"When I began this account I was living under a shower curtain in a
stand of bamboo in a public park. I did not undertake to write about
homelessness, but wrote about what I knew, as an artist paints a still life, not
because he is especially fond of fruit, but because the subject is readily at
hand." -- from the Introduction
If you aren't a gay homeless dog owner in Austin, Texas, then you are unlikely
to ever live the experiences that Eighner so vividly describes. After you read
this book, you will not feel the same about homelessness, our social welfare
system, or materialism. I can't exactly guarantee that you will come to feel one
particular way or another. But you will learn something.
Without a car or money, Eighner doesn't manage to travel all that much. He
hitchhikes back and forth to Los Angeles a couple of times but mostly he and the
book stay in Austin.
Eighner doesn't say a lot about how he became homeless. He resigned from a
state government job and then found that his lack of college degree kept him from
getting almost any other reasonable job. He made a serious attempt to earn a
living writing stories for gay magazines but learned a bit too late that writing
for magazines no longer even provides a Bohemian standard of living.
Eighner's encounters with the Welfare State are poignant.
"As for public assistance, it is like credit--easier to get if you
have had it before. ... Documents from one agency are accepted as proof of need
at another agency. But as I had never received any form of public assistance
before, I had no documents. ... I still do not know how to prove lack of income.
"Wherever I went I noticed an enormously fat blond woman, at least twice my
size, with two screaming, undernourished brats. She fared better than I at the
public and private agencies; they could hardly do enough for her. The waifs were
about three and five years of age. The peculiar thing was they were never the
same children. She had a different pair with her every day. So I must assume she
had at least sixteen children under the age of six, and I can hardly begrudge her
all the assistance she received."
The Federal Government artificially inflates agriculture prices with various
farm programs. It would be possible to feed oneself for almost nothing if there
were no Department of Agriculture, as indeed it is possible in free market
countries like New Zealand. Because the Government is aware that inflated food
prices harm the poor, the same bureaucracy that inflates these prices also
distributes food stamps to the poor. Eighner had a friend who worked in the back
office of the state welfare department's food stamp division. He tried to get
"To get food stamps a person must have all to him- or herself a
functioning kitchen; if the kitchen is shared, then all who share the kitchen
must, as a group, qualify for food stamps. To prove that you have the kitchen,
you must have a rent receipt, which opens the question of where you got the money
to pay the rent. If you cannot pay the rent then you must get a written statement
from the landlord that he allows you to live rent free, which statement the
landlord will not give you if he is properly advised, because it prejudices his
case in the event he wants to collect back rent or to evict you for nonpayment.
"If someone in the household has a job and so the rent is somehow paid, then
the employed person must get a statement from his employer that the amounts shown
on the stubs of the paycheck are in fact correct and that the employee is not
paid more. ... Moreover, there is the problem of proving that the household
members who have no income have no income.
"Anyone who happened to have a place with a kitchen and yet had not the money
to buy food would most logically do one of two things. He would find a cheaper
place without a kitchen--thereby becoming ineligible for food stamps--or he would
take in a roommate to help pay the rent--again making the household ineligible
for food stamps... People who cannot pay rent, or who cannot pay enough rent to
have a kitchen to themselves--in other words, the people who really need food
stamps--are ineligible to receive them."
After making the rounds with Eighner, his friend is distraught and feels that
his job is a fraud. Eighner ends up consoling him.
"The purpose of welfare systems is not to help poor people. If the
object were to help poor people, then that would be most surely done by giving
money to poor people. But that is not the idea, as our tax code proves. If you
give twenty dollars to someone on the street, there is not a way in the world you
can deduct that donation from your taxes. To claim a deducation you must give the
money to an organization that employs clerks and administrators and social
workers and that, more than likely, puts nothing material into the hands of the
poor... When the agency makes an accounting of the good it has done the poor, it
will count the money it spent on paying social workers to hold the hands of the
poor the same as money, if any, spent on bread. The purpose of welfare systems is
to provide jobs for social workers and bureaucrats. I told Billy he should be
grateful to have a job in the poverty industry, but to ask that such a job be
meaningful is to ask too much."
Despite Eighner's low opinion of the value of social workers, they do
occasionally try to assist him. At one point, Eigner enters a hospital because
his leg is swollen and various doctors there try to get him committed to a
"The social worker had programs for alcoholics, programs for drug
addicts, and programs for the insane. If I would admit to belonging to one of
these categories--and if I would have my dog destroyed--then something might be
done for me."
