The New Homeless: Emi Nietfeld on the Growing Number of Unhoused Americans
In Conversation with Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan on Fiction/Non/Fiction
Memoirist Emi Nietfeld joins Fiction/Non/Fiction hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell to discuss how the pandemic has caused an increase in unhoused Americans as well as common—and off-base—tropes associated with homelessness. Nietfeld, who as a teenager spent time in foster care and living out of her car, talks about the American urge to view suffering as something that makes you stronger. She reads from her new book, Acceptance; reflects on being expected to shape a story about overcoming hardship to access an Ivy League education; and explains how she ultimately chose to resist simpler narratives of grit and resilience.
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From the episode:
Whitney Terrell: What were the parts of your life when you felt housing insecure? Or was it most of this time?
Emi Nietfeld: Until I was about nine, I lived in a middle-class, two-parent family. But my mom was a compulsive shopper. And so, in secret, she bought a lot of items and hoarded them. When my parents divorced, and I lived with her when I was 11, this got a lot worse. We lived in this apartment where there were piles of trash everywhere and only these narrow paths snaking through them. Very quickly, we had mice everywhere. It was hard to take a shower because the bathtub was completely full of empty water bottles, empty peanut butter jars.
At that time, hoarding was kind of a unique form of housing insecurity where we had a roof over our heads, but it wasn’t exactly livable. And we both kind of lived in fear that somebody would come to the house and see it and find out, and that it would be condemned, making this kind of precarious financial situation we were in worse. But the worst time was later in my teenage years after I was in a children’s residential treatment center and in foster care, and my mom’s house continued to deteriorate. And then I was dealing with not having a place to stay during breaks from school.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: We don’t seem to have a good definition of what it means to be housing insecure, or homeless, as you’re alluding to, and I was trying to look up statistics about this. I can see how challenging it was because, of course, there’s the obvious difficulty of tabulating numbers of people who don’t have addresses, don’t have shelter, versus people who are sheltered. I was getting numbers for sheltered persons who had experienced chronic homelessness versus others, and I was learning all of these terms and realizing how fuzzy those were. I’m interested in the way that in the last few years we’ve started to use the term “housing insecurity,” or “food insecurity” in relation to, or adjacent to, the term “homelessness.” As you tell one shelter worker, you have, “nowhere else to go.” And I think we have tropes of homelessness, the ways that Americans imagine homelessness, but it’s my guess that that’s not the only way that housing insecurity appears.
EN: Yeah, that’s definitely not the only way. Short-term homelessness where somebody might lose their job or their apartment and be homeless for a night or two is actually the most common kind in America. But there’s a lot of other types of housing insecurity, ranging from people who have psychosocial issues like substance abuse disorders, or mental illness, who might be leaving institutions like a hospital or a prison. There’s also a lot of families for whom housing is just really unaffordable, and who might be evicted or spend time doubled up with other families. There’s more attention brought to LGBT youth who might have been kicked out or rejected by their families. There’s a lot of foster youth who are aging out of the system.
One statistic is that 20 percent of youth aging out experience homelessness within four years. And there’s also a lot of people like me who were in foster care, and were “reunited with their families,” but they couldn’t actually live at home. And I think that that brings up a really common situation that we know about, but we don’t necessarily think of as housing insecurity, which is young people who aren’t really old enough to live on their own, but whose parents might have issues or abuse that means that they need to find somewhere else to live. And I think in the best case scenario, you see people living with other family members, or even with their friend’s parents. But in the worst case, you have people bouncing between places, couchsurfing, potentially living in vehicles or on the street or in really dangerous situations.
WT: There’s a passage in a book where you’re living in your car, and this happens at a point in the narrative where I was thinking, okay, she’s safe, this is all going to be fine. She’s in a good school and is going to apply to college. And this is all going to get sorted. But no, you end up sleeping in your Corolla and then checking into a shelter, which was surprising, but also completely believable. And I understood how it happened. And I started to think about how accumulating circumstances cause this over time. I wonder if you could talk about that period in your life specifically, and then read that passage from the book.
EN: Before my junior year of high school, things seemed to be really looking up for me. I had been accepted at 15 to attend this small campus of the University of Minnesota where I was going to be able to leave foster care and live in the dorms. And then something even better happened, which was that I got a scholarship to go to boarding school. And so kind of all of these stars aligned. I was really focused on my dream of going to an Ivy League school; I even had this celebrity college counselor who had taken me on pro bono.
So the summer I was 16, it became increasingly clear that I wasn’t going to have a place to stay all summer. And I begged my mom to contact my social worker, who could have put me into a respite foster home, but my mom wouldn’t do it. And so I ended up sleeping on people’s sofas, staying with one friend after another. I had to get surgery, and afterwards, I was going to recover at a friend’s house, but it wasn’t a great place to be, and her boyfriend kind of creeped me out. And so right before this passage, I woke up from this drug-addled sleep, and found that I was alone in her house and in pain, and so I got up and I left. And here’s what happened next:
“I had to drive fast before the Vicodin kicked in. I didn’t know the roads, but I knew my destination: the main library downtown. To calm myself, I recited my litany of a to-do list. A dozen achievable tasks erased the uncertainty of where I’d sleep.
I sat at a library desk staring out the window. I couldn’t focus on my laptop screen. Colleges demanded to know who I was. Who was I? I was hungry; I hadn’t eaten since the day before: a protein bar after surgery. Who was I? I wanted to cry. I didn’t know. My other big task was no easier: the Letter of Extenuating Circumstances providing context for my life. But I had no context. I was still in the middle of it.
