I am so grateful and honored to have been asked to do a guest blog for my good friend. I appreciate the opportunity for my voice to be heard and the use of a platform to make that possible. Before I begin I would like to preface this with an important disclaimer. I'm not homeless and I never have been. I feel very grateful to have been given the opportunities and privileges that I have; I understand that those privileges have allowed me to be comfortably housed my entire 33 years of life. I could never and will never insinuate that I fully understand the struggles of homeless people. On the contrary I intend to write about the homeless crisis from the point of view of someone who has always lived an existence of at least a moderate amount of privilege - whose eyes were opened forever after a serendipitous meeting of a homeless individual.
For as long as I can remember I had always held progressive values. During my short life I have watched this country dip further and further into oligarchy. The top 1% of people in this country have more wealth now then the lowest 90%. I'm against the disastrous Supreme Court Citizens United decision that allows campaign donations to go virtually unchecked. After the global Arab Spring movements, a new movement was sparked in the United States protesting political corruption and wealth inequality - among other things. I knew the Occupy Wall Street movement was something I had to get behind. This is where the story begins.
It was a small meeting. There must have been less than 10 of us there. We discussed important local, national, and international issues each week. That's when I met him. A small man with a beard and a backpack that would set me on a path of self reflection and activism. A man who happened to be homeless.
The day I met him we made Facebook friends. That night he posted that the weather was ruthless and he didn't have a tarp or blanket to his name. I immediately went to a 24 hour store and bought a tarp and a blanket for him and then I drove around downtown trying to find him. I found him outside of a building, crouched and leaning against a wall with an awning for what little elemental protection it offered. In that moment in the South Carolina twilight his gratitude was almost palpable.
Before that very moment I had never really thought much about the homeless. I had advocated tirelessly for the poor and middle class, but somehow the plight of the homeless had never been on the forefront of my mind when it came to social concerns. Maybe it was because I didn't see much of that where I came from. Or maybe it was because like many homed individuals I, whether consciously or subconsciously, inadvertently ignored all of the things that made me feel uncomfortable to see.
I started to use social media to network with people like him. I listened to their stories. I watched them fall in love, move across country, adopt a new pet, get a new haircut, find the perfect hat - and suddenly they didn't seem so different after all. But there was some differences that were impossible to ignore. Stories about having their only shelter torn down just because people didn't like to look at it, stories of harassment by the police, stories about difficulties finding gainful employment; these people who are not so unlike me and my friends had drastically different daily obstacles.
Before I get started, let's talk about who the homeless are. At any given time in the US about 564K people are homeless. Nearly half of those are families. Fifteen Percent are chronically homeless with a disability. Eight Percent of all homeless are veterans. Also, 1.4 Million veterans are at risk of homelessness. Over 100K LGBT Youth are homeless. 50 percent of all homeless are over the age of 50. Approximately 34 percent of those homeless surveyed say that they have lived in a place not meant for human habitation. 7.4 percent are unaccompanied minors and children. Between 2016 and 2017 alone homelessness increased nationally .7 percent. Although in the last 10 years 36 states have reported a decline in overall homelessness 14 states have reported increases. These numbers are probably much higher, because keeping track of homeless individuals is, thankfully, very difficult. (1, 2) I say thankfully because while many efforts to disclose, track, and monitor homeless people started from a good place there are databases like HMIS and the homeless data exchange that are being used to victimize the homeless.
The problems that face the homeless are profuse and sometimes nothing short of appalling. When asking a homed person they might say the first difficulty a homeless person may face that comes to mind is food insecurity. While there are food banks and such, they aren't always reliable and sometimes they even charge! Through my contact with the homeless I have been told of multiple instances where expired or near expired food was given to non profits, and then homeless people were charged $1 per plate. Profiting at the expense of the homeless, however minimal, is appalling. Obtaining meals can also be precarious when many homeless people only have the option of traveling on foot. This can be problematic when you have to arrive at the soup kitchen at a specific time in order to be fed. Also, the types of food that can be retained for consumption are limited due to lack of storage and refrigeration. This often results in malnourishment due to lack of fresh food and preservative-laden, shelf-stable diet. Although food insecurity can be a serious issue, it really is the least of their worries.
The next concern that homed individuals would likely consider is lack of shelter. In daunting heat, bitter cold, or unrelenting storms this can be a problem in and of itself. However, a lack of shelter brings with it a whole different set of problems. Most homeless people don't have a specific spot that they call their own. They have to carry all of their belongings with them 100% of the time. If they cannot, then they risk everything they own being picked over, stolen, or even trashed by city and county officials. Probably worst of all is that the lack of a permanent address is a nightmare from a beurocratic standpoint. Lack of a permanent address can make it difficult to procure employment, it can make it impossible to get access to things like educational materials and internet because you cannot get a library card without a permanent address, and because homeless people are often nomadic it can make it difficult for non-profits who want to help to make contact with them.
