Legislator Finds Out How Homeless Live

One of the big problems in our political system is that policymakers are so completely isolated from the problems of real people. Yeah, they love to talk about those tragic stories they hear from constituents, but that’s just for political show. Here’s a legislator who actually tried to find out what it’s like to be homeless:

Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier is gearing up for what she hopes is the next big fight in Congress — balancing out the growing economic inequality that has ravaged the middle class for years — so she reckoned she’d do a bit of ground-level research first.

And since you can’t get much more ground level than a homeless shelter, that’s where she went last Friday — to spend the night.

The Maple Street Shelter in Redwood City was the destination. Speier had actually been there a week before to chat with the residents, and the fact that a well-off Hillsborough member of the Washington power structure was hanging out with the penniless was lost on nobody, least of all the member herself. That was the point, she said.

“I’m still kind of reeling from the experience. Every member of Congress should be required to do what I did,” Speier said this week. “It would help us appreciate who we are talking about. We rattle off numbers, but it doesn’t speak about the people themselves.”

This wasn’t Speier’s first run at experiencing life on the other end of the scale. She spent a week last year eating only what she could buy on food stamps — “Not a lot of fresh produce on that budget,” she said — and when she was a state legislator she bunked down for a night in the state women’s prison in Chowchilla.

But now, with the most extreme split in generations between rich and poor in America, the issue of want and inequality is more urgent than it’s been in a long time. Democrats have one way of approaching it, Republicans another. Speier thinks both sides of the aisle would find her experience at the Redwood City shelter instructive.

“I met one man who spent three months in a park I used to play in growing up in South San Francisco, and then he spent one month in a bus shelter near my old elementary school,” Speier said. “He was sick. I met another man who was my age and had been in real estate for 30 years in the East Bay. He was a veteran — there were a lot of veterans there.

Far too many policies are made without any consideration for how they will affect real people living in the real world. This is a good way to help change that.

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  • Alverant

    The thing is in modern Republican thought if you’re poor then it’s somehow your fault. They think that anyone no matter how downtrodden can be just like them if they “work hard” while ignoring the advantages they themselves have enjoyed. If they were to spend a night at a homeless shelter, it won’t change them, they’ll probably make a show of it like that one talking head did when he panhandled for half an hour then bragged at how much money he made.

  • karmacat

    40-50% of homeless have a mental illness. That is a figure I was told in med school 20 yrs ago, so it may be different now. But I’m sure it is not any better

  • http://en.uncyclopedia.co/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    Far too many policies are made without any consideration for how they will affect real people living in the real world.

    Lies! They know damn well what the real world consequences are. The consequences are the whole point.

  • dingojack

    “And since you can’t get much more ground level than a homeless shelter, that’s where she went last Friday — to spend the night”

    *gasp* – a whole night!!!! What a goddamned heroine!! (Any bets that she spent the following Saturday in her local spa/gym sipping lattes in between ‘working overs’ by her masseuses, trying to ‘recover’*)




    * Still – it’s marginally better than her PoG colleagues, I suppose – marginally

  • Cal


    I think you are being a little unfair, based on the article this is someone who is trying to understand the actual issues and conditions of the people who are affected by the policies she makes. I am not sure how spending more than a night would give her additional information. She had already spent time there meeting with the people and hearing their stories prior to this experience. She also lived on food stamps and spent the night in jail. I could not name many other politicians here who would do even a little of that from either party. I realize it may not seem like much, but anyone with some intelligence and empathy would not not much more to grasp the situation enough to know changes need to be made.

  • http://en.uncyclopedia.co/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi


  • http://polrant@blogspot.com democommie

    I’m having some difficulty in typing today (and will have, for the next few days) as a result of having my hand operated on yesterday, to remove–something that wasn’t supposed to be there, I’m not sure what it was, nor were the surgeons at the time I woke up and went home. I had the surgery at the completely socialistical, given’ worthless bastards shit for free, VA hospital. Why do I say that? Because if it was up to the GOPers, the VA would also be in a shambles. It took their being embarrassed by the Walter Reed scandal back during B43’s Reign of Error” to actually give the VA necessary monies to take care of their patients.

    Homeless veterans? Congress absolutely does NOT give a fuck about them. Just because they might have been forced by economic circumstances or propagandized into joining a military that was used to guarantee the safety of U.S./Multinational extraction bidnetheth to do their extractin’ in Iraq AND proving to the world that George W. Bush was a BY GOD war jeenyus! Or, just because they saw squadmates get blown into kibble in an essentially pointless exercise in failed foreign policy. Just because of those things, they think that they’re OWED by people who wanted them to be there? Those selfish fuckers. They should have died on the battlefield so’s we could make nice speeches and put up monuments without their whining interruptions!

