Thursday, February 28, 2013


    Whenever you talk about being homeless there is one thing that will instantly leap to mind or the discussion, as nicely revealed in the epithet most often hurled at the homeless, "Get a job you bum!"
    I will deal with the bum part in a future post, let me look now at the 'get a job' part.  Being homeless I naturally wanted to get a job.  A job means money, which means food and housing and all the nice things that I did not have living on the streets (like somewhere to put my stuff instead of carrying it on my back, I'm a 38 year-old with a 75 year-old's spine).  Getting a job can be a challenge, but it is even moreso when one is homeless.  However, I got lucky and did manage to get a job.  I thought everything would be great, I was on the path to getting off the streets.  I did not think this for long.  The reason being what I now think of as 'homeless economics' and will present here.  Fair warning, there are going to be a lot of numbers in the rest of this post.

    Let's start at the important point, income.  Having a job means making money (actually trading time for money, not making it magically like a bank, but I digress), so how much money am I now making via gainful employment?  Well, I am somewhat skilled, though not specially so, and I got a part-time job making about $10/hr after taxes.  At first, for a whole blessed month, 'part-time' meant 30 hours a week, or $300/week after taxes for a whopping $1,200 that month in my pocket.  After that first month, sadly (and somewhat inexplicably, but I'm not going to go into all the job troubles here, just the numbers) 'part-time' became only 20 hrs/week, for just $800 a month.  It would remain there until I left, so we'll use $800 as my new income.

    Now, with income comes expenses.  First, I had to get to my job and for that I needed a bus pass - which was $80 a month.  Next I needed a phone, to be reached for scheduling changes and to call my boss if he wasn't at the office and I needed to know how to do something (which happened several times).  One no-contract Virgin Mobile cell phone was $20 on sale, and the lowest calling plan was $30 a month (and out of my 1,500 minutes I think I once used maybe 150 - I'm not a phone guy).  Work clothes need to be kept clean, so laundry at the friendly neighborhood laundromat ran about $20 a month (weekly washings of $5).  So incidental expenses ran about $130/month.  My $800 income - $130 expenses = $670 left over.  Not bad, right?

    Well, one other thing - I needed to eat.  Eating good.  Now not having a home is a problem when it comes to eating.  With a house and the ability to store and prepare food I have been able to easily eat for $2 a meal, so 3 meals a day would be $6 and a 30 day month totaling $180 for food.  Tack on a little for the few meals that were more expensive or random treats and a fairly consistent $200/month food bill is something I have lived on before.  But note how I opened that, with the ability to store and prepare food.  I didn't have that, I was still homeless when starting my new job.
    Not being able to prepare food means you have to buy stuff that is already made, which is more expensive.  A $1 frozen dinner is a lot cheaper than a $3 pre-made sandwich at the grocery store - and that gets worse if you talk about fast food.  A small fast food meal is usually about $6 (5 plus tax, rounded).  Eating fast food three times a day is $18 a day or $540 a month.  Ee-gads!  So let's pair down to just 2 meals a day, morning and night, which brings it down to $12 a day or $360/month.  So the $670 we had above - $360 for food = $310/month.
    As a final note, food is the hardest thing to budget when you're on the streets.  Being hungry is hard, and even a job like mine that just required walking and talking to people managed to work up quite the appetite.  Keeping control of food costs, and most importantly realizing just how much I was actually spending on food was a challenge.