Eighner devotes an entire chapter to the subject of alcoholism, drugs and the
homeless. He states that the myth held by the middle class is that alcoholism
leads to the loss of job, family, and home.
"... And there he is, a wino clutching a brown sack, passed out in an
"Indeed, I met street winos who told this story of themselves. But in as many
other cases I found the cause the effect reversed: people who claimed to have
drunk little or not at all until they became homeless.
"If there were no alcohol, society would still have no use, no job, no home
for the men, young and old, who sit on street corners with brown paper sacks. If
the cities were filled with sober hopeless people, I doubt that the comfortable
would find the results much to their liking.
"I am certain that many members of these [homeless drinking groups] would be
called social drinkers if they were not homeless. Indeed, they might be called
social drinkers more accurately than better-off people, because the drinking
group was the only society I found on the street. People in better circumstances
can find many associations and activities that do not involve alcohol. One the
streets one must drink, or at least pretend to drink, to have any company or
entertainment at all.
"Of course, some of the people on the street who begin drinking socially in
the drinking groups will become alcoholics--just as some people who attend
cocktail parties will. ...
"The truth is that the vices of the homeless do not much differ from the vices
of the housed, but the homeless, unless they become saints, must pursue their
vices in public.
"One of the yuppie excuses for not giving money to panhandlers is that the
money might be spent on liquor. Surely the money would not be put to a better
purpose if it were donated to an agency and used to make a payment on a social
Eighner uses a chapter on the subtleties of Dumpster diving to draw parallels
between the very rich and the very poor in America.
"Many times in our travels I have lost everything but the clothes I
was wearing and Lizbeth. The things I find in Dumpsters, the love letters and rag
dolls of so many lives, remind me of this lesson. Now I hardly pick up a thing
without envisioning the time when I will cast it aside...
"Anyway, I find my desire to grab for the gaudy bauble has been largely sated.
I think this is an attitude I share with the very wealthy--we both know that
there is plenty more where what we have came from. Between us are the rat-race
million who nightly scavenge the cable channels looking for they know not
"I am sorry for them."
More disturbingly, Eighner chronicles various incidents in which his lack of
funds and status leads to his being kicked around by the police.
"The police dispose of poor people however they will, on a whim, as a
favor, and the officers know they will never answer for anything they do so long
as their victims are not fortunate enough to afford a lawyer.
"It is a crime to be poor, so the winos said. So it is, for it is a crime to
sleep in a public place and a crime to trespass to sleep in a private place. But
more than that, to be poor is to be subject utterly to the agents of the law.
This as much as anything, I think, is what a middle-class person fails to
appreciate about being poor. A middle-class man may want to avoid being stopped
for speeding in his BMW, but if he is stopped he sees a face of the law very
different from the face shown to the poor. The traffic officer who stops a man in
a BMW knows that man's sister might be a lawyer, the man himself might be a
lawyer, at any rate the man has the resources to make trouble if he is dealt with
unfairly. Middle-class people have rights and they like to think that everyone
does. The rich, of course, know that rights are bought and sold, and the poor
know it too. Those between them live in an illusion."
Eighner sounds like such a capable rational person throughout this account
that it seems difficult to believe that he was down and out for so many
"Home is the natural destination of any homeless person. But nothing
can be done in a day, in a week, in a year to get nearer that destination. No
perceptible progress can be made. In the absence of progress, time is nearly
meaningless. Some days are more comfortable than others. And that is all the
"Rent, deposits, transportation, suitable clothing, living expenses: the kind
of money required to obtain a home cannot be saved from pennies picked up on the
street. Moreover, no homeless person would be likely to be able to obtain
employment immediately even if he were somehow delivered from the streets. His
fate is no longer in his hands. He may survive, but no more than
Allegedly, Eighner's publisher made him remove vivid descriptions of his
(homosexual) sexual encounters over the course of the book. That's a shame
because I'm sure that it would have provided important insight into another facet
of life that few are likely to experience. Dead trees publishing sometimes
provides a modest living for authors (though
as much as you'd think) but it results in an unfortunate homogenization of
culture. We'll just have to wait for Eighner to put up a Web site if we want the
You can order Travels with Lizbeth from
. You can also drag your lazy butt down to
the library and get it. However you acquire the book, you won't be able to put it
down and that's good. Every American should read this book.