Hello America, welcome to the third world!

“The difference between fact and fiction..is that in fiction, you’re allowed to drag your characters through hell, because you can pull them back out again.  Fact sucks. You can’t give your characters a successful business or a best-selling novel or even a home!”

Mik Everett, Self-Published Kindling: Memoirs of a Homeless Bookstore Owner

When my son was 11, I took him to India to see how the other half lives.  I thought he’d realise how good we had it in Australia, and come back a more rounded and compassionate child.  Boy was I wrong.  He hated the beggars (‘they should have studied harder in school!’), despised the itinerant street salesmen (‘Why don’t they just stay in their shops and wait!’) and poured contempt on the facilities (‘Their electricity just – stops!  You have to wash your bum in a bucket! The streets are all messy!’).  Oh well.

Maybe I should’ve taken him to America instead.  The US is the new third world, but doesn’t realise it.  I’ve just finished reading Mik Everett’s not very enticingly entitled novel, ‘Self-Published Kindling: Memoirs of a Homeless Bookstore Owner‘.  The book is about two things – being homeless, and self-publishing.  It sure made me think.

Mik, her boyfriend and two small kids become homeless when they can’t pay the rent on time and their landlord posts an eviction notice over the weekend (when all the homelessness services are conveniently closed).  I hope I’m not exaggerating when I say that in Oz, this would be an extremely rare event.  Any landlord that did this would find themselves on prime time tv explaining how they put a family of four out on the street on a weekend with no notice, no bond return and no negotiation.  Any government authority that allowed it to happen (or worse, sent round an enforcer to supervise) would have dirt on its face.  But in the US, this kind of thing seems to be rather regular and ordinary.

So Mik’s family surreptitiously park their van behind Walmart, and go looking for food and housing.  Every homeless charity they go to requires them to bring endless documentation and fill in numerous forms.  My favourite: the receptionist who insists that Mik produce ‘proof of residence’.  “I don’t have any – I’m homeless!” she replies.  Obvious, you would think.  Here, homeless families aren’t interrogated as if they’re criminals.  Some rort the system, claiming benefits they aren’t entitled to.  Nevertheless, Australian charitable and government organisations who can’t provide shelter hand out blankets, food, referrals.  Families with small children get top priority.

Mik develops an eye problem, which is followed by cancer.  Her insurance refuses to pay for the eye surgery she needs, and blames the cancer on her medication.  She spends all her savings paying off the hospital.  You have got to be kidding.  In Australia, she would receive medical treatment for free.  But even if she happened to be insured, insurers here are not authorised to decide what treatments they’ll pay for and what they won’t.  Yes, they can refuse to cover you for some broad categories, such as cosmetic treatment – but that’s it.  They rarely do carp, because they don’t want to piss their customers off – god knows it’s hard enough getting Australians to insure anyway, with the public medical cover.

But Mik – amazingly – ‘owns’ a bookshop, stocked with self-published books.  They don’t sell.  One day she’s sitting in her shop when a local business community rep mosies in.  The well-dressed representative asks her if she’d like to sign a petition asking local authorities to do something about the ‘homeless problem’.  Not the problems the homeless HAVE.  The problems the homeless ARE.  Local business owners want them moved on.  They lobby for homeless services to be shut, so as not to attract clientele.  Mik just stares at her.  Well, you would, wouldn’t you.  The irony of it.

Like India, America is both wonderful and rotten, grand and decrepit, inspiring and shocking.  Like India, America has its winners, whose lives are celebrated in books and movies – and its shamed kicked-in-the-teeth losers, the ones who aim at the dream and miss, or who don’t even bother aiming – who tend not to feature quite so much.  Mik’s book, though – that’s eye-opening.  Well worth a look.


  1. There are cities and bureaucrats here that do actually do their best to take care of the homeless.
    But if I end up indigent, all my savings will be aimed towards a plane ticket to Australia.

    I wonder how Australia was set up that that’s how the social services network runs…

    1. I know – but to Australian visitors, the US is both a wonder and an incredible mess. I couldn’t understand, when I was there, how there could be so many levels of bureaucracy providing so many varied services with such enormous funds – and yet so many people living in conditions that would be unheard of in Australia. Except for, I have to say, in indigenous communities, and that’s our national shame. I think the thing about Oz is, we really only have two levels of government that matter much, federal and state, and we’re small, homogenous and placid enough that the potential for things to get out of hand is limited. Plus, our social welfare system is modelled on Britain’s, without the British urban squash-factor. We may be over-provided with goodies, but take heart – you’re much less boring.


    2. I’d add to that. I think Americans really don’t realise how good some other parts of the world have got it. Indians and Afghans and so on know that they live in (sort of) charming shitholes, but Americans (and sorry for the stereotyping here) think that other nationalities must envy them. And so they do, if they come from Bogota. Mind you, I do envy the landscape, and Americans do make life interesting. They’re sort of like those cousins who everybody talks about at family dinners, who do wild things the rest of the family can only dream of, but with awful (and strangely fascinating) consequences.


