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Thursday, November 15, 2012

Confession of an (Ex) Homeless Woman

Romney, again, is making headlines with his comment: this time that Obama "give gifts" to his voter. I am not really interested in his remarks, but what really unnerves me was the comments to the story, so many of them (heck, almost all of them depends on which website you were reading the story at) called the benefit receiver with names and said they are lazy and free-loaders (yes, I only put the nice words in my blog, go check out the real stuff in the comments).

I live in Indonesia. I become homeless in the age of 20. Not actually homeless, I got a big house to live in but the over cost was so high and I can't afford to live there. My dad left us and my family had to move to Bali so my mum can work to support her 5 children, all in school-age and needs loads of money for school. You see, Indonesia doesn't have social safety net nor student loans. The situation was like a quagmire or quicksand, I got sucked deeper with any action I made. I can't go to Bali because I need to finish my school in Jakarta; the house's maintenance fee and transportation from my house to campus was higher than renting a room near the campus, but somebody got to manned the house;  I need to work because my mum can only send me half of what I really need and sometimes even none, but I can't work because my classes starts as early as 7 am and ends at 3, sometimes 5 pm (as expected from Medical program) and night time shifts start as early as 2 pm; I want to quit school and work, but quitting school will only makes me more vulnerable to unemployment in the future. I was stuck.

I tried my best to adapt in the situation though. I only turned on the light in my room and on the porch to save electricity. I started to couch crashing anytime I can on my friends' houses just to get a brief respite from my depressing house (and also, if lucky, some decent food). A handful of friends that know my current condition were skillfully invited me for dinner or buying me lunch, and my boyfriend that time make sure I always got enough to eat or to pay the bills and tuition fee. In a way, they provided my "unemployment benefit". There were times where I wish, I wish I found a huge fat wallet so I can eat to my heart's content or to sleep in a full-lit house; but I never did. I only have enough to live and no more. Should I need a surgery back then, or even a week of illness, I'm screwed.

I finally got a job a couple of years later. Technically, it is impossible for me to get a decent job as I was still in school. The way it works in Indonesia, you got paid based on your degree. My high school diploma worth nothing, and my undergraduate program was not finished yet. But I score a good well-paid job thanks to my English. I was on student leave and my classes weren't that many by then, thus I was able to work full time. I always thought getting a job will ensured me a good living. In a way it is true, as my salary was bigger than my comrades who already graduate from our University. But as I work I can no longer rely on my "unemployment benefit", and was expected to provide "unemployment benefit" instead to my brothers and sisters which are still in school. I wish I could say I provide a good deal for them to justify my loss, but Jakarta is an expensive city (as well as my undergraduate program) and I can't give much to them anyway, and I still find myself feeling totally screwed when I was ill for 3 whole days or looking envious to people who are eligible for free health care (I don't envy the poorness though).

Things, thankfully, gradually become better for me. When I was 24 as a teacher I earned enough per class that I can work half day instead and focus in my study. I finally graduate 1.5 years later and move back to Bali not long after. It took me another 2 years of adaptation period and a couple more to be in my current comfortable situation. The total time needed? About 10 years.

I understand the anger some feel towards the benefit for the poor. Be it health system, disability or unemployment benefit or whatever you called it, it really feels bad to know your money is used to paid for the poor, for a bunch a blokes that probably screwed themselves to poorness. I felt that anger when I had to give some for my family (although the truth is I can never repay my mum for all she has done for me), and I personally know a few people that will be all too happy to feed on charities and benefits. But at the same time I am deeply troubled by that stigma, that the receiver of such charity or government benefits must be a sleazy lazy good for nothing a**holes.

The sad fact is, [in some cases] they were probably right. Like I said, there are people who misused the system for their own personal gain. This people hurt the system, and most importantly other people who need the system. I remember yelling at my University Dean. I asked to be allowed to skip some classes as I was working, and she refuse harshly as she said numerous students has requested that and they were all lying. I half-screamed to her: stating that my parents were separated and I had to pay for the goddamn tuition myself plus my living cost. Eyes dead locked to hers, tears streaming on my cheeks, chin jutting; it was my pride she's hammering on. She went into a shock and relented. Another time I have to act like a frail-broken-damsel in front of a professor just to get a leeway on class schedules. I can provide job letters and even salary record to prove I'm working, but I have to resort to such low trick because so many before me have misused the system and it just stopped working.

I am where I am right now because of that "unemployment benefits", which helped me in a crucial moment of my life. The benefits provide me enough so I can live and finally get a good job and finish my school. But they were not the only cogs in the clock. My education, how I was raised, and my family socio-economical background allowed me to get that good job. I manage to convince them to see past "the poor woman with only high school diploma", and made them see a "confident woman who is socio-economically good standing with pleasant manner and great English". Where my family got those? Simple, both of them are educated. Dad has a master degree in Economy, mum got scholarship for Nurse School by a Netherland organization. Without their education, and in turn mine, I won't be writing to you now.

Sometimes the system is not perfect, sometimes it's the people who misuse the system. But yes, the social security net helped people a lot. Instead of resorting to name-calling and stigmatization I would encourage to see what we can do with the condition. Regardless of what your stance on this matter, I think all will agree that education is the key. Education will enable people to get better job, which in turns will enable people to get off the benefits and even give back instead, so push forward for better education for the society. I know hands on how difficult it is to give to others when you are cash strapped, or even to see others got free stuff just because they earn less than you. It is not fair. You have the option to sulk and pout and cuss and think them as free-loader, or you can move forward and hope whatever you gave them will help them. I will move forward. It worked for me, now it's my time to help others.

And yeah, my Dad returned last year and the family has been a complete one ever since :)

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