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Throwing Stones at the Mossbacks Gathered

I’ve written before about what it means to be homeless in today’s world, but life prompts me to write more about what it means to be homeless in small town America. This is very important I feel, because while not everyone rains down accusations of “terrorists!” upon international refugees, not enough persons can extend that compassion to what I deem native refugees.

Over a year ago the city government of Bardstown, Kentucky closed the door on its homeless population. The Kentucky Standard newspaper had reported on how Habitat for Humanity would no longer be building new homes in the Bardstown, Kentucky area, following confrontations with the local town council. While the non-profit agency abided by every letter of the law in constructing its first two homes in the area, the zoning board issued voluminous streams of self-contradicting demands regarding the landscaping of these homes purposed for the homeless, to the point that the habitually charitable organization no longer felt that Bardstown legislators were willing to reach any compromise. This was clearly a case of the local upper crust not wanting to assist or acknowledge any regional homeless plights, and using red tape to definitively block any and all progress in the matter.

I know this to be the issue from personal experience, as I myself was homeless in Bardstown for the entirety of the years 2012 and 2013. It was neither my first or last bout of homelessness, but it was the longest stint by far, and I learned quite a lot.

For starters, I realized there were no real options. I stayed with my little cousin every once in awhile, usually when he needed help with projects at his cabin. I stayed on my mom’s couch perhaps one night per month, as her being a resident of a local retirement community run by an order of nuns meant obeying the Christ-like rule set by the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth forbidding their village tenants from hosting any extended-stay guests. When I found paying work I would stay at a motel in town. But easily 90% of lodging was camping out, mostly in the woods but sometimes in a cave system running under the older portion of downtown. I was constantly looking for any types of work, and I stayed supremely active. I maintained my old webzine, the Lottery Party, for roughly 15 months of this period, conducting around 70 interviews and composing hundreds of review articles and dozens of essays. It kept me sane, but it also led to some freelance writing and editing that paid for a roof over my head on more than a few nights. Finding physical work was actually much more problematic.

Daylight was spent walking circles around the business districts stoically searching for toilets to scrub. Bible belt businesses may put out job adverts but eventually they end up hiring relatives of employees nine times out of ten. I applied everywhere. At any given time I knew too many others enjoying the same adventures as me; neighborhood folk who were all competing with me for any kind of work, painting houses or washing dishes, building chicken coops or post-hole digging or shoveling horse dung. Resources and opportunities are shared by and allotted to only the innermost of Bardstown’s inner circle of families, with trickle-down economics dripping like recycled piss to those further and further down the food chain.

Small town employers tend to lie obsessively though. They pay less than agreed and/or they pay late, whenever they are not lying about paying anything at all. I was hired into jobs with the understanding that they would be full-time, only to learn management actually only needed the help for a particularly busy weekend, advertising the position otherwise just in case nobody applied. I had an application for one fast food restaurant torn up the second I handed it over, despite long years as a Sous chef, because the manager thought I looked “like a faggot”. It seemed every time I was passed over for a job, the winning candidate had less experience than me, a criminal record and/or a notorious history with narcotics, but usually were related to somebody already inside. They just looked the part better. They had the right accent or the right pickup truck. I know of a convicted pedophile who was hired for a job I was turned away from, simply because he attended the same church as one of the managers when they were younger. He was fired less than a month later over clearing out the cash register.

I never drew unemployment and I never received food stamp benefits, although I was eligible for both. I wanted to earn my way, preferring those programs to focus more on families in need. I had no dependents myself, so I could afford to rough it for the sake of pure survival. Looking for work becomes a full-time occupation unto itself, with obsessively a dozen hours of every day spent walking miles and miles searching high and low. I was painfully aware that the cartilage in my ankles had physically worn away from too many years of hoofing it like an anti-Big Oil cool guy, which I accept, but curious about what exactly the system could offer somebody like me one day I walked right into the regional office of the federally-funded department focusing on Housing and Urban Development. I learned that there exists multiple waiting lists for homeless, and I was put on one specifically for persons in need of merely rooms to rent, studio or one-bedroom apartments. Families, couples or persons who for whatever other reasons required more space were assigned to a different listing. I was number 57 on the list of solo homeless in Bardstown.