  2. I’m Canadian, and I feel the same way sometimes. People do fall through the cracks here, and no system is perfect, but I can’t even imagine living in the States, not having health care, or paid maternity leave, or… Well, the health care is the big one for me. I don’t hate Americans by any means, but I also have never envied them.

    1. I have a like/dislike relationship with Americans. No, America. The sort of ‘greatest country on earth, school captain of the world’ political rhetoric is irritating. The apparent level of credulousness is odd, and the obsession with guns scary. I guess if the US were at the status level of Saudi Arabia, I’d just shrug and go, oh well, that’s foreigners for you! (or something equally parochial). But because the US comes across as this huge, pushy, somewhat hypocritical nation with tickets on itself, the temptation is to scoff. I promise I will post something scoffing at Oz, too, we deserve it!

  3. An interesting blogger posted an interview she had with a poor person in a 3rd world country. She marveled at how she wanted to come to America. She beleived food must just lie on the streets as she noted ‘even the homeless are overweight in America, so there must be food galore on the streets of the US.’ I appluad your excercise with your son. I have been to some 3rd world countries and poor there is not like poor in the US.

    1. No that’s true. The poor in Oz are fat too often (though the kids can be starving, as money is sometimes spent elsewhere). It’s a cultural thing – the well-off and educated are well aware of healthy lifestyle issues, while the poor don’t know that real food doesn’t come out of a McDonalds bag. I’ve met many fairly poor people whose tvs are bigger than mine.

  4. Actually, in America it is very difficult to evict someone, it requires legal action and several registered letters sent out over a period of a month to several months. A landlord that simply posted a notice over a weekend would be sued in short order, and this mythical protagonist would have ended up owning the building.

    But, in fiction people can just make things up to make the story more dramatic.

    1. I don’t think that’s the case, Misha, and the protagonist isn’t mythical. Mik isn’t the first person I’ve heard/read describing a very different reality. Also, I don’t think at the time she (and many people in her circumstances) would have the money to sue. It’s an interesting side-fact that if you meet many middle class Indians, they believe that real poverty doesn’t exist in their country. They cite the existence of food programs, and government assistance, and the like. If you go there, you can clearly see that it sure does. Likewise a person like me, in ordinary life, doesn’t come across people in extreme hardship, but through my job, I happen to know they exist here. Many people find it hard to believe that you can be homeless in Australia because there’s a lot of welfare – but there are nevertheless thousands of homeless people who fall through the cracks.


      1. Well, having been homeless, and having worked in a homeless shelter, I like to think that I know something about poverty in my country. I have also worked doing evictions in four states, and I’m pretty clear on the laws regarding housing. I realize that it’s trendy to portray America as a land of very poor and the very rich who prey on them, but it’s about as accurate as believing that Australians live in constant fear of being eaten by crocodiles.

      2. Well, living in Australia, and having only visited the US twice, I don’t think I know a lot about it, that’s for sure. Although from what I’ve read and seen on documentaries, it does seem that some people are treated very harshly. Perhaps it depends on the state. As for trendy, I’m not sure, but the statistics do show that the US has higher income inequality than any other developed nation. And of course, we DO live in constant fear of being eaten by crocodiles – that goes without saying!

  5. I live in Las Vegas, U.S., and someone can be thrown out of his/her home within 24 hrs. All the landlord has to do is get an eviction notice from the judge and stick it on the door. And if the person is not gone within 24 hours, he’s thrown out and the door’s locked. I’ve seen this happen a few times to people I know.

    1. Yeah, I’ve seen tv programs where mothers are put out on the street with their babies, with the assistance of some kind of law enforcement. It’s bizarre. Here, landlords have to work quite hard to evict you if you don’t want to go – in fact, it’s a common topic of complaint among landlords how hard it is to get someone out. Where I live, in the capital, if you become homeless you can ring a single government number, and they can tell you pretty much straight away if there’s a bed somewhere and where to go. Women with young families are high on the list and the numbers turned away from shelter would be fairly low, I think. Homeless men and singles on the other hand find it more difficult because there are not enough shelters and public housing. Still, compared to the US, it’s a dream.


  6. I would be the first to agree that there are as many bad things about America as there are good. (I think were a very prideful people)

    1. You have a lot to be proud of. I guess a certain lack of humility can come with being an imperial power. We have our flag wavers here and I loathe them. Yes it’s great here, for most people. Yes it’s a nice, relatively placid place. That doesn’t mean we have to sing stupid songs about ourselves and act as if every time some Aussie sportsperson wins something it’s a personal achievement for all of us.

  7. I took a trip to India in 1998, living in New York City at the time. In India I grappled with crumbling infrastructure, prevalence of malaria, and, in Calcutta, a transport system that was immediately shut down by monsoon rains.

    Upon my return to JFK airport I had just missed major malfunctions of road and rail caused by aging facilities unable to handle a sudden downpour of rain and mosquito borne West Nile Virus just discovered in the region. Seemed like the Third World was right there in Gotham.

