Webster’s Dictionary says homelessness is a state of, “having no home or permanent place of residence.” If only the answer were so simple.
Most people who become homeless need emergency assistance and then they are able to stabilize their lives. Researcher Dennis Culhane of the University of Pennsylvania found that about 80% of homeless people need only temporary help. A modest investment to pay delinquent rent or utility bills can fend off eviction. Help with a first months’ rent or utility deposit may be all a family needs.
Fortunately once these individuals and families stabilize their lives they can regain their belief the future can be better. A quick return to a normal life restores hope. Homelessness never becomes a way of life.
What about the other 20%? These are the people with long lasting underlying problems that cause them to lose housing repeatedly. At its core America’s social service system is not designed well for those who require more intense treatment and support services. Treatment providers for persons with mental illness and alcohol and drug addictions are underfunded. Low pay and high burn out leads to high turnover rates. Similarly, support systems for victims of domestic violence are overwhelmed. Studies done in Toronto, Milwaukee and Boston connected brain trauma to homelessness in anywhere from 48 to 60% of cases.
An untreated severe mental illness makes it difficult to sustain work and pay rent consistently. Even with treatment mental illness is episodic and relapses can cost the person their job.
A victim fleeing domestic violence has to heal, and may even need to hide for a while. Youth homelessness is exploding, often another casualty of domestic violence. The National Alliance to End Homelessness estimated in 2013 that during a year there are approximately 550,000 unaccompanied, single youth and young adults up to age 24 who experience a homelessness episode of longer than one week. Approximately 380,000 of those youth are under the age of 18.
Homelessness is a way of life called survival. People must satisfy today’s need to eat and tonight’s place to sleep. Hyper vigilance to evade theft and assault is the norm. They learn to stay on the move to avoid arrests for sleeping in public or loitering; crimes of the homeless.
This focus on daily needs slowly erodes their ability to plan and think ahead. It robs them of dignity and confidence. Homeless people are disconnected; family and friends may cut them off, or the homeless person is too embarrassed to reach out. The intense feelings of fear and helplessness caused by homelessness are debilitating themselves. It is nothing less than a downward spiral.
The 20% who have repeated episodes of homelessness experience the trauma over and over. And with each new episode the mental, emotional and physical effects of homelessness worsen. These individuals are more likely to develop confusion, anxiety, rage, terror, panic, shame, or depression and a host of other problems that can, ironically, perpetuate their homelessness. Rejection and disdain are expected.
Homelessness is not simply, “having no home or permanent place of residence.” Homelessness can deeply change the person – it can take over the way a person views the world, and how he or she reacts to it. Survival skills take over – man’s natural response to danger.
People long for a home of their own but, ironically, it is also a culture shock if a person has been homeless long enough. After learning the rules of the street they must shift to learning the rules of a lease. They have left the known community of other homeless people for an unfamiliar apartment building full of strangers.
“The Soloist” gives the average person a glimpse into the terror that a new apartment can create. In that movie Jamie Foxx portrays the real life story of Nathaniel Ayers, a homeless man with schizophrenia who was a Juilliard trained violinist. Ayers is given the opportunity to move from the streets of Skid Row to his own apartment. Instead of reacting with excitement he panicked, turning uncharacteristically combative.
Homelessness as a physical state is much the same for anyone. It means not having a place to live. But over time it insinuates itself into your sense of self. An expectation that things will get better ebbs away and despair takes its place. Most Americans say they are starving when dinner is late. The homeless accept hunger as a fact of life. We assume we will get a good night’s sleep while a homeless person assumes sleep will be fitful at best.
Moving a long term homeless person from the street to an apartment is about more than signing a lease and handing over a key. It requires patience and support to help them adapt to their new surroundings and way of life.