In all of Nelson County, the only other official outreach for homeless persons was Bethany Haven, which exists to find housing exclusively for young homeless mothers with kids in tow. Even then, the staff only accepts those who they already somehow know. I eventually realized that Bardstown only offers a handful of Section 8 housing, homes through HUD that offer reduced rent with the government picking up the rest of the tab. Each month I would return to the office to check in on my outlook, and each time I found my name being moved further and further back on the list. On my sixth visit, after signing on six months prior, I was listed at number 99. Names were constantly added to those in need of housing, but they were being added at the wrong end. When people were made to wait long enough, as did I, they tended to drop out of the system, desperately moving on for hopefully better prospects elsewhere or just vanishing altogether. I requested my name’s removal from the morally bankrupt waiting game, seeing this as the local branch of the government’s way of easing undesirables away from the community.

At the time, I tried to bring this to the attention of the Kentucky Standard’s Editor in Chief, Forrest Berkshire, as I did with several local issues I walked into, man on the street that I was. I realized that as small as the town was, there was evidently an average of almost a hundred homeless citizens in Bardstown, just going by the listing I experienced with HUD. And that number did not cover the homeless families, only the singles, only the people who were asking for help, and not the people who had already given up on the system. I figured it was a solid tip, worthy of an investigation to sell a few rags for Bardstown’s wordsmiths. But he completely passed on the story, not wishing to upset subscribers with facts. As with most small town newspapers, the digital subscribers could maybe fill a McDonald’s, certainly not enough to fill the void of readers abandoning the print incarnations. If people don’t want truth then why would they be reading newspapers to begin with?

All of this comes down to xenophobia. National headlines inform us of widespread racial, ethnic and cultural prejudice, violently so, but in small town America blind hatred is much more open-ended. I was denied employment opportunities simply because I was not from Bardstown. I was denied housing opportunities, whether from landlords or from channels of public assistance, because I was not from Bardstown.

Outsiders, and outside perspectives, are fundamentally unwelcome in America’s small towns. They are by no means exceptions to the rule. Anonymity is easier to pull off in larger cities where everybody is so self-possessed that neighbors are complete strangers, while in small towns everyone knows everything about everyone else. They like it that way very much, because they are too busy reenacting the Civil War to cope with the prospects of having to learn about new people or new ideas.

In Bardstown’s case, making picturesque moments for the bourbon season tourist dollars is of graver import than looking for objective resolutions to any actual problems within the community. God forbid someone point out to any of the dozens of various Christian churches in the area that you can count on one hand the homeless housed there in any given year. The most successful restaurant in town was started by a family from elsewhere. Their success was rewarded by the zoning board‘s attempts at pushing them further away from downtown through increased restrictions and taxes, before finally embracing them for lack of worthwhile alternatives for said tourists to dine. If the opposite of diversity is monopoly, then I equate monopoly with inbreeding. If your last name is not Mattingly or Ballard or Filiatreau or Beam or McCubbin or Newcomb or Brothers, then you can keep walking on down the road because Bardstown has no place for you. Regardless of what you have to offer, and regardless of whether your life is in jeopardy.

Nowadays, I know that my own life can never really be jeopardized, because I see no point to wasting such grand efforts on such false pretenses. In the public lexicon now is the phrase “too big to fail”, while in reality the bigger they are, the harder they fundamentally deserve to fall. As a long-time gravedigger I have already been 6 feet under more than anybody I know, which is ultimately where we all end regardless of how cool our hair looks. Not to sound bitter, but thousands of wasted job applications can only become kindling to forge a very distinct fire.

Contrary to the status quo’s continuous insistence on white-washing the depravity caused by its greedy indifference towards everything not relating to the status quo, more and more persons are living homeless simply because they were not corrupted enough to settle for a place in the world around them. Social hierarchies are for people incapable of independence. When American society inevitably devours itself, the homeless will still be on their feet. When the power grids drop and everybody cleans out their medicine cabinets over no more Facebook, the homeless won’t be affected in the slightest because they never needed that trash to endure to begin with. Having nothing, they’ve nothing left to lose.