indigent

Moving is challenging.

I did not anticipate the red tape and chicken/egg situations we encountered trying to do things.  Things like establishing new bank accounts and moving money, buying a used car & getting new driver’s licenses, buying a house, getting library cards, putting the kids in school.  

Our situation for the past year exacerbated this unanticipated complexity.  The Man has a tough time taking you on your word when you don’t fit the norm.  Having no physical address and no history of income for a year really complicates things.  How can such a person be weighed and measured and deemed “real” enough to re-join the system?  It’s all nested, too: You need an address to get a driver’s license, a license and address to get the kids in school; local insurance to by a car, an address to get insurance, etc.  

These processes are challenging when you can’t show that you’re “stable” from a financial perspective – when you don’t fit the model.  Surely a person who has no paychecks in the last year, isn’t paying rent, and has no current home address requires extra vetting before being allowed to open a bank account.  I imagine the AI that analyzes our profile and ranks and rates such things must stamp INDIGENT in red across the top of the file, a warning to every account officer and underwriter.

Thing is, the data that represents us appears this way because we, using the very means the algorithms assume we must not posses, chose to live outside the norm for a year.   It was our decision to live jobless and travel.  How much harder must all these processes be for those who have truly been out of work for a time, who’ve not had a home address because they literally have no stable place to live?   

Thinking about it this way made me consider just how biased systems are towards what we consider financial stability: A regular job, a consistent address, established credit.  Our frustration came only from having to demonstrate that we were not, despite what data analysis may indicate, poor.  Ours was simply an issue of proving stability, and we were aided greatly by the fact that we are, indeed, stable. 

Yet there are those who must navigate these waters because they are working their way up.  They are not stable.  It is not simply a matter of jumping through a few extra hoops to prove stability so they can get a new bank account or used car.  No, the bank account and used car are actually things needed to begin demonstrating stability, to make forward progress towards it.

Harder, though, than experiencing a taste of the biased system, was the realization that I’m a part of the bias.  It happened while we were working to get the kids enrolled and started in school.  The district will not allow you do this without a driver’s license and address and paper utility bill in your name that proves you reside at said address.  Because we’d only just moved here, we had none of these things – yet we wanted to get the kids started.

One very kind and helpful woman at the district office recommended we register the kids as “homeless.”  This way they need nothing, no documentation whatsoever.  Better still, they can start the very day they are registered, absolutely no questions asked.  We took advantage of this, using what felt almost like loophole to skirt the requirements that we’ll meet as soon as we close on our house and register our cars and, and, and…

And, although we did this, registered the kids as homeless, we felt the need to let the schools and teachers know that they are not, in fact, homeless.  That they are simply in between homes after a cross-country move.  Being tagged with the “homeless” status came with free lunch and outreach calls from social workers… so we felt the need to clarify.

But why?  We did we feel the need to “clarify?”

I wondered this to a friend and her answer still shames me: Because we are conditioned to equate poverty with character.  You were embarrassed.”  

Oh, God forgive us, she is right. 

“Hey teachers, I know how this must look, but, trust us, we have means.  See, there are special circumstances… we’re a loving family unit, we took a year off and traveled.  We’re not really poor we’re just adventurous.”  

It’s not what we said, but it’s what was underneath.  


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