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Homelessness is NOT a problem


I am about to spend a bit of time talking about homelessness. Some of this is my analysis and opinion. Some of it is a story. The story is true. For anonymity reasons, I’ve left out the odd detail. (Actually, a lot of odd details, but never mind that now.) You will have to choose whether or not to trust that I haven’t left out anything material to the situation. Also, keep in mind that I am well aware that this story is merely anecdotal evidence. It may or may not be typical. In other words, it may be representative or it may be a rare statistical outlier. I don’t claim to be sure. But, I have a guess.

Sorry, but it’s a long one…

First, the story:

I have one friend left from high school. (Let’s call him Bob.) We’ve been friends since the 8th grade. (For those of you not playing along at home, that’s about 35 years.) His father died while we were in high school. After graduation, his mother took a job as a nursing home inspector which kept her on the road 5 days a week. He went off to college and I moved into his house to keep an eye on things and take care of their dogs. After he dropped out of college (for financial reasons) we shared the house.

For the next few years we were roommates off and on in various places. We did a lot of dumb stuff together, mostly drinking and illicit substances. Eventually, I got a job in corrections, met the Head Rat, and moved on to a different life. He worked various jobs in various places, was married twice, and spent a lot of time drinking.

Along the line, his mother took a job managing a nursing home and the Head Rat worked for her for a while. She kind of took me under her wing as a second son and always treated the Head Rat like the daughter she never had. (I know that kind of thing is easy to say, but as a measure of the relationship, consider that the Head Rat’s engagement ring is an antique diamond that belonged to Bob’s grandmother. Bob’s mother gave it to me specifically to give to the Head Rat. That sounds a bit odd, but it was very important to us.)

Fast forward to a few years ago. Bob’s second marriage is breaking up. He’s picked up some DUI’s. His stepfather dies. His mother’s health is poor and she can’t live on her own, so she is giving up the house and is moving to an assisted living facility. Bob is living at home. The Head Rat is staying with them for a few days to help pack things up, have a garage sale, etc. Bob is on probation for DUI, but he is still drinking. He gets so drunk he blacks out and in the process throws the Head Rat through a window. She still has the scars on her arms from the cuts.

Fast forward again to the present day. Bob has been to prison for Felony DUI. He doesn’t have a license. He has been working for the city ten months out of the year, mowing parks and doing landscaping. The city decides it will no longer hire folks with DUI’s. He starts working day labor and continues drinking. At some point he gets hurt and misses a few days of work. One thing leads to another and he ends up without a place to live.

He gives us a call. Even though she is, shall we say, profoundly uncomfortable with it, the Head Rat allows Bob to crash with us for a few days (mostly out of respect for his mother). I call some people who know some people and get Bob an interview with a halfway house for guys coming out of the penitentiary. He manages to talk himself into an acceptance. It sounds like a good deal. While staying at our apartment, he continues to drink. (Look, I know better, but it never occurred to me to hide what little alcohol I had in the house.)

We get Bob moved into the halfway house. For a while everything seemed to be going well. They liked him at the halfway house and offered him a job as the night manager: room and board and a little cash. Things were looking up a bit.

Except that the cash never materialized. And then someone forgot to pay the utility bill so for a couple of weeks there was no heat or hot water at the halfway house. After a week or so, they got the heat on, but Bob never had hot water again. Eventually, they decided that they were going to charge him $400 a month rent. For that an some other reasons Bob had to get out.

He was working (through a temp service) a job with an organization that provides employment for blind people. They make trash bags and ball point pens and such. Apparently, they don’t let blind people drive the forklift. Anyway, Bob was working there and living in a cheap motel. And drinking.

He wasn’t getting ahead, but was getting to the point where he was going to be able to open a bank account. Then the organization decided they were going to promote him. It would have been good, except that as a direct hire, there would have been a couple of weeks before his first paycheck (as opposed to the daily payout working through the temp service). Had it not been winter, he would have just slept along the river. One of his co-workers offered to let Bob stay with him until he got his first check. Unfortunately, the co-worker lived in a small town about 30 miles away and it turned out the company wanted Bob to work 2nd shift.

With no transportation, staying with the co-worker wasn’t an option. Neither was the Salvation Army shelter, because if you don’t get there by 7:00 pm you don’t get in. The company decided that if he wasn’t going to work 2nd shift, they didn’t need him. And so, Bob was unemployed and homeless and back on my sofa.

That only worked for a couple of days. The Head Rat simply can’t tolerate Bob in the house for more than a couple of days. His presence sets off mild panic (at best) and she locks herself in our room. Given her history of being abused as a child and her history with Bob, I think that’s perfectly understandable. But lest you think it is solely because of the Head Rat that I didn’t help my friend on a more long term basis (she would have tried to do it for his mother’s sake), I will tell you that I can’t stand to have him around for more than a couple of days. Although I trust that he would never steal money or stuff from me, alcohol is another story. And if I didn’t have any he would find a way to get some. And, he is a sloppy, maudlin, handsy drunk before he blacks out and violent after he does. Not a situation I can live with.

