Review by Philip Greenspun; created 2000
Travels with Lizbeth by Lars Eighner
"When I began this account I was living under a shower curtain in a stand of bamboo in a public park. I did not undertake to write about homelessness, but wrote about what I knew, as an artist paints a still life, not because he is especially fond of fruit, but because the subject is readily at hand." -- from the Introduction
If you aren't a gay homeless dog owner in Austin, Texas, then you are unlikely to ever live the experiences that Eighner so vividly describes. After you read this book, you will not feel the same about homelessness, our social welfare system, or materialism. I can't exactly guarantee that you will come to feel one particular way or another. But you will learn something.
Without a car or money, Eighner doesn't manage to travel all that much. He hitchhikes back and forth to Los Angeles a couple of times but mostly he and the book stay in Austin.
Eighner doesn't say a lot about how he became homeless. He resigned from a state government job and then found that his lack of college degree kept him from getting almost any other reasonable job. He made a serious attempt to earn a living writing stories for gay magazines but learned a bit too late that writing for magazines no longer even provides a Bohemian standard of living.
Eighner's encounters with the Welfare State are poignant.
"As for public assistance, it is like credit--easier to get if you have had it before. ... Documents from one agency are accepted as proof of need at another agency. But as I had never received any form of public assistance before, I had no documents. ... I still do not know how to prove lack of income.
"Wherever I went I noticed an enormously fat blond woman, at least twice my size, with two screaming, undernourished brats. She fared better than I at the public and private agencies; they could hardly do enough for her. The waifs were about three and five years of age. The peculiar thing was they were never the same children. She had a different pair with her every day. So I must assume she had at least sixteen children under the age of six, and I can hardly begrudge her all the assistance she received."
The Federal Government artificially inflates agriculture prices with various farm programs. It would be possible to feed oneself for almost nothing if there were no Department of Agriculture, as indeed it is possible in free market countries like New Zealand. Because the Government is aware that inflated food prices harm the poor, the same bureaucracy that inflates these prices also distributes food stamps to the poor. Eighner had a friend who worked in the back office of the state welfare department's food stamp division. He tried to get Eighner stamps.
"To get food stamps a person must have all to him- or herself a functioning kitchen; if the kitchen is shared, then all who share the kitchen must, as a group, qualify for food stamps. To prove that you have the kitchen, you must have a rent receipt, which opens the question of where you got the money to pay the rent. If you cannot pay the rent then you must get a written statement from the landlord that he allows you to live rent free, which statement the landlord will not give you if he is properly advised, because it prejudices his case in the event he wants to collect back rent or to evict you for nonpayment.
"If someone in the household has a job and so the rent is somehow paid, then the employed person must get a statement from his employer that the amounts shown on the stubs of the paycheck are in fact correct and that the employee is not paid more. ... Moreover, there is the problem of proving that the household members who have no income have no income.
"Anyone who happened to have a place with a kitchen and yet had not the money to buy food would most logically do one of two things. He would find a cheaper place without a kitchen--thereby becoming ineligible for food stamps--or he would take in a roommate to help pay the rent--again making the household ineligible for food stamps... People who cannot pay rent, or who cannot pay enough rent to have a kitchen to themselves--in other words, the people who really need food stamps--are ineligible to receive them."
After making the rounds with Eighner, his friend is distraught and feels that his job is a fraud. Eighner ends up consoling him.
"The purpose of welfare systems is not to help poor people. If the object were to help poor people, then that would be most surely done by giving money to poor people. But that is not the idea, as our tax code proves. If you give twenty dollars to someone on the street, there is not a way in the world you can deduct that donation from your taxes. To claim a deducation you must give the money to an organization that employs clerks and administrators and social workers and that, more than likely, puts nothing material into the hands of the poor... When the agency makes an accounting of the good it has done the poor, it will count the money it spent on paying social workers to hold the hands of the poor the same as money, if any, spent on bread. The purpose of welfare systems is to provide jobs for social workers and bureaucrats. I told Billy he should be grateful to have a job in the poverty industry, but to ask that such a job be meaningful is to ask too much."
Despite Eighner's low opinion of the value of social workers, they do occasionally try to assist him. At one point, Eigner enters a hospital because his leg is swollen and various doctors there try to get him committed to a psychiatric hospital.
