How A Simple Mistake Can Put You on the Street: Why Grandpa is Homeless

Photo by Doug Waldron (CC BY-SA 2.0)

At Pacific Standard, Rachel Nuwer reports on the aging homeless population of California and how something seemingly innocuous — like forgetting to renew your driver’s license on time — can instigate a downward spiral into poverty and homelessness that skyrocketing rent and street-inflicted trauma can extend, sometimes indefinitely.

Life was stable for Herb until 2013, when he “got lazy” and neglected to renew his truck-driver license. He didn’t realize the severity of his error until he applied for a new license but could not pass the written test. Although Herb quickly landed a job as a security guard at a fast-food restaurant, even working overtime didn’t provide enough for him to make ends meet. He fell behind on rent and was evicted.

Herb experienced that unfortunate reality firsthand. Last winter, his car got towed, taking his security-guard uniform and most of his remaining possessions with it. He never got the car back — he didn’t have the funds. Unable to dress for work, he stopped going, and spent the next two months on the streets. He panhandled, flashing his veteran’s ID as he asked for spare change, and was sometimes reduced to eating out of dumpsters. To survive the winter chill, he slept bundled up in several layers of pants, shirts, and blankets. Once, a cop tried to shoo him from a doorway, and Herb begged him to take him to jail instead, so he would have a warm place to sleep. The officer told him, “I’m not taking you to jail, but you can’t stay here.”

“I was really down,” Herb says. Yet he still counted himself lucky. “A lot of the people I met on the street were on meds and should have been hospitalized,” he says. “They really couldn’t take care of themselves.” But even a strong, able-bodied person like Herb will soon be broken down under those conditions. At one point he began suffering from severe chest pains, so he checked into Oakland’s Highland Hospital, where he remained for five days. “The stress got to me,” he says. “The hospital people told me, ‘Herb, just being on the streets is messing you up.’”

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