The American Nightmare
“Excuse me. Can I have money for an ice-cream?”
I look up from the Subway sandwich I am munching through and direct my attention to the voice. A middle-aged woman, who appears by her clothes and demeanour to be homeless, is standing directly in front of my table.
“I’m sorry, I don’t have any cash on me,” I respond.
As she walks away, my cousin leans over.
“She just asked me the same thing.”
“What did you do?”
“I gave her a few dollars.”
Guilt settles in.
Why did I lie and say I had no money? I have cash in my purse. It was instinct to refuse, even though it has been impossible to ignore the immense numbers of homeless people here in the US. As an 18-year-old Aussie, growing up in a country town with minimal exposure to homelessness, I spent much of my trip across the States grappling with this concept of western homelessness, and what the appropriate emotional and physical response is as a tourist.
Most of the western world still perceives America to be the superpower of the globe. It is the home of the rich and famous (we’ve all conjured up images of Hollywood), and the nation as a whole is undeniably patriotic. US exchange students from my university have proudly told me multiple times that, “America is the greatest country on Earth!” Yet in the few trips I have done to the States, I am always confronted by the vast amounts of people who are experiencing homelessness on the city streets.
On a single night in 2018, approximately 553,000 people were homeless in the US, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Of course, this is an issue in presumably every country in the world, but when I was visiting the States for the first time, I was shocked to discover the juxtaposition between the Hollywood lifestyle portrayed in the media, and the harsh reality for over half a million Americans.
I walk through San Francisco’s suburb of Tenderloin, on the route between my hostel and the heart of the city. I make my way up streets that are filled with tents and makeshift cardboard beds. A possession filled trolley is halted every few metres, and I hear yells and chatter between those sitting on the worn sidewalk. The air is thick with smoke, city pollution and wafts of food. There is a community vibe between those who call the street home. Yet it is a community very separate from the rest of this San Franciscan suburb. I am the outsider walking past, and not only because I am a tourist.
I have never seen homelessness in this context, where business professionals and locals stroll past in such complacency to the masses of homeless. Maybe locals have become immune to the situation, as it is such a regular occurrence. While it is not my first-time bearing witness to poverty, I am shocked by the amounts of Americans who are disassociated from this supposedly opportunity-laden country.
I am standing alone outside a Denny’s diner when a man walks up and asks me for spare change. Like the Subway situation, these experiences are the most confronting, as you must give a definitive answer to another being’s face. These people are no longer street furniture that you walk by and pretend to not see on your way to Macy’s. They are humans with hardships.
Still, I say no to the guy, out of a mixture of ingrained instinct and confusion.
We have all heard of the American Dream. The idea that in the ‘land of the free’, any citizen can achieve happiness and success through hard work and determination. The epitome of this dream is personified by stereotypical white picket fences, soccer mom cars and a large family home fit with cheerful kids and hardworking parents.
The media feeds us many examples of this dream, such as the Bahama-holidaying Kardashians. Yet the demographic not commonly seen in the mass media is the homeless population left in the wake of luxury.
Homelessness is a failure of the American Dream; it’s the American Nightmare.
Outsiders are fed American-centric ideals in the movies, TV shows and music we ravenously consume. This is why I was so shocked to uncover a large population of silent homeless people sleeping on the streets of New York City, LA, Washington D.C and San Francisco, just to name a few. Some really are Sleepless in Seattle.
In the case for western homelessness, there is a stigma around giving out money as people will use it on the “wrong” things. Alcohol and drugs spring to mind. This idea surrounding us means many people instinctively refuse to hand out their money. Yet I do question, why do we clump different circumstances, and every individual story, under one umbrella?
While I do not have the ultimate solution to this complex issue, opening our eyes is the first step. I am now aware of the homeless dilemma and, as they say, knowledge is power.
I’m walking home in an LA summer evening, eating yet another Subway sandwich, when a voice from the sidewalk speaks up.
“Can I have that?”
I have deep sympathy for the man, and I really hope he finds some dinner tonight. But I don’t have enough to feed the rest of the street.
Instead, I awkwardly smile and keep walking, heavy guilt growing in the pit of my stomach.
Cover by Zac Durant