The Truth about Homelessness

Ding! Ding! Ding! The sound of the officer’s baton on the aluminum handrail annoyed all who passed by. It sounded like one of those huge bells at a Catholic cathedral calling worshipers to worship.

Amidst the loud banging, a homeless man is being awakened from a deep sleep. His eyes widen with fear. He panics, trying to focus in on his surroundings. He notices two uniformed officers standing over him: the one beating his baton on the handrail, and his partner, springing into action, kicking the elderly man’s foot, shouting, “Get up! Get up!”

The elderly man staggers to his feet. They grab him and throw his limp body on the hood of the patrol car. People stop and take inventory of the scene. “Spread your legs,” says the officer, “You got any needles or drugs on you?” “No,” the man replies. “You got I.D.?” He searches the man and places his I.D. on the hood of the car. He runs a search on the man for warrants while his partner stands at attention with his hand over his holstered gun.

The search comes back. No warrants, no fines. Nothing. The elderly man is set free with a warning: “If we catch you around here again you’re going to jail!” He picks up his belongings, tired and exhausted, he walks away.

The very next day, the elderly man was arrested for trespassing by the same officers. He was found guilty of sleeping in a vacant parking lot because he had nowhere else to go.

What’s not apparent are the miles he walked trying to find shelter, the weight of his possessions, or the bruises and calluses on his feet from his worn-out shoes, preventing him from going any farther.

Over 600,000 people in the United States are homeless, not counting those living on the streets, in cars, camps, under bridges, or empty parking lots across the nation.

In a single year, 550,000 young adults between the ages of 15 and 24 will experience some level of homelessness, usually for weeks at a time.

The most devastating factor is how much abuse and crime surface as a result of recklessness, frustration, desperation, even depression. When circumstances change, so do people.

Even so, after weeks on the streets, many return home without fear of running off again, if necessary. There is something enchanting about the streets to the youth; there’s freedom from responsibility and accountability.

And, when you’re young, no one is judging you. Most have compassion for what you’re going through. You’re like a baby cub who’s lost its way and stumbles upon a group that accepts you as one of their own. You’re taught new principles and rules that exist within the group, different from the ones established in a stable home environment. With every group, the rules change.

After a month on the streets, one can adapt swiftly with support. After six months, you develop the skills and routines to survive on your own. After a year, the streets become home. You learn the hustle, you learn to be free. Life goes on.

Talk with any homeless person and most will tell you they were on the streets for weeks or months at a time earlier in life before becoming homeless as an adult. They looked to the streets for answers or to escape abuse or neglect at home.

Many of us have a loved one, friend or family, who is homeless or sleeping on the streets. You may perceive them as an addict, mentally ill, or lazy like they’re simply refusing to go to work. What you don’t realize is that homelessness is one of the most damaging experiences to the human spirit— its unique, often violent hardships, the insults and lack of respect have all the potential to destroy one’s character and mental outlook.

Most cannot understand its impact unless they’re placed in its grasp by an act of God or desperation. Many will never know what it’s like to be separated from family and loved ones, from society, or the shame and loss of identity that comes with that.

Shelters are often found in the hood, or slum areas of the city, filled to capacity and frequently, even the closest options are miles away. Not all are fit to live in, either. And, many will turn you away for things like having too many bags or not having an I.D. or TB test. Should you arrive late or later than everyone else, they’ll tell you: “Check-in times are over, you’ll have to come back tomorrow.”

That’s one lesson you learn immediately, being at the right place at the right time. Another is when you realize your possessions are burdensome, preventing you from getting around or being on time. With baggage, a 30-minute walk takes an hour-and-a-half. That’s the difference between getting a meal for the day or bed for the night.

When you’re left without shelter, what do you do? What happens when you need to use the bathroom? The homeless are not the public. They’re not welcome in most places because it’s bad for business. City ordinances serve businesses and protect their interests and profits, regardless of the rights and privileges you think you have.

Too many homeless are being placed in handcuffs for attempting to get a hot meal or asking for change to make it through another night. Meanwhile, they are on the streets enduring extreme and unbearable conditions, everything from harsh weather to soiled clothes.

How do you go to an interview like that? Programs put in place to help are slow because the system is overwhelmed with caseloads upon caseloads. After several weeks or months of trying to get help or go through the system, many give up or give in to crime, abuse, or addiction. And, while most are looking for a way out, it’s difficult to sustain hope.

But, what would happen if the homeless were seen as a valuable workforce in the economy? Treated as members of communities and society? What if the public and private sector fully supported the financing and extensions of understaffed programs that work? What could change if every city invests in housing proportionate to its homeless population with the fully vested intent of job placement and stability?

In fact, what if we all pitched in and made a commitment to the value of human life and dignity? Would it be enough to encourage those whose lives are broken to fix what’s broken inside? The truth of the matter is food and clothing are helpful, for a few days. But, food spoils; clothes get soiled, stolen, or abandoned once one realizes they have accumulated too much for their journey. What the homeless person needs is forgiveness from loved ones, reconciliation, and immediate assistance in finding a place to work and call home.

Only then can they begin to see life as you do. I know because I myself have been homeless.

Nathan Houston

*Proceeds from The Conversation Event benefit The Mobile Book Library for Homeless kids and families.

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