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Homeless step-sitters plight is not unique

MY VIEW • Throughout Oregon, many older women are living on the fringe, quietly and bravely trying to survive

Michaela Bancud's article on Kathleen Bushman ('At shuttered Armory, woman soldiers on,' Aug. 23), the homeless lady who spends her days on the steps of the Armory, paints a heartbreaking, real life portrait.

The plight of this courageous, educated woman is also a reminder that we have a long, long way to go in this country in the treatment of poor women and others who find themselves, even temporarily, in adverse situations.

And it's ironic that her home is blocks from the Bush fiasco covered in preceding pages, which at the expense of citizens puts even more money into the pockets of millionaires.

Meanwhile, Kathleen and her 'fiance' live behind Dumpsters in Goose Hollow.

My sister and I grew up with the same nightmare of becoming bag ladies without a home. During the years, I've found that many other women shared our nightmares.

Our grandmother was a bag lady. She lived sometimes in trailer camps, cleaning restrooms to earn a meal here and there, hitchhiking with truck drivers in her old age and Dumpster diving behind stores for her Christmas gifts to Depression-era grandchildren. She was born in the latter part of the 19th century when a woman's fate without a man to support her was grim.

Little has changed. Older women are statistically the most impoverished segment of the poor in our nation, and those who live in Oregon find themselves facing a cutting of services for older citizens. Many eke out an existence quietly, skipping meals and choosing between groceries and medication.

For years, I struggled with the image of my grandmother in my mind. I put myself through college, which was not easy with three children to support alone, the early death of their father and the low wages that women everywhere received on the job. Unplanned adversity stalked me despite carefully laid plans and hard, hard work.

I held the dream that education and hard work would protect me from the fate of my grandmother. That was an illusion. As Bushman's story illustrates, despite all that one does, in real life an education for a woman does not protect her from this destiny in her old age.

On average, women receive Social Security benefits that are only three-fourths the amount of men's. They are half as likely as men to have a pension, and if they do, receive only half as much. Add to this the fact that women live longer. This is clearly a situation where inequality in old age is caused by political and economic forces and distribution of societal resources.

Last January, I wrote a story for The Oregonian about working into old age. I received a huge number of e-mails and some letters from women who were in dire straits Ñ many valiant, educated women who were giving it their all, despite overwhelming odds against them.

One social worker who has worked with the aging population for 20 years and writes a column for the Corvallis Gazette-Times' senior page wrote me describing the dire circumstances of the female population. 'Many older adults who would like to work part time even can't find a job.'

I received e-mails from women telling me of evictions from their homes, with no place to turn. One woman was suicidal. Another 75-year-old was having her power turned off because not enough money had been allotted to the program to provide power to the needy. No jobs were to be had, despite repeated efforts of many of these women.

When I'm told of Kathleen Bushman, reading in the hot sun, smiling despite the terrible setbacks, still able to face the world with humor head-on, I breathe a sigh of relief that I still have a roof over my head.

Today.

Syd Kanitz is a writer and editor. She lives in Southwest Portland.