Shelters are sometimes an option for some homeless individuals. However, there are a great deal of issues with shelters that cause many homeless to shy away from them. Some shelters will accept women and children but not men. This means that families are sometimes separated. Also, sometimes people with pets become homeless. I have yet to hear about a homeless shelter that will allow pets. Some might say that keeping your pet is less important than a roof over your head. I disagree. My two pugs are my life and I would never forsake them, even if it meant we had to be homeless. Pets are family to some people. Some shelters require you have valid ID, which can be difficult or impossible to obtain without a permanent street address. Also, shelters have certain hours that you can check in for the night, and once they reach capacity they are full up. So if you don't get in quick, you may go from one place to another and still end up sleeping on the street. And the resources that shelters provide are pitiful. I have heard stories of waiting two hours outside in the cold for basic over the counter pain medication.
Sometimes the inability to procure gainful employment invites a life of crime. While by no means are all or even most homeless people criminals, there are those who find it easier to take up a life of crime in order to get by. For this, and other reasons the homeless community is at considerably higher risk for being targeted with violence or harassment. A Report by the National Coalition for the Homeless finds that "over the last 17 years, at least 1,657 people experiencing homelessness have been the victims of violence perpetrated for the sole reason that they were unhoused at the time." (3)
Another major concern is the lack of basic facilities for hygiene and restroom needs. It's hard enough to try and procure secure, regular gainful employment as a homed person; it is a near impossibility for the homeless. They often do not have places to shave or bathe regularly. And the lack of restroom facilities often results in painful UTI or pelvic infections that can cause lasting damage or even death. Other things that contribute to these types of issues are a lack of basic necessities. For example women often do not have access to basic feminine hygiene needs.
Homeless individuals almost always lack basic healthcare. Veterans can sometimes have access if they are close enough to a VA hospital, but for the most part these people cannot have their healthcare needs addressed. It is important to remember that poverty charges interest.
Can't afford to go get that cut looked at? In a week you have blood poisoning.
Can't afford to address a UTI Infection? It turns into a bad infection that results in kidney failure.
No money to fix that cavity? In a year it will be an abscessed tooth.
Can't afford new shoes so you walk in ill-fitting ones? You end up with plantar faccitis and orthopedic related joint pains.
Don't have money for more tampons so you use one longer than is recommended? You now have Pelvic Inflammatory Disease
Can't afford to get that breast lump checked out? Next year it's stage 3 cancer.
Can't get inside on the coldest night of the year? You have lost a toe.
Probably one of the worst things that come with homeless territory is the way that they are treated poorly by society in general. They are often targeted by police officers for no other reason than the fact that they are homeless and living on the street. This most recently became a topic of discussion in New York. The New York civil liberties union calls using law enforcement to target people who are homeless but have broken no laws discriminatory harassment. (4) Not only are police often harassing people for the simple fact that they are homeless, but there has been a staunch increase in anti-homeless legislation over the years. This growing trend of criminalizing homeless, and sometimes those who wish to help them, is disturbing and very damaging. These include vagrancy Laws, Legal restrictions on Begging and Panhandling, restrictions against open containers, and restrictions against feeding the homeless. (8)
A recent development in the attempt to marginalize the homeless is hostile architecture. These might include "anti homeless spikes" which are intended to make it difficult for a homeless person to sleep on a surface. Other examples are curved benches or benches with hand rails throughout that make it very difficult to sleep. Sometimes sprinkler systems are set up to deter people from staying in an area too long, even though there is nothing that the sprinkler systems are watering. Some business are making sloped window sills that make resting on a window sill impractical. (9) Homed people see these everyday and don't recognize it for what it is. It's generally ineffective and beyond unethical since it's primary purpose is to exclude an entire group of already marginalized people.
There has also been a very recent attempt to ban off grid living. Livestock regulations, utility regulations, and gardening restrictions are among those policies that prevent a person who has retained a piece of land from living and building on it unmolested by government officials. Additionally with the growing popularity of tiny homes there have been a recent influx of laws banning tiny houses and other sustainable living practices. In fact it is even illegal to collect rainwater in some places like Colorado.(10)
Lack of affordable healthcare is a problem for every single US Citizen, and it will continue to be until there are some significant healthcare reform. Already 15 percent of the population do not have healthcare. Homeless people are six times more likely to become ill than homed people. The average life expectancy of a US Citizen is 78 years, the estimated life expectancy of a homeless person ranges between 42 and 52. Even though homeless people are generally at higher risk for being sicker, they face more barriers than homed people when seeking healthcare. They often must seek emergency room treatment as their primary source of healthcare. (5) This is because the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act demands that any hospital accepting federal funds must not turn any patient away because of their inability to pay. (6)
However, just because a person is being seen does not mean that they are being cared for. Not only are homeless individuals only receiving treatment for medical conditions once they become emergencies, but the care they receive is often very marginalized. One common example is those homeless with undiagnosed mental illness or those who cannot afford medication and ongoing treatment for a known mental illness. They are often funneled into the custody of law enforcement after an incident - where their homed, insured counterparts would likely receive medical treatment and follow up. I have also heard numerous times where the hospital staff assumed a homeless person was using narcotics and did not believe that their pain was genuine until scans determined a serious, life-threatening health condition. Additionally, homeless people often fall victim of the medical community's "treat em' and street em'" mentality - when they are released too soon due to known inability to pay or even left at a bus station in their hospital gown.(7)
We know that the homeless are being targeted by police and lawmakers and even engineers. We know that they are mistreated and marginalized by society - even medical doctors whose Hippocratic oath requires they treat everyone the same. Why do we think that is?
