The other day, I was driving west on the Eisenhower, coming off the long exit ramp onto Austin Boulevard, when I saw a middle-aged woman whose face clashed with the sign she held out.

By her appearance, the woman fit easily into a Saturday afternoon scene at any of Oak Park’s numerous coffee shops — Fairgrounds, Buzz, Addis, La Borra, Wise Cup, Starbucks.

Even though I didn’t know the woman, I felt as if I had seen one of my old high school teachers, now retired, begging for change on an off-ramp.

The woman seems symbolic of the new face of homelessness. Not the more nuanced reality of housing insecurity that evades the oversimplified perception of homelessness in the nation’s imagination.

No, I’m talking about that more abject, Dickensian impoverishment, the stereotypical homelessness we associate with the people bearing cardboard signs and Styrofoam cups and faces streaked with dirt.

The woman joins other, seemingly atypical embodiments. A few weeks ago, while driving near the Oak Brook mall, I saw a woman in a hijab panhandling with her children on 22nd Street. About a mile away, approaching Downers Grove — near Best Buy, Golf Galaxy and Starbucks — I saw a middle-aged white man who would not be out of place at a typical trade conference or in any boardroom.

The Associated Press recently profiled Karla Finocchio, a 55-year-old woman in Phoenix who slid into homelessness after she “split with her partner of 18 years and temporarily moved in with a cousin.” 

She had planned to use her $800 a month disability check to lease an apartment after back surgery, but she “soon was sleeping in her old pickup, protected by her German Shepherd mix Scrappy, unable to afford housing in Phoenix, where median monthly rents soared 33% during the coronavirus pandemic to over $1,220 for a one-bedroom, according to ApartmentList.com.”

In Chicago, $1,220 will barely get you a studio apartment. According to ApartmentList.com, the average rent for a Chicago studio apartment is $1,638. A one-bedroom will cost you $2,051 a month. That’s about on par with Oak Park, where the average 840-square-foot apartment goes for an average rent of $2,075 a month, according to RentCafe.

Using the ubiquitous 30% rule, meaning your rent shouldn’t be more than roughly a third of your annual salary, you’ll need to make at least $82,000 to comfortably afford an average-size apartment in Oak Park and Chicago.

Rough Census Bureau data puts the median individual income in Oak Park at around $54,000 and the median household income at about $95,000. I’ll hazard a guess that most people in Oak Park don’t make enough by themselves to live here and/or are a lost job away from being in Karla’s situation — or that of Cordelia Corley.

Corley, 65, told the AP that she ended up homeless in Los Angeles County after the hours at her telemarketing job were cut.

“Corley said she was surprised to meet so many others who were also working, including a teacher and a nurse who lost her home following an illness,” she said. “I’d always worked, been successful, put my kid through college […] and then all of a sudden things went downhill.”

Things are trending downhill for hundreds of thousands across the country, according to a 2019 University of Pennsylvania study that, the AP reports, “drew on 30 years of census data to project the U.S. population of people 65 and older experiencing homelessness will nearly triple from 40,000 to 106,000 by 2030.”

Dr. Margot Bushel, a physician who leads the Center for Vulnerable Populations at the University of California San Francisco said her research in Oakland “has shown nearly half of the tens of thousands of older homeless people in the U.S. are on the streets for the first time.”

That’s a fact that’s particularly true of “younger baby boomers, now in their late 50s to late 60s, who don’t have pensions or 401(k) accounts. About half of both women and men ages 55 to 66 have no retirement savings, according to the census.”

The last time this country confronted a similar crisis of age-related destitution was nearly a century ago. The federal government’s response was the 1935 Social Security Act.

“We can never insure one hundred percent of the population against one hundred percent of the hazards and vicissitudes of life, but we have tried to frame a law which will give some measure of protection to the average citizen and to his family against the loss of a job and against poverty-ridden old age,” said President Franklin Roosevelt on Aug. 14, 1935, during the bill-signing ceremony.

That was back when federal domestic policies were framed by the Christian creed of humility — “there but for the grace of God go I.”

Social Security. Medicare. Financial regulation like the Glass-Steagall Act, which kept banks from gambling with other people’s money and created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation in order to protect people’s savings. Federally secured mortgages that created widespread homeownership. The GI Bill, which assisted returning servicemen and resulted in millions of virtually free college degrees.

These laws and policies were meant to establish something approximating a floor of security for average Americans (albeit primarily white people) and to offer a degree of protection for the most vulnerable against predatory special interests who would exploit anything and anybody for profit.

Those policies also reflected a degree of democracy, egalitarianism and healthy populism that helped crystallize power relations in the minds of the average citizen, resulting in relatively effective political mobilization.

Fast forward to our current moment and those very political entities — unions, civil rights organizations, community organizers and other social activists — are considered by centrist Democrats, once the party that proudly housed them, to be “special interests.”

Lily Geismer’s new book, Left Behind: The Democrats’ Failed Attempt to Solve Inequality, demonstrates in great detail the extent to which liberals, ostensibly the ideological camp of the least of these, abrogated the responsibility of governing and addressing big issues, and turned that burden over to private actors.

Instead of protecting average citizens from the predatory impulses of monopolistic corporations and billionaires, liberal lawmakers (who are increasingly billionaires themselves) have charged those corporations and billionaires to “do well by doing good,” meaning to figure out the solutions to society’s big problems while also finding innovative ways to profit off them.

They also castigate all but the most entrepreneurial and market-minded among society’s most vulnerable citizens. They invent novel ways of blaming them for structural failings while justifying why only piecemeal, milquetoast and inadequate proposals — that barely scratch the surface of deeply rooted problems — are the only “pragmatic, adult” solutions available.

Meanwhile, they hide those piecemeal solutions inside of what Cornell University political scientist Suzanne Mettler has called “the submerged state,” which is an archipelago of policies “that lay [largely hidden] beneath the surface of U.S. market institutions and within the federal tax system.”

As a result, power relations are not crystalized but obscured, which only feeds into political apathy and makes the average citizen feel even more impotent.

When this country had a housing problem in the early 20th century, lawmakers essentially built an industry out of whole cloth to house people affordably and to employ millions. And people didn’t call that a handout, they called it the American Dream.

Now the most comprehensive, long-term action we can expect from the government in the face of another housing (and homelessness) crisis — heck, in the face of any domestic crisis — is the implementation of tax credits, which disproportionately benefit the most affluent Americans. Who needs conservative enemies when we little folk have friends like these?

There are social consequences for replacing a domestic policy apparatus premised on “there but for the grace of God go I” to one premised on the creed of Icarus — “look at me flying high, now why don’t you?’

Now, we have to live with the fallout.

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com

Join the discussion on social media!