The following is a first-person story written by Colten Osborne, a young man we came across in Erie, Pennsylvania, during one of what we called “Community Conversations” ahead of the launch of a statewide, pro-active issue campaign called We The People–PA. Colten is an incredibly impressive young man with a compelling and important story to tell—and he tells it well. This is his story.
This story originally appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 31, 2018.
I am 21 years old. I live in Erie, Pennsylvania, and have been homeless off and on for three years. I’d like to tell you my story.
When I turned 18, I was eager to leave home as my parents’ house was not, shall I say, the most supportive place to be. I moved 52 miles away to Corry, PA, to live with my grandma. I was finishing up high school, had a girlfriend whom I loved, and was looking to get a job. Things were looking up for me. That is—until my grandma killed herself.
I had to leave her home. I slept where I could find a place to lay my head but soon realized that being without a home in Corry was not sustainable. I headed back to Erie where I had grown up and I moved back in with my dad and step-mom. It wasn’t too long before I realized why I had left. Staying with them was not an option. I’ve been unable to find affordable housing since then—I have stayed with friends, on park benches and now know the ins and outs of the shelter system in Erie. I’ve been getting by.
I signed up for SNAP and Medicaid benefits when I was 19. I receive $192 a month in food stamps, which helps me from going hungry. But to be honest, it doesn’t always last the full month. Not because I’m not spending it wisely but because the things the homeless can buy tend to be more expensive. With no stove or refrigerator, we either need to buy things we can eat right away or things that are nonperishable. It gets expensive to eat this way and the food stamps typically won’t last me all month. I know where I can get a free meal in the city, but if you have a doctor’s appointment or a job interview it’s easy to miss meals being served.
Medicaid has been a lifesaver for me. I’m able to get the medication I need and make doctor’s or hospital visits without having to worry about the cost. Without it, I would be scared to go to the doctor if there was a problem and would avoid going. Especially for those living on the streets, having medical care to rely on is so important.
The recent debates about imposing strict work requirements in order to maintain your SNAP and Medicaid benefits are misguided. Those considering such changes are out of touch with the homeless and others who rely on these programs. SNAP and Medicaid have been a lifeline for me during this very difficult time in my life. Contrary to many stereotypes of the homeless, I have been working on and off for years now. Unfortunately, the jobs I can get pay low wages and are limited since I don’t have my GED yet.
Working in low-wage jobs, where the hours fluctuate and are unstable, is very difficult when you are homeless. The shelter system, because of the high demand in Erie, has strict rules about what time you need to be in the shelter. An employer doesn’t want to hear that you can’t work evenings because you have to get to the shelter before they close their doors at 7 p.m. It’s hard to maintain a job when you don’t have a place to lay your head at night. These things seem obvious to me, but maybe it’s not to everyone because you don’t face the circumstances I do.
Despite our best intentions, people in situations like my own might fail to meet the strict work requirements of the legislation considered in the House. And that would mean we could lose SNAP benefits for a year. If you fail to meet these work requirements a second time, you would lose SNAP benefits for three years.
I share my story here, not because I want you to feel sorry for me, but because I deserve better. I’ve faced difficult circumstances and am doing the best I can. I’ve taken two out of the four tests I need to get my GED, and I’m planning to take my final two exams when I have the $60 fee to take them. With that, I hope to get a job at the county prison, which pays $18/hour. I have hope that things will get better, and I’m working to make sure that happens.
We—my friends and the larger homeless community in Erie—deserve better. We take care of each other the best we can and with little resources. Our society should take their cues from us and continue to lend a helping hand. A lot of us living without a home are struggling to make better lives for ourselves. Cutting SNAP and Medicaid will worsen the problem of poverty here in Erie, not make it better. These benefits are literally some of the only things that many homeless I know have that they can rely on. We can, and must, do better. For each other.