I know that we all have an understanding about how much homeless people suffer and hopefully after reading this blog you'll have a greater understanding of that suffering. I think the real question to ask is it whether the general population at large understands that this is a widespread problem. Either they do not understand the gravity of the situation, or they refuse to care. I think that the answer is simple. Most people are raised not to care.
I have discussed this very thing with other homed individuals and I have found a sincere but troubling answer. From the time that most of us are very young we are taught that we can be anything that we want - that the world is an open book and we can write our own story. Nothing is out of reach if the desire is strong enough. This is not reality especially for people who face extreme socioeconomic disadvantages.
It is particularly common for homed people to look at homeless and assume that they are on drugs or must have made some other very poor decisions to have arrived at this place in their lives. While this can be true, through my conversations about homelessness with other homed individuals I have found that it's not uncommon for a homed person to believe that ALL people who are homeless are drug addicts or alcoholics. Those same people are taught that giving a homeless person a hand up only hurts them in the end because it doesn't teach them to provide for themselves. I have heard people say that you shouldn't give homeless people money because they're just going to spend it on alcohol. These widespread misconceptions about the homeless, where they came from, and how they got there are not only despicable because they judge an entire group of people based on unfair stereotypes; they are damaging to the homeless community at Large.
In order to address the homeless epidemic we first have to analyze the reasons why people become homeless in the first place. It is not uncommon to meet homeless people who are addicted to drugs. Many of these people used to be successful middle class career men and women. Typically a disease or injury causes them to have to rely on prescription pain medication. The longer you take opioids the more you have to take for them to kill your pain. Your opioid receptors begin to become tolerant of the drug. When doctors see that someone is becoming too dependent on opioids that they prescribed they often start to cut back on the prescriptions leaving the person in debilitating pain and sometimes withdrawal. This causes people to go to less than legal and sometimes nefarious sources for their medication. What may have started out as oxycodone for a back injury ends up being shooting heroin in a derelict house.
Not every drug addict of course has that story. Some people began using street drugs to help them cope with difficulties in their lives. The loss of a job, the end of a relationship, the loss of a child, severe guilt or grief or anxiety, there are a number of reasons why addicts start using. Drugs are a poor coping mechanism but are cheap and readily available for those people who can't afford bi-weekly therapy sessions with a psychologist. It helps them slip away and lessens the pain for just a little while.
Still there other homeless who encountered insurmountable socioeconomic disaster. Maybe they lost everything in a bitter divorce or maybe their business took a dive. There are those who were affected by rising hosing costs and welfare reform. There are plenty of homeless people who had houses and businesses heavily leveraged before the 2008 housing collapse.
Other people might be homeless due to untreated psychiatric conditions. When you're poor and you can't afford medication for serious illness like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder or even severe depression then it's not unheard of for those people to end up on the streets.
No matter the reason that someone is homeless, the fact is they ARE. And those people are humans, too. I read recently that 60% of Americans have less than $500 saved back (11). That means that's if 6 in 10 Americans were to suddenly lose their income and couldn't pay rent they would become homeless. To this day it amazes me how such a majority of people can be a few really bad emergencies away from being homeless themselves and still have such a negative view of the homeless community.
So what can we do to fix this? I think the number one thing that people can do to improve the lives of the homeless is to educate as many people as possible about the lives and struggles of homeless. Bernie Sanders once said “When Millions Of People Stand Up And Fight Back We Will Not Be Denied.” When we change people's minds - we change their hearts. Once you open someone's heart it's contagious. A spark ignites and they start to change the world around them.
I think that if homed people saw homeless individuals as human beings just like them they would quickly bring about change...
I think that if the average homed person started to understand the impact that being homeless has on every area of your social welfare - from getting a job, getting a library card, being included on child visitation rights in court, etc - that they would demand social change and better opportunities to improve the welfare of all people.
I think that if people understood the impact of malicious architecture, anti-homeless laws, and off grid living criminalization that they would not rest until fair and inclusive policies were put into place.
Before I could really truly be an advocate for the homeless population I had to look at myself and change the way I thought about these people. It really does start with the man in the mirror.