In connection with the release of the whitepaper “Prevent Homelessness at its Core,” House the Homeless examined several of the more heavily travelled paths to Skid Row, where the embarkation point is release from institutions such as prisons, hospitals, the military, and the foster care system. Those reasons account for hundreds of thousands of people experiencing homelessness. Astonishingly, a plethora of other ways exists for an American to become, overnight, part of an underclass that too many other Americans wish would just disappear.
Fire is an ever-popular way to lose not only possessions but hope, and headlines routinely report the number of newly homeless people caused by any residential conflagration. In one particularly sad instance in Toledo, Ohio, pastor Steve North had rented a big old house that was part church, as journalist Gabrielle Russon described:
LifeLine wasn’t a typical church where people wore their best clothes and worshiped on Sunday morning. Instead, nearly 100 people came to Mr. North’s house on the first Saturday of each month. They stayed up late, eating food, listening to open-mic poetry, and talking. It was a ministry for low-income residents, to help them feel like they belonged somewhere.
North had just been out volunteering at the local tent city when his own family’s house burned, and he and his wife and their two children became as homeless as the people they had lovingly served.
How bad does a situation have to be, for someone to choose homelessness? Every year, ridiculous numbers of teenagers decide to stop enduring abuse from family members or step-parents, and escape to the streets. Sometimes, if the person achieves a measure of fame, the world hears about it later. Tyler Perry, for instance, had to get away from a father “whose answer to everything was to beat it out of you.” The young man dropped out of school, took off, and lived in a car for a time. Thanks to his incredible determination and sterling work ethic, Tyler Perry because an immensely successful filmmaker and performer.
MSNBC reporter Seamus McGraw related the story of a beauty contest winner who told him, “Anyone can fall victim to this” — “this” being homelessness. Blair Griffith, whose father had died of cancer, was Miss Colorado Teen in 2006. After some time went by, her mother had a heart attack and required $800 worth of meds every month. Griffith won the title of Miss Colorado USA in 2011, and a month later, sheriff’s officers showed up with an eviction notice and removed Griffith and her mother from their home. Around the same time, the young woman also lost her day job. Fortunately, friends took them in and they were able to start rebuilding their lives.
In the public imagination, and to some extent in real life, addiction leads to homelessness. What some critics refuse to take into account is that not every person with a substance abuse problem got there voluntarily. This article from RitalinAbuseHelp.com emphasizes how many children have been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and made to take pharmaceuticals. He writes:
… [A]dults who use Ritalin may have been diagnosed with the disorder at very young ages. Over time, doctors increase the dosages to deal with the changes in a patient’s weight and behavior, but somewhere along the way users may abuse the drug and become addicted… [A] drug meant to help now controls the individual, which can lead to losing a job, family and home.
A person can be brought low by one piece of serious bad luck, which often takes the form of a head injury. While researching a column about the organization Common Ground, journalist David Bornstein encountered a detail that brought him a “jolting realization”:
… [A]nybody could become like a homeless person — all it takes is a traumatic brain injury. A bicycle fall, a car accident, a slip on the ice, or if you’re a soldier, a head wound — and your life could become unrecognizable. James O’Connell, a doctor who has been treating the most vulnerable homeless people on the streets of Boston for 25 years, estimates that 40 percent of the long-term homeless people he’s met had such a brain injury.
Bornstein also spoke with Becky Kanis of Common Ground, who described a mindset that perceives the person experiencing homelessness as “almost in their DNA different from someone who has a house.” That is an excellent point. Despite the fact that someone without shelter is likely to be of any race or gender or age, the imagination of Mr. or Ms. J. Q. Public tends to classify the homeless person as somehow “other.” And as we have seen, it isn’t so. Bornstein wraps up the thought:
Many of the errors in our homelessness policies have stemmed from the conception that the homeless are a homogeneous group. It’s only in the past 15 years that organizations […] have taken a more granular, street-level view of the problem — disaggregating the ‘episodically homeless’ from the ‘chronically homeless’ in order to understand their needs at an individual level.
Source: “Fire damages homeless advocate’s home,” ToledoBlade.com, 11/01/11
Source: “Tyler Perry biography,” Biography.com
Source: “Homeless Miss Colorado: ‘Anyone can fall victim to this’,” TODAY.com, 2012
Source: “The Relationship between Homelessness and Ritalin Addiction,” RitalinAbuseHelp.com
Source: “The Street-Level Solution,” The New York Times, 12/24/10
Image by Ed Yourdon.