When security came to shut down the library, I sent my drafts to Dr. Kat, hating myself for how bad they were, and drove around looking for a parking lot where I could sleep. I needed somewhere quiet enough no one would notice me, busy enough that no one would try anything. A tornado alert interrupted Top 40 on the radio. I shut off the dial.
I drove through the lights of Dinkytown, the area around the University of Minnesota. It seemed filled with light and happy people. I imagined another version of my life, one where I had gone to Morris. I could have had a little apartment by now, a job. Tears pinched out of the corners of my eyes. I had to get into a good school. If not, what was all this suffering for?
Eventually, I pulled into a Rainbow Foods parking lot, near the back, under a floodlight. I put the silver sun deflector in the windshield for privacy, then climbed into the back seat. I stuck my JanSport under my head like a pillow and hugged my gray sweater. Curled up, I felt so dumb for leaving Courtney’s house. I thought about her boyfriend, sitting at the kitchen table, eyeing me and my pills. He seemed like bad news. But that was a feeling, not a fact. Following that feeling had led me here, scrunched up in the car.
I shut my eyes and tried to sleep, to rest so that the next day I could be productive, but that just made the tears stream down. Why hadn’t I planned ahead? I had left for the summer with such tenuous plans. Of course things fell apart. I had three weeks before school started—too long to sleep in my car, not long enough to do everything I was supposed to get done.
My legs burned.
I shut my eyes and imagined Charlotte, that the upholstery of the car seat was her body, pressed against mine, holding me.
I startled awake. A figure stood beside my window. Fear shot through me. I lay very still. Was it a cop telling me I’d broken a law, ready to take me to juvie? Worse, was it a man who wanted to hurt me? The shadow receded. I heard the trunk of a car opening, then an engine turning on, then the wheels on the pavement as it drove away.
Tears pooled in my ears. I scratched at the tape on the edge of the bandages more vigorously, wishing I could claw into the sutures that hurt more than any cut had. Hyperventilating, I did something I hadn’t done in a long time. I prayed:
WT: Thank you very much. I feel like that passage challenges, in the way that we’ve been discussing, the usual tropes of homelessness in important ways. I mean, yeah, you’re in your car, you’re in a grocery store parking lot. That’s what people expect. But you’re also trying to write your college application essays, and you’ve just had surgery, and you’re attending this school, I’ll be it, on scholarship. And yet these trappings of middle class achievement don’t prevent you from ending up there in the Rainbow Foods parking lot. Sometimes those extra responsibilities are what helps put you in that situation, rather than what’s keeping you out of it. I wonder if you could talk about that a little bit.
EN: I felt like my life back then was filled with damned if you do, damned if you don’t situations. That night, sleeping in my car, I felt really strongly that I wanted too much. That I should have just made choices that would have resulted in me having a place to sleep at night, instead of ones that were focused on my long term stability. And so I was dealing with questions like should I have remained in foster care and not gone to boarding school, even though my foster parents didn’t support me academically and had a problem with the fact that I was queer. I was thinking, should I have gotten a minimum wage job that summer, during the financial crisis, instead of doing the things that were going to help me get a full ride to college? You know, if I’d stayed at my friend’s house with the boyfriend that creeped me out and something bad had happened, I knew I would have been blamed. But because I chose to leave, I felt responsible for that, too.
WT: It made me think about the way Americans think about homelessness, which is that there’s a weird bifurcation. Americans see a homeless person, and they think you should have done more to get out of that situation. It’d be easy for you to get a job; you should do something. But then when they see someone who is trying to do something like what you’re trying to do in this scene, it’s why are they writing college essays? They should just go get a… That’s a catch-22. The minimum wage job that you would take is the thing that leads you into homelessness, not that gets you out, right? It’s actually trying to do something better that then people think, well, you shouldn’t be trying to do that. It’s a very weird way that Americans think about people who are experiencing housing insecurity. Does that seem rational or fair as somebody who’s experienced the opinions or maybe even internalized the opinions of regular American about this issue?
EN: I think it’s all related to the obsession with self-sufficiency that we have in America. And with the refusal to see just about anything as a larger systemic problem manifesting in one person’s life. Even at 16 I had internalized it. “I should have planned more.”
In the Midst of Plenty by Marybeth Shinn and Jill Khadduri • The Invisible Child by Andrea Elliott • Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc • Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson • Miles from Nowhere by Nami Mun • United States: Pandemic Impact on People in Poverty | Human Rights Watch • Minneapolis: City Response to Homelessness • HUD Releases 2021 Annual Homeless Assessment Report Part 1 • Homelessness in America • State of Homelessness: 2021 Edition • Inflation and rent increases are making homelessness worse – The Washington Post • America’s Homelessness Crisis Is Getting Worse – The New York Times • Rep. Omar Reintroduces Homes for All, Manufactured Housing Legislation • A New Bill Would Declare Housing as a Human Right – Progressive.org • Housing is a Human Right Act of 2021 • H.R.4496 – 117th Congress (2021-2022): Ending Homelessness Act of 2021 • H.R.7191 – 117th Congress (2021-2022): Homes for All Act of 2021 • Guidance on Complying With the Maximum Number of Units Eligible for Operating Subsidy Pursuant to Section 9(g)(3)(A) of the Housing Act of 1937 (aka the Faircloth Limit)
Transcribed by https://otter.ai. Condensed and edited by Anne Kniggendorf.