Would You Know I’m Homeless?
By Laurie Love
I’m guessing not.
I know what you think about homelessness; I pay attention. Strike that, I don’t have to pay attention to know what you think about homelessness. Your comments about us are loud, and rude, and hostile, and wrong.
If you’ve read anything I’ve written then you’re probably thinking ‘but you’ve only been homeless for two months, you’re different.’ Think again because you’re wrong.
My story of homelessness isn’t much different than anyone else’s. Probably because there only a few roads that lead to homelessness. And I’m betting you think all of them couldn’t happen to you.
You could be right. There are a lot of tumblers that must turn in just the right way for someone to become homeless; a series of unfortunate events if you will. And I’ll be fair, not all of them involve unfortunate events. There are people in this world who actually do choose homelessness. In fact, there are people that not only choose homelessness but are damned good at it. These people use homeless shelters like free hotels; they pack light, travel easily and know the ‘assistance’ circuit like Captain Kirk knows the Enterprise. They are the ones most likely to be at your charitable giveaways because that’s their job.
Now you can hate, judge and dismiss the above group all you want but under no circumstances should you confuse them with the rest of us. The rest of us have not chosen homelessness; and given a reasonable opportunity we would not be.
I work fulltime at a hospital ICU; my son works almost fulltime as a groundskeeper. Both of my children have graduated from high school and neither has ever been in trouble with the law. My kids and I have volunteered in our community in a host of ‘wow I really admire that but couldn’t do it myself cause it’s way too hard’ areas including currently while we’re homeless. We know how to budget, we pay our bills and we don’t spend frivolously.
So what have we done wrong then? Surely we have to have done something wrong to be in our position. Somehow this has to be our fault because otherwise this could happen to anyone and if you’re honest, that idea terrifies you. It terrifies you so completely that you hang on to all of your possessions, all of your money, all of your connections with a grip so strong that it somehow gives your brain the illusion that you’re safe.
And I will admit that I’ve made some bad decisions in my life. But I will also objectively assess that none of those bad decisions have been bad enough to land me homeless. So what now? Who can you blame? Who cares?!
The one thing that I’ve learned in the last two months that surprises me is how necessary the Utah concept of Homes First is. I could write a book on how we got here (and would be glad too if a publisher would be willing to house us by way of an advance) but that won’t change the fact that we need a home now. There is a level of stress involved in not having permanent, safe housing that makes everything else a herculean task. Ever read the book ‘Hatchet’? Being homeless is like that. Every waking moment of every day is in one way or another devoted to finding permanent housing. It’ not only exhausting it’s destructive.
When I first heard of the ‘Homes First’ program in Utah I had reservations; reservations that stemmed from a long life of poverty where the ‘circuit workers’ snaked all of the resources while the rest of us were busy improving our lives. I just didn’t see how anyone could administrate that kind of program fairly. But then I had a nightmare of an intake interview with the kind of homelessness program that you probably donate to (one of those comprehensive ones that also treat the mental illnesses and addictions) and it completely changed my mind.
Understand I work in an ICU. I deal with people with addictions and mental illnesses for a living. I know them inside and out and I understand how frustrating it can be to help them. But I also know their stories and the difficulties they face with their illnesses. If any of my patients were also homeless and trying to get help from our local homelessness programming they wouldn’t stand a chance. The last intake interview that my daughter and I went to was so offensive and ineffective that we left wanting to drink heavily and drive off a bridge. No joke. No sarcasm. If our mental health was not at a tremendously high level we probably would have done both.
It was after that intake that I lost all my reservations. Housing must come first and it must come unconditionally. Everything else can come after. Housing like medical care is a foundational need. And like medical care it shouldn’t be denied from the deserving in order to keep it away from the not.
There was a phenomenal project in Toronto where some college kids use the hash tag #homelessness to turn their building from blue to red. I met some really wonderful people thru their effort; you wouldn’t know they’re homeless either. I was pointed to several agencies that claim to help the homeless; the agency that made us want to die was one of those. And then there were all of the groups of people that posted really interesting discussions and studies and ideas for dealing with homelessness; all of which are years in the making and help none at all now.
Homes must come first. Or maybe not. Maybe what needs to happen first is for the face of homelessness to make a realistic change. Those people you avoid because you think they’re homeless are only the tip of the iceberg, if part of it at all, and not necessarily representative of the whole. The underbelly of this iceberg is the foundation of your world. Without people like us serving you, your world would be ours.
And how can you really help? Actually I’m not sure. Specifics are always a wee bit tricksy. If you own rentals you can take a loss and rent for less or even free. If you know someone who’s losing their home pack them up and help them to store their things then rent them a hotel room for a year. Can’t do either of those on your own? Find a group and pool your resources. Can’t find a group? Use your networking skills to find money giving people and use their money to provide a home. Need other ideas? Contact me via twitter but above all move the Homes First concept forward.
Would you know that I’m homeless? Probably not. Want to help us? A comped safe hotel room for a year would be fabulous; a permanent home even better. Know any electronically minded companies? I was trained as an electronic technician in the Navy but can’t get hired as one in Jacksonville (it’s a man field); give me a sustainable job. Want to help others? I know a lady in Australia who is living in her car that could use the same. Not sure what you want to do? Pay more attention, live more intentionally, seek out the hard truths, fall less for the false ones. The fact is if you didn’t know that I was homeless you probably don’t know a lot; change that. Start thinking about the possibility that the world is not what you think it is; that the solutions in place may need amending. See the people around you in a new light. Help people in new ways. Don’t be constrained by the old ideas of what should be done. Use your experience, consider theirs and figure out a way to meet their needs in such a way that their needs are no more.
Would you know I’m homeless? Maybe, maybe not. Want to end homelessness? Almost certainly. More a fan of prevention? Me too. Try looking at homelessness like this; look at it like it’s a life threatening infection. If you focus only on the prevention of future outbreaks the currently afflicted will die. If you focus only on treating the symptoms future outbreaks are certain. But if you treat the current infection with the goal of eradication while treating the symptoms to prevent systemic damage and simultaneously looking at the possible causes so as to prevent future contaminations then you stand a chance at fixing the problem.
Translation for homelessness? Homes First. Putting people in homes is no different than putting people in ICUs; it provides the necessary support for healing. Once the person is stabilized then you can work on the side issues like affordable housing, job training, transportation, etc. Finally, prevention. There are a wazillion things that can be done to prevent homelessness but they all depend on you being able to identify what homelessness really encompasses. So I ask again, would you know I’m homeless?