    Now, we started with $800 and currently have $310 left - and we're still missing something.  So far we've (or, well, I did) spent money just on keeping the job (including staying alive in general by eating) - but we are (I was) still homeless.  We haven't paid anything yet for rent.  So let's look at the path off the streets that our job has provided.
    There are three options for getting a place to live.  First, the ideal, getting a small apartment of one's own.  Second, less ideal but still okay, renting a room.  Finally, least attractive, renting a hotel room.  We'll look at them in order:
    Apartment - well, this is the nicest, and the hardest.  First, to even dream about getting an apartment you need to pass a credit check.  If, like me, your credit score is embarrassed to show itself in public, this is a problem. If you make it over that hurdle though, there are others.  Starting, the cheapest, smallest studio apartment is going to run about $500 a month (easily 600 to 1,000 depending on location).  But that's not the real expense, no.  Most people just stop right there, the monthly cost, but you also have to take into account that you have to pay up-front.  First and last months' rent plus a security deposit (typically equal to one month's rent) before you can claim home sweet home.  So $1,500 up front, plus $500 a month.  And how much did we have left over a month?  Oh yeah, $310.  Not even enough for the monthly, and of course I didn't have any money saved up for that $1,500 hurdle.
    Room - okay, so getting an apartment is a bust, what about Plan B, renting a room?  Well, a search on Craigslist can turn up some pretty darned expensive rooms - I mean, who really wants to pay $800 to $1,000 just to rent a room?!  But there are some more reasonable people who will rent a place for just $400 a month.  Not bad, remembering that we'll be able to make our own food and lower that expense we should be able to get up to $470 a month, which will just cover the rent and leave a few bucks to do something fun with (though the library is a treasure trove of fun, and free).  Room looking good . . . um,  well, almost.  See, one little problem - all those nice $400 rooms also want a deposit, not as much- just first and last months' rent, but that still means coming up with $800 to move in.  And, well, $800 is everything that we make in one month - so that would be a whole month of not eating or riding the bus or anything to save up to move in somewhere.  Hmm...
    Hotel - now we get to the least desirable option, the hotel room.  These too can be incredibly expensive, up to $1,000 a month or more with a kitchenette.  But I was able to find a hotel that was only $200 a week - just a room, not kitchenette or fridge so still paying the higher price in food (though I did have room to store some non-perishable food).  But, $200 a week is $800 a month.  Still a whole lot of money, but at least you don't have to pay anything up front.
     This was the route I took.  I did not expect my hours to get cut, so with my $1,200 that first month I had enough to get a hotel room (yay, off the streets, woo hoo!!!) and still cover my expenses.  Then I realized I had a problem.  I had no money left over to save up to rent a room with (remember, $800 up front).  Then my hours got cut and I couldn't even afford to stay at the hotel.  I didn't have any winter camping gear, having arrived in summer; and in Denver it does not snow too much, but it does snow and get cold.  It took about $200 to get the sleeping bag, blankets, thermal pants, jacket, boots and such to be able to camp outside without losing any appendages to frostbite (which I say in a lighthearted manner, but I've met guys who have had toes amputated from it).

    So, getting a job is a Good Thing, no doubt about it - but it is not a "get out of being homeless free" card.  It takes quite a bit of money to get off the streets, and really at least a full-time job (which seem to be harder to find every year) making above minimum wage.  Sadly being homeless is a lot easier to fall into than crawl out of.  And if your job doesn't work out (I may someday go over how mine went sideways, maybe not - I don't like to think about how "almost but not good enough" I came to some measure of happiness) then you go right back to square one.
    So, there was your little economics lesson for the day.  Makes your own anemic checking account look better, doesn't it?

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Movie Commentary: 2013 Oscar Nominated Short Films – Animated

At a glance- 8 animated films from 2 to 30 minutes; covering drama, comedy, romance, children's stories and just plain visual fun

What is it? It's February, and that means it's Oscar time. A lot of the nominated films have returned to the box office to drum up some more support, and we also have two films that showcase the Oscar-nominated shorts, one for Live Action and the other covering Animated. Being me, I went to see the animated shorts.

     Now, I have to confess that I really like animated works. From the first Bugs Bunny cartoon as a child to the fantastic work done recently by Pixar, and surrounded by a cloud of Japanese Anime over the years. Is this love because I'm such a kid at heart (which sounds kinder than immature)? Actually, no. I have tried over the years to find a way to explain the appeal of animation over live action, and at last I think I've found it. My ex-girlfriend is a huge Opera Lover (and note the capitols as I describe her)(she also sings opera like an angel), and so of course I listened to some opera myself. I loved it. It was opera that actually explained animation to me. See, in opera I don't know the language (no left-brain) – so I am listening to the music and the tone of the singing; it is a very right-brained activity. Animation is the same way. An animated character can convey far, far more emotion then any but the most skilled human actor – because the animated character is not constrained by reality. Eyes are almost always exaggerated, expressions can literally become larger than the character's head, and the background changes at a whim. All of this brings a character's inner emotions to life, it is the right-brained way of telling, and viewing, a story.
     Shorts add an extra dimension to the animation. A short film has no room to waste, every frame has to build the story and advance the emotions that are trying to be conveyed. It is a hard, fast punch to the gut (when done right, a forgettable commercial when done wrong).

