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Song for the Jobless

“Unemployed” is becoming a long-term profession for millions of people. And the emotions and psychology around that state of being, seeing your friends and neighbors go off to work every day while you stay at home, running up against lack of hiring or a need to reduce wage expectations or downshift into a lower-skill profession, and all the anxiety that goes with these life choices, is almost too much to bear. I cannot even imagine what it would be like to do all that and to live in a tent city. It’s a source of national shame. And that said, the life-affirming optimism of these people is quite remarkable.

“It’s a community here,” said the Rev. Steven Brigham, who founded Tent City in 2006 as part of his Lakewood Outreach Ministry Church. “They have a sense of belonging.”
In the past year Brigham has seen Tent City’s population nearly double as the jobs recession drags on.

Angelo Villanueva jabs at a homemade punching bag he hung from a tree — a plastic bag filled with dirt wrapped with tape. It’s a “stress reliever,” said Villanueva. He’s a skilled mason who worked construction jobs for nearly two decades, then fell victim to a sucker punch from the housing collapse. Villanueva, also an artist who has been drawing sketches of Tent City, never dreamed that he’d be among the nation’s homeless.

“You think of a homeless person, you think of a wino. But it can happen to anyone at any time,” said Villanueva. “I had the wrong conception of a homeless person — I figure he’s a bum, a deadbeat.” […]

Joe Giammona, an unemployed handyman, drinks from a can of Pepsi as he watches a neighbor cook sausage and eggs on a communal grill. Giammona moved here five months ago after a shooting near the rooming house where he previously lived in Asbury Park, New Jersey. He says he’s constantly searching for a job but hasn’t been able to catch a break.

“It just seems like every door is shut in my face. You know there’s nothing hiring. I always hear that things are slow right now. ‘Come back in the fall, come back in the spring,’ and then when I come back to these places it’s always an excuse after an excuse. You can’t get hired anywhere,” said Giammona. “I would take anything right now, anything that’s willing to hire.”

Tent City survives on donations, so I guess it’s a Ron Paul paradise. But it’s no way for anyone in America to live. Especially when their fate could be reversed simply by boosting economic demand. And it should be noted that the government in Lakewood Township is suing the residents of Tent City to get them out.

A more comprehensive portrait comes from Derek Thompson at The Atlantic. He collected testimonials from the unemployed, and the anthology is really absorbing. Here’s just a representative sample:

“Unemployment dehumanizes the real person. They lose the essence of their identity and value. To become a number, a label, a resume, a failure, a defect, unproductive, desperate, wishful, delusional, depressed, poor and separated from respectful society. Being unemployed is to be silently disrespected. On a par with being homeless, mentally ill or addicted.”

I urge you to read it all, and to bear witness to all of the similar stories. Arthur Delaney just released an eBook based on his years of reporting called “A People’s History of the Great Recession.”

These people have no right to be invisible in the eyes of the political and elite class. They created this mess, they consigned these people to this suffering. They ought to listen to their cries.

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David Dayen

David Dayen

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