    I can’t wait to see what the VA budget looks like when we get a new Reptilican pretendsident.

  • howardhershey

    A politician with empathy? From the Tea Party that includes the like of Maine Gov. LePage who *wants* people who take heroin and overdose to die rather than be treated with an overdose treatment? Or all those Republican legislators who *want* to deny health insurance to poor people knowing that that will lead to a considerable number of deaths (and bankruptcies)?

  • lofgren

    I am not sure how spending more than a night would give her additional information.

    While I agree that dingojack is being unfair, spending a single night there really isn’t sufficient to understand what it means to live like that for days, months, years. However I think Speier probably knows that, and a little understanding is certainly better than none.

  • dingojack

    Yeah and spending one ten thousandth of second imaging what it might possibly be like to shot in the head is exactly like experiencing a four year (plus) tour of Afghanistan or Iraq. @@



    PS: Still, kudos to her for at least trying – unlike some of her colleagues.

  • lofgren

    Yeah and spending one ten thousandth of second imaging what it might possibly be like to shot in the head is exactly like experiencing a four year (plus) tour of Afghanistan or Iraq.

    This is why I think you’re being unfair. I don’t believe that Speier thinks or claims her experience was “exactly like” being homeless. But surely you would agree that a person who spends a night in a foxhole probably has a better capacity to imagine what it must be like to spend a tour there than a person who’s, say, never been to a warzone at all. Both will have deficiencies in the ability to extrapolate their experience and imagine the experiences of others (as they always will), and in certain circumstances a person who has never been to warzone but is particularly well-read on the subject may even have a more accurate imaginary foxhole than a particularly unimaginative person with real-life experience. But generally speaking more exposure to the subject of discussion results in more informed and empathic responses to it.

    Speier should be lauded for seeking out new experiences and direct contact with the people she represents, not criticized for failing to actually be homeless.

  • http://cheapsignals.blogspot.com Gretchen

    40-50% of homeless have a mental illness.

    It’s impossible to know for sure how many, considering we can’t go out and diagnose everybody living on the street. That’s sort of a bitter irony considering how many people who aren’t homeless haven’t been diagnosed either, simply because they can’t afford it, and might very well end up homeless one day in part or wholly because of that undiagnosed mental illness.

    Not caring about mental health and not caring about poverty sure go hand in hand.

  • dingojack

    Sure – when she spends day in, day out; week in, week out; month in, month out; year in, year out; Then I might have a little less of a feeling that this is simply an opportunist political media stunt *.



    * When she knows what it is to have to choose between having accommodation or eating. for the rest of the week… Well then..

    Let me acknowledge clearly here – her attitude is still a shit-load better than her PoG colleagues. Sad to say.

  • Synfandel

    Dingo, I agree with Cal. You’re being a bit unfair. Having to get around in a wheel chair for a day is enough of an eye-opener to give you some sense of the special needs of paraplegics. You don’t have to chop off your legs.

  • scienceavenger

    While she deserves kudos for gathering actual data on the experience instead of just imagining what it is like*, what is missing is the hopelessness of never knowing when it is going to end. A person sleeping in a shelter or on a street grate for one night as Martin Sheen did might get a better understanding about how fucking cold and miserable it is, but knowing they only have to bear it one night still leaves a ton of the psychology out of the equation.

    *I saw some clueless congressfuck on the Daily Show actually say something like “I don’t go to McDonalds, but from what I see, their employees are happy kids” From what you see? In your fucking head?

  • lofgren

    So the only way you can even begin to imagine what it might be like to have certain experiences is to actually have them? Are you actually making an argument iagainst empathy?

  • eamick

    @4, @13: Uh, Dingo? She’s a Democrat.

  • eamick

    Never mind. I misunderstood what you were saying.

  • freehand

    Dingo, I’m usually with ya but not on this. The only way she can experience the life of the homeless is to actually lose everything, to worry about her very life for months or years, to believe that no matter how hard she tries, it can only get worse from here.


    I have a couple of comments.One has already been expressed. If a real experience is needed to have enough understanding for empathy, then the very word empathy means nothing. Can a gay theist know what it is like to come out as an atheist? Can a healthy atheist know what it is like to be crippled? Can a wealthy cripple know what it is like to be poor? Where does the empathy come from?


