europe in the early 1980s. So fierce was the ire and organization of the homeless in Amsterdam that the government unleashed thousands of riot police armed with tanks and tear gas against them in April 1980. If progressives are unable to pressure the incoming Biden administration to prioritize affordable housing and stimulus relief, the confrontations that occurred in Europe are likely to be reenacted on a vast scale in American cities.

This dire prospect of suffering and unrest has been forcefully raised by economist Richard Wolff, who has predicted that we are about to experience a “tsunami of evictions” and homelessness with the ending of stimulus payments and eviction moratoriums that held the worst economic effects of the pandemic at bay. The image of tens of millions of people thrown into the streets is one that summons forth apocalyptic visions of civil strife and police violence of the sort that rocked Amsterdam forty years ago. However, there are probably already millions of homeless people invisibly couch surfing as people on the bottom social strata deploy their own life boats. At the moment, couch surfing acts as a sponge that wipes up the spills of an uncaring nation. We really do not know what the absorption capacity of the sponge is. We are about to find out, but at some point the improvised systems of the poor will become overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of inequity. It’s time for the government to step up.

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