    The old Progressive movement used to call this private wealth and public squalor. The private wealth in the US remains much larger there than in India but the public realm is in a fast race to the bottom.

  8. I think it’s not lack of resources, it’s poor organisation – same thing was behind the Hurricane Katrina disaster response. I guess private wealth and public squalor says it. In india – much the same: the system hinders the smooth running of things rather than enabling it. Hey – and it’s nice to hear from you!

  9. As every Brit knows, what happens over there crosses the Atlantic and reaches here eventually. Not the nicest of thoughts.
    We are caught here in the most confusing position you can imagine. Our own liberal tradition of the welfare state; our general position of accepting everything American as both “good” and “inevitable”; the centrist positions of the European giants in France and Germany; the remarkably progressive Scandinavian policies we seek to emulate without really thinking about whether they’ll work here; and bits and pieces from Japan and China and our friends in NZ, Australia and Canada. All while we have our first coalition government in living memory.
    Is it any wonder we’re a mess?

  10. I recall a homeless person in Britain was turned down for emergency accommodation because they didn;t have a postal address – email and mobile was not enough. As things get tougher, the notions of duty of care to the poor and homeless are falling apart. Wasn’t there a film with Denzel Washington about a guy who had a good job but couldn’t afford accomodation so slept on the night bus?

    1. That used to be the case in Australia too – they couldn’t get benefits because they didn’t have a postal address. Finally the bureaucrats got it, so that’s no longer the case – or so I think. Ridiculous. I sometimes think, though, why is it the government’s job to provide for the homeless? Why don’t I simply invite one in to occupy my spare room? Answer – because I don’t want the stereotypical homeless person, with possible drug/alcohol/mental health issues, living in my house with my teenage daughter (and she’d decamp!). But I do feel the urge to be more personally generous with my living space (maybe when the kids are gone)!


  11. Great discussion in comments. I’m an American who can’t stand the imperialistic arrogance of our government and the “patriots.” Humility is a beautiful thing and it seems to be sorely lacking in far too many Americans.
    Regarding the bureaucracy and homelessness in America… We have mastered the art of creating useless bureaucracy (and I say this as a government employee). On the other side of the coin, however, we have passed laws in the name of freedom that makes it very difficult to get people off of the streets if that’s where they want to be.

    1. That’s interesting. Are there laws about people being on the streets? The police can move you on here, I believe, but I doubt that they do much – they’d refer you to a service, I think. There are people who prefer to be on the streets because they have a deep fear of authorities and being institutionalised, or because they’ve simply become used to it. I recently heard of a program in my city where the services people will go out again and again, with cups of coffee and hot dogs and so on, to persuade these people to come in from the cold – apparently it works, eventually. Many homeless have terrible histories of childhood abuse.


  12. The shame in the UK is that the bastards in power are making the cracks bigger and bigger – on my visits to the States I too am amazed at the sheer number of destitute. Great post!

  13. I am an American, and I agree with the statement-some people are rotten, but others are great. I have encountered both in my life. I think this is any place you go, though…

  14. America is insane. We feel like the world should bow down to us because we think we invented democracy, and think we saved the world in WWII, etc, but mainly because we just think we’re so wonderful. Yet we worship talentless and soulless morons on TV, we shriek at each other instead of having clear-headed discussions, and we pay rich people obscene salaries while poor and middle class people get effectively poorer every year. We neglect our health, eat huge portions of crap food, and expect modern medicine to fix whatever we break. Prices for health care, college, food, and energy skyrocket as if we had the inflation rate of an African dictatorship. Medical insurance is not really “insurance”, like car insurance (where you pay a deductible, then the rest is covered), it’s more of a “catastrophic insurance”, where you hopefully won’t lose your home due to medical bills, but you will have to give up other basic things, or, like I did earlier this year, rob your retirement fund. I paid $3500 out of my own pocket for surgery this last spring, about a fourth of my “take-home” pay for a year. The typical “maximum out-of-pocket” (the amount one person would have to pay in a calendar year for medical bills before their insurance would pick up all the remaining costs for that year), for those of us lucky enough to even have job-related health insurance, used to be $2 grand a year, now it’s $4 grand, or more, because employers are feeling the pinch of rising costs also (or so they say). Very few middle-class people have that much cash lying around.
    I love your travelogues, Rose. A big trip for me right now is going to the other side of South Dakota or to a nearby state park. But, unlike the homeless discussed here, I’ve never gone to bed hungry, though one time right after college I think all I had was a baked potato (boring doesn’t equal hungry though). 😉

    1. It sure can look that way. I hesitate to tar the whole of America with one brush..after all, you’re American and you’re not insane. We Aussies can be very complacent too – it’s just that we don’t run the world or anywhere near it. The American health care system is absurd to everyone but right wing Americans. Here we have a saying ‘only in America’ and it doesn’t normally refer to anything good..and yet, the US did save us from the Japs. I hate patriotism wherever I find it – I think our flag should feature something funny and our anthem should make foreigners laugh. I’m not a big fan of the nation state in general. I’m dead lucky to be able to go places though – I do love to move!


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