     If I remember correctly (which happens from time to time) last year the shorts were all just presented one after the other. This year, there are two hosts who briefly speak in-between each short film. William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg are directors of last year's Oscar-winning "The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore," and it was a great short. While some may wonder why you would need hosts for a 90 minute total collection of mostly 5 minute films, they actually were a very good idea. They provide a break, a way to let go of the last short and get ready for the one to come. Like having a glass of water to clear the palate in-between courses of a meal. And since the first 7 shorts have no dialogue, they also provide some human voices.

     Preamble aside, let's get to the shorts themselves. First, we have the nominees (in the order they appear in the film):

"Maggie Simpson in 'The Longest Daycare' "
Little baby Maggie has stepped out of The Simpsons and into her own short. This is a very cute story. Poor Maggie is put in a machine that deems her to be “normal intelligence” and she is dumped in a corner with the kids who are “nothing special.” She finds a caterpillar, which another child wants to smash, and she struggles to rescue it from the evil hammer of her nemesis.

"Fresh Guacamole"
At only 2 minutes this is the shortest of all the films. It is simply making fresh guacamole, as the title says, but with some odd ingredients. Like a hand grenade, baseball, dice and more. Claymation and brillant.

"Adam and Dog"
A dog is man's best friend, right? This short seeks to explain that. We see dog, roaming by himself, who meets Adam in the Garden of Eden. They form a bond, until Eve enters the picture. But even when the two first humans are cast out of the garden, dog follows loyally. This is a nice short, but I think a lot of it's impact comes from weather or not you like dogs. Cat lovers may not be so impressed.

"Head Over Heels"
A somewhat odd love story about a husband who lives on the floor and wife who lives on the ceiling. Something has broken them up, in more than just the spacial sense, and so we follow as they try to deal with their relationship. Good, very good story and well done. The only odd thing was that just a few days before seeing this I watched a preview for “Upside Down” which is an upcoming feature live action film about a boy and girl who live on worlds that mirror each other. Not sure if the short or people who worked on it had anything to do with the movie coming out next month.

I had seen this one, so have you if you watched Disney's “Wreck-It Ralph” last year. This is a very cute boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-tries-to-get-girl's-attention-with-paper-airplanes story. You know, the classic romance.

     Then we have some shorts that are highly commended:

Abiogenesis” – is a gorgeous special-effects short. It shows a machine that lands on a barren planet and fills it with life. Computer animated, and with such a level of detail it must have taken a heck of a lot of work to render.

Dripped” – a tribute to Jackson Pollock, this is the rather unusual story of an art thief. Not merely stealing paintings, he actually eats them – until finally exploding in a burst of colors. This is an old-style computer animation, everything is pixelated, which surprisingly has a lot of charm. I liked the story, the artist so full of art that he can't paint something, he has to just release the paints in a frenzy. I am not much of an art guy, so I had to look up Mr. Pollock on Wikipedia the next day, but I think this is a fitting tribute to his work.

The Gruffalo's Child” – at almost 30 minutes this is the longest, and out of the 8 shorts the only one with dialogue. An adaptation of a 2004 children's book of the same name (itself a sequel to the 1999 book, “The Gruffalo” and using the same characters) with an all-star voice cast and beautiful animation. This is a rhyming-couplet children's poem brought to life; and a very cute story of a curious child and clever mouse.

My recommendation- go see it if you want to just relax and enjoy a visual feast

P.S.- in case you were wondering, my vote is for "Fresh Guacamole" to win. It is a great example of the animated and short styles. It is like watching a wonderful magic trick. All of them are good, but I liked that one best.