Todd Lowe does not fit the stereotype of a person who has been homeless.
He grew up in a typical middle class home with a teacher mom and banker dad. He married and he and his wife amassed an affluent life with a nice house and cars, and plenty of money for purchases, vacations and a social life.
“When I turned 40, everything fell apart,” Lowe said. “I bear a large responsibility for it. I lost everything — my marriage, my home, my finances, my job — I had nowhere to go, and no one to turn to. So many of my family and friends abandoned me, and I was taken in by strangers.”
Lowe found a job running a coffee shop in a mostly abandoned former mill town in North Carolina. Though the town was a textile powerhouse for over a century, when the industry left, nothing remained for the people there, and the town died.
For a while after he was out of his home, Lowe slept in his car. Then he became a Macgyver of homeless people, and called upon a get-it-done ethic learned as a Marine when he outfitted the basement of the coffee shop as a makeshift apartment.
“I made a bathtub out of the utility sink. I went to the hardware store and bought a shower nozzle and long tube. I found a plastic bin at a farm store that would usually serve as a water trough for animals. I washed my clothes in a five gallon bucket — that was a huge change from the $2,000 washer that had cleaned my clothes a short time before this. But my clothes still ended up clean.”
There was an upside to poverty for Lowe. “When you have a few dollars, and you only need another dollar to afford something you want, and you get it, you’re thankful. When someone would bring me lunch, so I could save my tips from the coffee shop for another day, I was thankful. Affluence can take away your gratefulness when you think your good fortune is all on you.”
When asked what is one thing an individual can do if a homeless person is in his or her path, Lowe said, “Everyone who helped me had been in a similar situation before, or was going through a tough time. I wish others would realize it’s not difficult to find yourself in a dire situation and to reach out instead of judging.”
While Lowe did not have a criminal conviction on his record, it takes very little for a criminal conviction to bar a person who is homeless from having a roof. Housing organizations are beginning to consider mitigating circumstances in deciding to award housing assistance, or to extend a lease, instead of canceling it.
Lowe reported that while he had relatives whose homes could have provided short-term shelter for him, as they had plenty of extra space, they declined.
While the mayor of San Francisco claimed victory as 8,000 people were housed with family members willing to take them in, homeless advocate and long time executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, Jennifer Friedenbach says it’s “ridiculous” that the program of purchasing bus tickets to reunite San Francisco’s homeless individuals with family in other locations is considered a cure for homelessness.
“Unless something new and aggressive is done, we’ll stay in a holding pattern,” Friedenbach said.
In the San Francisco neighborhoods most in need, the shelter is almost comically inadequate, Friedenbach said. “Two homeless shelters in our Mission neighborhood provide only 85 beds, and those are only for men.” There are no services for women and families in the area.
Budget cuts during the recession impacted the ability to serve the homeless, according to Friedenbach. “In a time the government should be doing more to serve the destitute, they actually do less,” she said.