    Second, if a politician actually reduces her station in life this far, she is largely unable to help people in those circumstances.


    Third – what makes you think that she doesn’t have a better understanding than you now imagine? She may have been seriously constrained by past circumstances, about which we know little, and from which she can extrapolate far more than most.

  • D. C. Sessions

    I’m having some difficulty in typing today (and will have, for the next few days) as a result of having my hand operated on yesterday, to remove–something that wasn’t supposed to be there, I’m not sure what it was, nor were the surgeons at the time I woke up and went home.

    Sounds familiar — I just had a chunk removed from one of my hands. WRT yours did anyone say something remotely like “Dupuytrens?”

  • matty1

    I have some sympathy with Dingo’s position, you can’t know what someone else’s life is like by dropping into it for a period of any length. On the other hand, totally accurate knowledge is not required to have genuine empathy and sympathy for others or those things would be impossible.

    It does remind me a little of the urban myth of the MP who offered to spend a week living on unemployment benefits and then arranged for wealthy friends to buy all his meals for that week because hey – he didn’t spend anything on food.

  • Ichthyic

    I think Dingo’s gripe is more of a question…

    Is this just the senator playing politics?

    it’s a legit question (if not directly asked). I don’t see enough information here to judge one way or the other.

    I’d like to think it’s a genuine attempt at learning something. However, I have personally worked with various congressional staff on and off for decades, and it’s far more typical for a legislator who really wants to learn something to have their staffers research the issues for them.

    So, in the end, I tend to think that things like these specific public acts lean more towards grandstanding in and of themselves.

    That’s not to say that rules out that this legislator is genuinely concerned, she probably is, but I would look beyond things like visits to a homeless shelter to really figure that out.

  • leonardschneider

    karmacat @ #2 points out that 40-50% of the homeless are mentally ill. The question that follows is, are they homeless because they’re mentally ill, or mentally ill because they’re homeless?

    I consider it worthy of valid study. Living on the streets — I’ll get to the subject of shelters in a moment — one of your biggest challenges is where you can go to sleep, in a safe place, for a reasonable amount of time. The general answer to that is, there isn’t one. Even at night, you’re lucky to get ninety minutes of sleep without being disturbed, whether it’s from being rousted by the cops, the sound of sirens, security guards, or drunk honky fuckheads who decide it’s great fun to fuck with the “bums.”

    So you have long-term, chronic sleep deprivation. They’ve done enough studies on the subject to know it can really play havoc on a person’s mental stability.

    As far as the shelters go: HA! First of all, Ms. Spiers was in Redwood City. Those of you familiar with the Bay Area know that Redwood City ain’t exactly a rough place to be; there’s probably SROs in San Francisco that aren’t as nice. You want to impress me, Rep. Spiers? Spend the night — or try to, anyway — at the Salvation Army shelter in SF, or in Oakland. Color me unimpressed with that move, Congresswoman.

    (Although the food stamp routine did impress me. All the supermarkets on the Peninsula got their pricing templates from bars and merchandise kiosks in airports. Not the cheapest places to get groceries, so if you’re using food stamps, you gotta watch every penny.)

    In five months of homelessness, I spent two nights in San Francisco shelters. The rest of the time I spent at the Glen Park BART station, because it was quieter and safer. Urban shelters, especially for single males, are utter bedlam. (Glide Memorial has a good shelter, but it’s for families and women only.) Being out in Glen Park was a lot more sedate, but I was still sleeping on concrete and getting rousted by the cops; being rousted meant grabbing my stuff and walking aimlessly for a couple hours, until I went back to the BART station or took a chance on crashing in a doorway.

    You also drink more than you normally would. Not enough to get hammered, but get a good solid buzz, so you’ll be relaxed enough to doze off and stay that way. (I wonder if Rep. Spiers knocked back a forty of King Cobra before she went into the shelter?) That’s where the image of the homeless being all drunken bums probably comes from: you have no home to go to, and bars are expensive, so you drink your King Cobra or Royal Gate vodka right out in the open. And the more you drink, the more of a tolerance you build…

    So there’s a simple answer to karmacat’s professors: if you weren’t a goddamn looney when you hit the streets, you’ll be one in a few months. Homelessness will drive you crazy, literally.

  • dingojack

    Earmick – Yes, I meant her House colleagues, particularly those in the GoP. It wasn’t well expressed.

    Empathy is one thing, experience is another.

    Hmmm…… having spent ten seconds imagining what it feels like to be a brain surgeon, I’m sure you feel perfectly comfortable to have me to operate on that brain tumour, right?

    In this case, having to make the choice between shelter and food (or even understanding that millions have to make these kinds of real life decisions) on a ongoing basis (as opposed to just thinking about them for a whole week) completely changes your perspective.

    I’m sure that’s not your privilege showing, is it?

    Ichthyic – yes, exactly, Pollies love to get up and say they understand your pain (which is why they’re cutting welfare, again) because they spent a night in homeless shelter (nicely cleaned up for the press-scrum). If they actually got out there and experienced real life they might realise how they’re making decisions that affect real people in real ways.*

    Political stunts might get you some nice press cuttings, but is it, actually, to inform your decision making, or simply make you feel a little warm and fuzzy?**



    * I notice that Our Fearless Leader is happy to slash welfare, (and workers salaries and Aboriginal and Rural services and etc.) but thinks that judges should be cops so they can know what it’s like. OK Tony, only those earning under the average wage (and the rest) can be politicians, otherwise how could you possible know what it’s like? @@

    ** Which is not to say that both conditions can’t happen, of course. (as here, perhaps).

  • http://polrant@blogspot.com democommie


    My discharge papers state that it was a “right wrist ganglion excision”.

    It was not on my wrist, it was on the distal surface of my right hand.

    I asked the surgeon in charge (there were two surgeons, two anesthesiologists, two nurses and at least one other person in the OR) if he had found what he was looking for and he said that he had. I was a little less than lucid but, IIRC, he said it was a large mass with a lot of veins. Doesn’t sound like a cyst to me.

    They sent it to be biopsied and will tell me (I HOPE!) what it was when I see them on the 24th to have the stitches removed and talk about “next steps” (pronated lunate process, carpal tunnel, severe arthritis in right wrist, bone spurs on right humerus, torn lower right biceps–carpal tunnel in left wrist AND possible recurring radiculopathy in c4-c7). So, the typing thing is not my major concern but it’s prolly gonna be a while before I’ll be up to speed on that issue.

    Homelessness. Been there. From about mid-May of 1983 till sometime in February 1984. I was fortunate to have the use of fifth floor storage area in a mill building that I was helping to renovate. There was running water and a toilet on the second floor, no lights in the building except for a reading lamp in the space I slept in, no cooking facilities, no heat. I woke up one morning with a 1/4″ of frost on the INSIDE of the windows. I felt very,

    very lucky to have the use of the space. It was NOTHING like the sort of homelessness experienced by millions of U.S. residents. I slept in a secure place, that alone made the whole ordeal bearable.

  • http://en.uncyclopedia.co/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    democommie “My discharge papers state that it was a ‘right wrist ganglion excision’.”

    That’s the deadliest move in kung fu!

  • http://polrant@blogspot.com democommie


    No, the deadliest move is “Squatting dragon, leg lifting tiger”.

  • fwtbc

    Jackie Speier is actually pretty awesome. It’s true that she can’t know what it’s like to be homeless just from spending a night in a homeless shelter, but there’s still gains to be made from it. I’m legally blind, and I’d love for policy makers to spend a day wearing a blindfold, because even though that will only give them a brief taste of what it’s like to be unable to see/see well in an visual world, I’m pretty sure that when it comes time to implement things, they’d be far less likely to fuck it up.

    Also, I’m surprised no one above mentioned this already. Jackie Speier has already done some pretty amazing things, and has put herself on the frontlines many times in her political career.

    From wikipedia:

    Speier served as a congressional staffer for Congressman Leo Ryan. Speier was part of the November 1978 fact-finding mission to investigate allegations of human rights abuses by the Reverend Jim Jones and his Peoples Temple followers, almost all of whom were American citizens who had moved to Jonestown, Guyana, with Jones in 1977 and 1978.[8] Speier was one of only two members of the mission who were concerned enough about potential violence to make out a will before traveling to Jonestown.[13] Several Peoples Temple members ambushed the investigative team and others boarding the plane to leave Jonestown on November 18. Five people died, including Congressman Ryan. While attempting to shield herself from rifle and shotgun fire behind small airplane wheels with the other members of the team, Speier was shot five times and waited 22 hours before help arrived.[14] The murder of Congressman Ryan was the only assassination of a Congressman in the line of duty in the history of the United States.[15] That same day, over 900 of the remaining members of the Peoples Temple died in Jonestown and Georgetown.

    She’s also taking frequent opportunities to rise and recount stories from sexual assault victims in the US military in order to get some reform made there for dealing with those cases outside the chain of command.