Now that the temperature is dropping, I sometimes deliberately walk underneath the heat lamps in front of a certain Center City hotel because I like the way the contrast feels between the cold air and the warmth radiating off the heating coils. Now that I’m no longer a homeless-American—and perhaps more to the point, now that I no longer look like one—the valets seem to be okay with my doing this. Who’s going to stop a white man in a suit and topcoat from savoring an offbeat moment? It’s just eccentric.
Try that sort of thing somewhere in the city, though, while wearing unwashed clothes, a four-day stubble and an expression of haunted despair, and plenty of well-trained uniformed folks will ask you to move along. Those things, after all, mean you’re not eccentric: You’re crazy.
This phenomenon, whereby people’s reactions to behavior depend on the perceived identity of the person they’re observing, is regularly on full, grotesque display to me now that I’ve transitioned back out of homeless invisibility into “respectable society.” Sure, this is a technical use of the word “respectable”—I’m still a social deviant with questionable interests—but the point is that it’s now clear to all that I bathe regularly, have a permanent address, pay my bills, feed myself and walk around generally like everyone else does.
What’s funny, though, is that the only thing that’s really changed about me since I was homeless is the fact that I do have a permanent address and can take a hot shower and shave whenever I feel like it. Instead of spending hours worrying about how I’m going to sleep without freezing to death, or how to avoid a bumfight—yeah, that actually happens—or stressing about how to get back to the shelter before bed count (if you’re not back by count, you lose your place to sleep for the night), now I can spend my time working, meeting people with interesting life stories and volunteering.
(Occasionally, I enjoy recreational sex, too. That’s not a difference, though; I did still get laid when I was homeless. The eponymous question on gay hook-up sites, “Host or travel?” became even more hilarious when I had no home; of course I’d like to spend the night, Mr. Creepy Cuddler!)
I guess there is one other difference: Whatever bag I’m carrying, whether it’s my backpack or briefcase, you can be sure that its contents are just whatever I need that day. Whereas back in the days when I would shuffle from one case manager to the next, always being given two SEPTA tokens at each stop for the hassle of navigating Philadelphia’s bureaucracy, my backpack contained everything I needed in the world: razor, toothbrush, extra underwear, soap and, perhaps most importantly, my ACCESS card.
Yes, dear readers, I was what Reaganites would call a Welfare Queen: I was homeless, and I used public benefits. Quick, cue the Tea Party (and some smug so-called liberals, too): “What a loaf! A waste! A disgusting leech sucking America’s blood—how dare you! Move along, hobo, while I roll my eyes at the thought that you’re using food stamps to buy pizza at 7-11!”
Let’s logically think about that last criticism for a moment. When I was homeless, I received about $200 a month in food benefits from the SNAP system (into which I paid previously as a taxpaying worker). Yep, those benefits gave me the ability to occasionally buy a hot slice of gooey crap pizza from a convenience store. Before you click your tongue to yourself and think that I should’ve gone to a proper grocery store to execute a “responsible food budget,” as I’ve heard “polite” Americans suggest to one another, let me ask you something: Where the fuck do you think I’m supposed to cook a meal if I’m homeless?
In any case, I wasn’t the only American receiving welfare in 2012. Over at the Cato Institute, a far-right, pro-small-government think tank, Tad DeHaven writes: “Corporate welfare in the federal budget costs taxpayers almost $100 billion a year… Corporate welfare doesn’t aid economic growth and it is an affront to America’s constitutional principles of limited government and equality under the law.” You got that? The rich white assholes at the Cato Institute say that the $100 billion that Americans give away to other rich white assholes at corporations don’t generate any measurable benefit to the American economy. Meanwhile, according to CBS News, food benefits cost the American taxpayers less than that: about $80 billion a year.
Here in Pennsylvania, nearly two million folks are on food stamps (we call them SNAP now, but it’s the same thing). So you can imagine my chagrin when I learned that the assholes in Congress did something so mind-numbingly stupid, so stultifying, so outrageous and so just shitty that I needed to really make sure what I was reading was true. Did members of the U.S. Congress just cut $5 billion out of the food programs that the most desperate Americans need?
Yep. And do you know what’s even shittier about this already nightmarish situation? According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities: “Studies show that in a distressed economy, every dollar of SNAP benefits creates at least about $1.70 in economic activity, as SNAP recipients spend their benefits on food quickly.” In other words, yes, the homeless guy buying that $1 slice of pizza at 7-11 is paying for the pizza, but he’s also paying for the lights to be on in the store and for the wage of the cashier and the eventual profit of the owner, just like any other customer. And remember: That homeless guy probably paid taxes at some point in his life and thereby paid into this program.
At this point, the members of Congress—particularly, though not exclusively, the Republicans—are becoming outright caricatures of Mr. Monopoly. If, that is, Mr. Monopoly were a sadistic corporate welfare whore.
If you ask me, a Welfare Queen is a real thing. It isn’t a homeless person, though, and it’s not a single mother. No, in America, our Welfare Queens are rich white assholes who make jokes about food stamps and then give money to people who actively cut the food stamp program for no good reason. Just like it’s OK for me to stand under those heat lamps so long as I’m wearing a suit and tie, it’s perfectly OK for corporations to receive government assistance. Actual human beings who are hungry, though? In our America, these people deserve nothing, because—well, I can’t think of a single reason, actually, that would justify this kind of callous, unhinged cruelty.
Honestly, fuck these people. Not the corporate suits—their enablers. Every single member of Congress, every single one including all the Democrats, is a soulless abomination until they all put this money back into the program. Not one single person sitting in Congress right now deserves your vote next year unless this money is restored. Until that point, they’re all assholes.
Josh Kruger is a writer and editor from Philadelphia. His PW column, “The Uncomfortable Whole,” presents stories and ideas that challenge our cultural understanding of what “normal” means in American life anymore.