He ended up at the Salvation Army shelter for a while. Eventually, on a spot job he managed to land, he ran into a formerly homeless guy who offered him a temporary place to stay. That helped for a while, although Bob was hampered by losing his ID when he got mugged one night. He also lost a couple of days of work dealing with a court appearance. (He got busted for urinating in public one night while he was walking home from work and couldn’t hold it until he got to a public restroom.)

Then his mother died

In a rather odd turn of events, his mother’s church put him up in a motel in our hometown until after the funeral. He spent a couple of days on our couch. Then a guy we went to school with hooked him up with a job in our hometown and offered him a temporary place to stay. So on Christmas Day, we helped him move back home. For now, he is working steadily and should be getting his own place soon. Whether or not it works out is anybody’s guess.

So, after all that, what do I know about homelessness and how can I say it isn’t a problem?

Well, I know that Bob isn’t typical. Contrary to the popular stereotype, the bulk of the homeless people in our town are not the working poor who hit hard times and lost their place to live. Yes, there are some out there, but from what I’ve seen, they aren’t even a sizeable minority.

Most of the homeless are crazy or lazy. (Ok, that’s hopelessly pejorative, so perhaps a bit of explanation is in order.) The providers I’ve talked to tell me the vast majority of the homeless have mild to severe mental health issues (and we’re not talking about being depressed over losing a job or something). Most of them can’t hold meaningful employment if they aren’t on regular medication and a lot of them can’t hold meaningful employment even when medicated. And the problem with serious mental health medications is that the people who need them are the least likely to follow through with a regular medication routine. (That isn’t a cost issue, by the way. Free meds are available out there.) People who are in need of serious mental health medications are generally impaired enough that they don’t think they need them and when they do take them, start to feel better and think better but decide they are better and don’t need them anymore. 30 or 40 years ago, we would have locked a lot of them up in a State Hospital, but we don’t do that anymore because it isn’t humane.

There are also a smaller, butsignificant number of individuals who are willing to put up with hassles of dealing with shelters and soup kitchens in order not to have any responsibilities. There are enough sources of food that you won’t starve. As long as you show up when you’re supposed to there are places to sleep for the night. And there are enough sources of cash around to keep yourself in cigarettes. I wouldn’t want to live that way, but there are some who do.

And then we have substance use. The providers I’ve talked to say that use of alcohol and/or drugs is, while not universal, so prevalent among the homeless as to be nearly a given. I honestly don’t know whether substance use is a causal factor or a way to pass the time if you don’t have anything else to do until the Shelter opens. I don’t know how many decent jobs Bob has lost due to drinking. I don’t know how much of his income has been sunk in alcohol and whether it could have made a difference at various points in his life. While I know he doesn’t drink on the job, I don’t know how many accidents that have caused him to lose wages and jobs are due to having been shit-faced to the point of blacking out the night before.

While the shelter is a decent enough place, as these things go, it is on the edge of town. The Salvation Army folks run buses into town in the morning, but not early enough to get decent spot labor through a temp service (they start lining up at the door around 5:00 am). And if the work runs long, you risk missing the bus back out to the shelter at 5:00 pm. It is too far to walk to an from the Shelter and the walk would take you through one of the worst parts of town. Ideally, you could use a stay at the Shelter to look for steady employment, if you would or could hold down a job, but a traditional job search is impossible because you would have no fixed address and the Shelter staff don’t take messages.

But, I still maintain that homelessness isn’t a problem. It is a symptom. And unlike what a lot of the activists would have you believe, it isn’t a problem caused by Bush. What makes homelessness such a tough nut to crack isn’t that it is a symptom, but that it is a symptom of multiple problems. Anyone who tells you that if we just did “X” (which usually involves tax money) we could solve the homeless problem is either hopelessly naive or deliberately disingenuous.

And, I don’t have THE ANSWER. Mostly because there isn’t a single answer. I know that throwing tax money at the problem isn’t it. Tax money means Programs. Programs mean bureaucracy and waste and tend to be someone’s Big Idea and get perpetuated even if they aren’t actually working. And they tend to be one size fits all. With the myriad causes of homelessness, a Program is exactly the wrong thing to do. Individuals and groups in the community have provided the best of what we have available in our town. I am convinced that they will continue to do so and continue to respond to the need without waiting for someone in Topeka or Washington to create a Program.

Frankly, I don’t think there is an answer for homelessness that is a symptom of mental illness; at least not one we are comfortable with and/or are willing to pay for.

If it were up to me (and it is, at least to my way of thinking) I think we should concentrate on finding better options for the folks who actually fit the classic image of homelessness. I just don’t see any good options out there and the ones that do exist create horrendous catch-22 situations. There has to be something better we can do.

I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions. I think they are mostly pointless. But, for what it’s worth, it is my intent to find more I can do.

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