Skip to content

#294 An Adventure in Homelessness: A Lesson for our Sector

October 24th, 2017

Richard Marker

Many of you know that we have recently relocated our primary residence. After 20 years in New York City, we are now official residents of the Washington, DC area. There are many lessons for philanthropy to contemplate that emerge from such a move, most notably about the significance of “place”. I will share those thoughts in due course.

This substance of this post, though, was a surprise. First a bit of background:

Our tale of selling our coop apartment in New York is worthy of a New Yorker article, but since it is a tale told so often before by other New York buyers and sellers, not worth your time for the re-telling. Except for one part….

Because of how long the process was taking, we decided not to sign a lease on a rental apartment in the DC area until it was certain that we were actually moving. When, after about 5 months of waiting, the co-op board finally approved the buyer of our shares, we arranged for our move. But, an apartment in our chosen building would not be ready for several more weeks. We and our belongings were out of New York, but they and we were not yet ready to be somewhere else.

So, because of very accommodating in-laws, we moved into the guest room we had used for the last 20 years when visiting the 3 and now 4 generations of the family in the area. When people would ask about our circumstances, I would jokingly answer “we are homeless- but at a very high level.” Little did I know that it wasn’t a joke, or rather the joke was on us and we are still trying to get it cleared up.

This was not to be our legal or long-term residence so we rented a post office box so that we wouldn’t have to change addresses multiple times.

The first clue that there was a problem was when I received a note that my Medicare Part D was cancelled. I received the notice 5 days after the fact – the notice had been sent only 2 days prior to the cancellation.

No, the cancellation was not because, somehow, I had missed paying a bill that might have gotten waylaid during the move – I pre-pay for the full year. It was because we had moved out of state and I was no longer eligible for the plan I was on. With 2 days’ notice!

Of course, the problem was exacerbated by the fact that we were not yet legal residents anywhere else so I could not enroll in a replacement plan immediately. Many hours on the phone eventually got me enrolled but not without a gap in coverage. Any prescription medications I needed would have to be bought at full price. [Fortunately, and reassuringly, the same was not true for Medicare or our supplementary plan. The address change was seamless and there was no gap in service. Think about that as evidence of the merit of a single payer system.] Yes, we can afford the extra cost, but what if we couldn’t? If it took me several hours just to change Part D prescription plans, just imagine the impact on someone with fewer resources, less education, and less ability to sit on the phone being transferred from person to person to person to person. I assume all will be well, but we are still waiting for the new card.

Back to our story, part 2:

We have used the same bank for many years. We have had checking, savings, credit cards, mortgages, cd’s etc. with this bank and, for most of the time, at the same branch.

Imagine our surprise when I received a letter saying that the accounts were going to be frozen since the bank does not allow a post office box as our official address. We would have to show up in person to a bank branch to keep our accounts active. You recall that we rented a post office box so that we would have a place to receive mail.

[Aside: The correspondence was addressed only to me even though ALL of our accounts are joint accounts. Hard to imagine that such sexism still exists in 2017.]

Remember, this arrived when we did not have a legal residence. This next part of this story shows the great irony of our circumstances. When I did immediately go to the local branch office, and I explained the situation and showed the letter, I was ushered into the branch manager’s office. When I asked what we should do, she checked our accounts. Immediately she became a sales person, trying to upsell us to a more exclusive service of the bank. When I said that that wasn’t the reason for the visit and I wanted to make sure that our accounts were active, she said we could use our temporary residence instead of the post office. That is a real house, with a real address, and we were really living there, and she promised that it was now taken care of. But she insisted that I not leave before meeting the bankers responsible for the higher level of service.

I said I would shake the hands of the other bankers on the way out. Done… or so I thought.

Sure enough, we soon got another letter telling us that our account was about to be frozen. [also addressed only to me!] It was sent to the address in New York from which we had moved several weeks earlier, so it too arrived after the relevant date. Fortunately, someone in the branch in NY where we had banked for almost 20 years noticed that something was awry and had the courtesy to call us – 2 hours before the account was to be frozen. The banker in NY said that there was no record of my visit to the bank office where we had moved and no record of the temporary residence. In other words, the above-mentioned branch manager was so concerned about up-selling that she didn’t even process the main reason for the visit. [There is still detritus from this but I’ll spare you.] We were 2 hours from having no access to our money.

Let’s be clear. We don’t need anyone’s sympathy or support. We now do have a legal residence and we have the resources to get this all taken care of. But suppose we didn’t. If we, with hugely positive credit ratings, a chunk of money in the bank, and at least a 2-decade relationship with a single bank, were at risk of having no access to our accounts, what about those who really are homeless? Or who don’t have the luxury of a banker calling them to figure out why something seems wrong so that bills can actually get paid?

Homelessness is no joke. We were not really homeless, but we discovered how easy it is to quickly lose important services most of us take for granted when we didn’t have a legal residence in our name. Imagine finding the time and the resources to function when that is your daily reality and plenty of additional “take for granted” services are not available. And imagine how hard it would be to ever get beyond homelessness once truly homeless. It isn’t pretty.

Foundations and other funders who address poverty already know all of this. We know all about the systemic and derivative issues of what homeless means to individuals and to communities. I have always understood that conceptually, but for the first time, I can feel just a little bit of it personally.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS