The Bag Lady Generation ~ The New Face of Homelessness

I found this blog post at www.change.org a couple of weeks back and found it fascinating and had meant to post it then, but am doing so now, following a discussion I had with my mother and aunt this morning about the women of their generation; the stay-at-home Mom vs. the bust- through- the- glass ceiling – career woman with children.

The women who remained in the workforce in this generation faired much better than those women who opted to make their “home” their occupation. The women who remained in the workforce built retirement accounts, support networks and learned more about survivability in the world.

My intent is not to denigrate the women who chose to make their homes and families their occupation. However, the reality is, once they emerged from the cocoons of their homes and families, entry into the outside was/is difficult, to say the least. In my work with homeless women, I’ve observed on many occasions where the wives stayed home, husband worked, then died or divorced them. (the abridged result) –  With no resources of their own, they became, over time – homeless.

The product of their generation (myself included) did things somewhat differently. We went to college, we built careers, married (or not), had children, maintained a toe or foot in the workforce and were better able to jump back in the workforce ocean once the kids reached school age.  Our up and coming generation of Mom’s? Well, that is another tale entirely..

“Bag Lady,” the New Face of Homelessness

A woman named Patricia Reid was recently profiled in the New York Times. She has been unemployed for four years. Before being cut loose in massive layoffs, she worked for two decades as an internal auditor and analyst at Boeing. The biggest fear for this 57-year-old college graduate? “Becoming a bag lady.”

“Bag lady” is my generation’s term for “homeless old woman with everything she owns stuffed in two big shopping bags.” It is a position that women, regardless of age, marital status, employment or resources, fear. It summons up visions of a “living death,” of tottering down a grimy street pushing a shopping cart, dragging our eco-friendly cloth shopping bags crammed to their cloth brim with fat-free cookies, a blanket with a torn satin edging, a stuffed animal, flannel pajamas and unread copies of supermarket tabloids. Don’t laugh. I asked several women just exactly what they envisioned would be IN those bags. That’s what they told me they thought they might need if they wanted to pass the night on the street in comfort. Obviously they’ve never given serious thought to what it truly means to be homeless.

I’ve found that for the middle-to-upper class, “bag lady” is a euphemistic way of saying “homeless.” It conveys slightly more pity than “homeless” because the stereotype doesn’t include addiction of any kind, only the sheer, oppressing poverty that frightens middle-aged women living in suburbia (and maybe a little mental illness). “Bag lady” is a step above homeless because it seems more like a specter in the night than a real possibility.

Of course, bag ladies and the homeless both live on the streets. But in the minds of those who don’t dwell on the reality of it all, bag ladies “feed the pigeons in the park, wear coloful knit caps, fingerless gloves, and leg warmers pulled up over their aging calves.” They are to be pitied and taken to lunch at a place that serves chicken-salad-on-toast and hot tea. Those who use the term typically don’t have any idea of what it would really be like to be a bag lady or to be homeless. They only allow their imaginations and the depictions of “bag ladies” from movies and from glimpses of elderly women standing on street corners downtown to fuel their fears.

But bag ladies are more than just romantic images of poverty in the minds of the middle-class. Bag ladies are, or will soon be, the new face of homelessness. They are the bewildered 50 and 60-somethings, single or divorced, without children or with kids with lives of their own. They now live in the suburbs and shop at the mall — not at the Salvation Army or Goodwill. They eat out at the Olive Garden with friends. I have known many of them.

One of my mother’s best friends — a social butterfly who bought $1,000 designer gowns for holiday parties in the 80’s — was squatting in her former million-dollar mansion in a wealthy neighborhood in the 90’s. Divorced and unable to get a job, since being a wife was her only experience and her husband had fired her decades ago in a mean-spirited divorce, she was reduced to eating canned tuna and hauling her drinking water from a nearby park. She grew her own vegetables in her backyard and became a vegetarian when she could no longer afford tuna, let alone meat. A reverse mortgage on a house allowed her to fuel her aging Volvo and get a gym membership. It kept her in kerosene in the winter and allowed her for a time to keep from suffering the final indignity — true homelessness.

Like Patricia Reid, the aging soccer moms, divorced single mothers, and unemployed baby boomers are all becoming the new face of homelessness. According to the Department of Labor, more than two million of the 15 million currently unemployed are 55 or older. Like Reid, The New York Times notes, “Nearly half of them have been unemployed for six months or longer. The unemployment rate in the group — 7.3 percent — is at a record, more than double what it was at the beginning of the latest recession.” With August 2010 being the worst month yet for home repossession during this recession, I predict it will only get worse.

Photo credit: Schick

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