To have and have not in Flagstaff, Arizona

  I’m still appalled by the subject line of the e-mail I received a month ago. "Great news: we are homeless!" I didn’t know the address on the e-mail. Based on the subject line, I figured it was probably from a Democratic candidate informing me about a Bushite atrocity.

I clicked open the e-mail to find a blithe announcement to a long list of recipients. Dave, we’ll call him Happy Dave, wrote that he and "the wife" have just returned from a GREEEEAAAAATT trip to Rome and Paris, to find that their Scottsdale, Ariz., realtor had showed their house twice and left a purchase offer on the hall desk.

"Yahoodee," he exulted. "We are heading toward our dream in Santa Barbara!" (I have changed the names and places to protect not the innocent, but myself -- from a lawsuit.)

I was stunned. Furious. I closed the e-mail, deleted it, undeleted it, read it again and decided I had to respond. I had no idea how Dave got my e-mail address, but it’s a good bet he didn’t know I spent weeks on the street in my twenties; and three years later, my kids and I moved 11 times in 11 months -- because my husband had taken off. I was near helpless with panic, and broke. Had it not been for Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society Program, my family and I would have ended up sleeping in a junked-out car.

Instead, we lived on welfare for a year. The kids went to Head Start. I found a neighborhood health clinic with free psych therapy. I baked oatmeal bread from the surplus food Welfare handed out. We survived until I found a job as secretary to the sales manager of a commercial laundry.

A few years later, I went to college under the same far-sighted, compassionate Democratic policies that had saved my butt -- and the emotional and physical integrity of my kids.

I reread Happy Dave’s e-mail and I remembered a few weeks I spent in the Philippines, how huge mansions and wallboard shacks existed almost next door to each other. I thought of Scottsdale chictiques, filled with plastic Kokopellis and thousand-dollar "ca-girl" outfits, and of the homeless folks that camp along the drought-leeched Salt River bed not 10 miles away. I thought of Flagstaff, of the exhausted woman I once saw sitting on the steps of a mansion in what was once -- and sadly is no longer -- our sole gated development. Her mop bucket and broom rested next to her.

I pulled over. We talked. She told me no one lived in the house and that she was hired to clean it once a month.

"At least," she said, "it beats how me and my kids had to live. On welfare. Four of us in one motel room. And before that, on the street."

I looked over at my truck. There is a camper shell on the back. Whenever I see it, I feel safe. No matter what, I have a place to sleep -- because I will never forget the week my kids and I had to gypsy from friend to shelter to friend, crashing on a kitchen floor, packed into a narrow hallway.

"That’s my security," I said.

"Yeah," she laughed, "at least if it breaks down, you’ve got a place to sleep." Her face went serious. "Listen," she said, "not one of these houses on this block has people living in it. Ever."

More recently, I learned of a different homelessness. A local charity that provides "gently used" dress-for-success clothes for homeless people looking for jobs was about to lose its 1,000 square-foot space. No malice, just a building purchased for new development. The organizers were hunting for space, praying somebody would donate one room.

I remembered the woman sitting in front of the empty mansion. And, the hundreds of empty houses in the same development. And there is this recent fact that Phoenix shelters for abused women and their children have 3,000 beds, and a total waiting list of 17,000.

So I wrote to Happy Dave: "I am stunned by your e-mail. Have you ever been homeless? There is nothing funny about it, nothing to use as a joke. Being homeless is terrifying and humiliating; and it is a product of a culture of haves and have nots."

I told Dave I hoped my words might be educational. And, I wondered what his response would be. And I am not surprised four weeks later, that there has been none.

Mary Sojourner is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). She is a writer in Flagstaff, Arizona.