"The social worker had programs for alcoholics, programs for drug addicts, and programs for the insane. If I would admit to belonging to one of these categories--and if I would have my dog destroyed--then something might be done for me."
Eighner devotes an entire chapter to the subject of alcoholism, drugs and the homeless. He states that the myth held by the middle class is that alcoholism leads to the loss of job, family, and home.
"... And there he is, a wino clutching a brown sack, passed out in an alley.
"Indeed, I met street winos who told this story of themselves. But in as many other cases I found the cause the effect reversed: people who claimed to have drunk little or not at all until they became homeless.
"If there were no alcohol, society would still have no use, no job, no home for the men, young and old, who sit on street corners with brown paper sacks. If the cities were filled with sober hopeless people, I doubt that the comfortable would find the results much to their liking.
"I am certain that many members of these [homeless drinking groups] would be called social drinkers if they were not homeless. Indeed, they might be called social drinkers more accurately than better-off people, because the drinking group was the only society I found on the street. People in better circumstances can find many associations and activities that do not involve alcohol. One the streets one must drink, or at least pretend to drink, to have any company or entertainment at all.
"Of course, some of the people on the street who begin drinking socially in the drinking groups will become alcoholics--just as some people who attend cocktail parties will. ...
"The truth is that the vices of the homeless do not much differ from the vices of the housed, but the homeless, unless they become saints, must pursue their vices in public.
"One of the yuppie excuses for not giving money to panhandlers is that the money might be spent on liquor. Surely the money would not be put to a better purpose if it were donated to an agency and used to make a payment on a social worker's Volvo."
Eighner uses a chapter on the subtleties of Dumpster diving to draw parallels between the very rich and the very poor in America.
"Many times in our travels I have lost everything but the clothes I was wearing and Lizbeth. The things I find in Dumpsters, the love letters and rag dolls of so many lives, remind me of this lesson. Now I hardly pick up a thing without envisioning the time when I will cast it aside...
"Anyway, I find my desire to grab for the gaudy bauble has been largely sated. I think this is an attitude I share with the very wealthy--we both know that there is plenty more where what we have came from. Between us are the rat-race million who nightly scavenge the cable channels looking for they know not what.
"I am sorry for them."
More disturbingly, Eighner chronicles various incidents in which his lack of funds and status leads to his being kicked around by the police.
"The police dispose of poor people however they will, on a whim, as a favor, and the officers know they will never answer for anything they do so long as their victims are not fortunate enough to afford a lawyer.
"It is a crime to be poor, so the winos said. So it is, for it is a crime to sleep in a public place and a crime to trespass to sleep in a private place. But more than that, to be poor is to be subject utterly to the agents of the law. This as much as anything, I think, is what a middle-class person fails to appreciate about being poor. A middle-class man may want to avoid being stopped for speeding in his BMW, but if he is stopped he sees a face of the law very different from the face shown to the poor. The traffic officer who stops a man in a BMW knows that man's sister might be a lawyer, the man himself might be a lawyer, at any rate the man has the resources to make trouble if he is dealt with unfairly. Middle-class people have rights and they like to think that everyone does. The rich, of course, know that rights are bought and sold, and the poor know it too. Those between them live in an illusion."
Eighner sounds like such a capable rational person throughout this account that it seems difficult to believe that he was down and out for so many years.
"Home is the natural destination of any homeless person. But nothing can be done in a day, in a week, in a year to get nearer that destination. No perceptible progress can be made. In the absence of progress, time is nearly meaningless. Some days are more comfortable than others. And that is all the difference...
"Rent, deposits, transportation, suitable clothing, living expenses: the kind of money required to obtain a home cannot be saved from pennies picked up on the street. Moreover, no homeless person would be likely to be able to obtain employment immediately even if he were somehow delivered from the streets. His fate is no longer in his hands. He may survive, but no more than survive."
Allegedly, Eighner's publisher made him remove vivid descriptions of his (homosexual) sexual encounters over the course of the book. That's a shame because I'm sure that it would have provided important insight into another facet of life that few are likely to experience. Dead trees publishing sometimes provides a modest living for authors (though not as much as you'd think) but it results in an unfortunate homogenization of culture. We'll just have to wait for Eighner to put up a Web site if we want the full story...
You can order Travels with Lizbeth from Amazon. You can also drag your lazy butt down to the library and get it. However you acquire the book, you won't be able to put it down and that's good. Every American should read this book.