Homelessness does not happen overnight. In the vast majority of cases, it represents a long slide down economically, emotionally, in terms of relations or jobs. That’s why I assert that people who want to understand homelessness or help the homeless study the evolution of this condition. Post homelessness is also an interesting area to consider. It is important for the person coming out of homelessness make good decisions so that their increased independence does not evaporate once again.
There a variety of causes of homelessness–mental illness, drug addiction, a personality disorder, bad luck, socioeconomic barriers to developing a stable lifestyle
Sometimes the homeless person has experienced abuse and this has landed him or her in a homeless or family homeless shelter. Then there are teens who have been in a condition of alienation from their families and who have come to feel they are not wanted, whether this is true or not. These teens may run away and end up in danger on the street or if they are lucky, in a decent shelter or rehab center.
Then there are the sociopaths, folks with little or no conscience who perhaps have just been released from prison; their predatory lifestyles has put them in a position where they do not have any natural supports in the community. In other words, literally no one trusts them. They may end up in a shelter or on the street. These are exceedingly dangerous individuals who may victimize other homeless individuals. However, during my experience of homelessness in 1999-1999, I did not experience any of this type of victimization. Therefore, it may be that the sociopathic segment of the homeless population may be vastly exaggerated in the public’s mind.
In terms of helping the homeless, I would urge the helper to not encourage a poor me attitude in homelessness individuals. The most important thing is to encourage the homeless individual to recognize his or her own areas of coping and potential strengths. Most homeless individuals do possess such inner resources, though they may have lost awareness of these strengths.
The homeless must be encouraged to not panhandle or take advantage of any person or institution that they come in contact with, in a thoughtless or predatory manner. Such behavior only encourages the public to hang on to stereotypes about the homeless. Such behavior also impedes the homeless individual in his or her movement forward in the direction of economic independence.
Shelters vary tremendously in terms of the training and compassion of staff, in my experience. In one of my songs I wrote, “A shelter is not filled with love, it’s just an agency.” Now this was a song, not a complete depiction of reality. I know some shelters are much better than than. But some are abysmal, frankly.
I remember the night one of the other residents–an individual who meant a lot to me–overdosed on heroin in the upstairs bathroom. I was one of the individuals who found him sitting on the toilet, his eyes staring blankly into space, and his needle poised in his hand, in a frozen position.
Well, the staff, in my view, did a horrendous job helping other residents to process this tragedy–one rather short group meeting to discuss it. It was kind of a cold, informational meeting, as I recall. In other words, residents were not particularly encouraged the express feelings of grief or loss. I also had the feeling that the shelter was trying to cover its butt in this situation. Staff lost track of this individual during a house meeting and no one checked on him until it was too late. And the individuals who took the initiative to check on him were myself and one other resident.
So not all shelters are great places, by any means.
But whatever resources are available, the homeless individual must do his or her best to take advantage of the best of help that IS available. I was very fortunate to have been hooked up to Healthcare for the Homeless in Western Massachusetts. Through this contact, I was encouraged for about the fourth time to accept the diagnosis of Bipolar and to accept treatment. Healthcare for the Homeless made sure I had access to appropriate medication, though I had little money–I was not completely broke at that point but did not have enough to rent even a room and certainly not to provide a deposit.
Then, I found some vocational counseling help through the Salvation Army. This young lady was not a trained counselor, but she encouraged me to apply for jobs in the area that I was capable of handling at the time. I washed dishes at Sizzlin’ Steak House and then was hired by the Amherst School System to monitor an ADHD child, on a one-to-one basis. With two Master’s degrees, neither position was anywhere near to tapping into my complete skill level. But these were JOBS that allowed me to save money for rent and a deposit in Northampton. Then, I learned to access the free bus that traveled from Northampton to Amherst. This saved me a ton of money over time. I actually utilized the libraries at Smith College and the Northampton Public Library to gain internet access and check out some books. I found a basketball court not far from the shelter-rehab program where I was housed at the time and shot around on court. This was very good for me because sports had always played a big role in my life–especially basketball.
So there are ways for the homeless to move forward. But they must take the initiative to take advantage of those resources. Helpers of the homeless can point the homeless to those resources and encourage them to access them–but not in an authoritarian way! Through suggestion, that works much better.
More on homelessness in a subsequent essay…