Because I have experienced homelessness and also work with others who have, as well as with private and public agencies that offer services to the poor and homeless, I would like to offer a broad and general perspective on what I think are the fundamental societal causes of chromic poverty and homelessness in the United States. And what I think is needed to be done to address them.
When I say societal, I mean the values or lack thereof, that underpin this phenomenon.
I am a published author and professional writer. In December 2018, a U.K published offered me an opportunity to write a book proposal on the theme, ‘Is there Still No Place like Home’. If accepted, it would earn me a $100,000.00 advance to write the book.
At this time, I was residing in the Bellevue Men’s Homeless Shelter in NYC. I had become homeless several years earlier after taking care of a terminally ill parent. That happened in southern New Jersey where my parents had retired to.
So, I began writing my book proposal based on my experiences there. I wrote that indeed there wasn’t any longer ‘no place like home’ and that in fact the very concept and function of home had changed dramatically in my lifetime.
I am in my sixties. As I stated earlier, I began working with others experiencing homelessness after I stabilized my own situation. Most of them were much younger than me and, unlike me, they were the products of ‘broken’ homes – dysfunctional family relations, financial instability, violence, sexual and emotional abuse, drug and alcohol addictions.
The concept of home that I and others of my generation enjoyed – a safe stable place to grow up in – had not been available to them.
And it showed up in their anti-social behavior – criminal activity, drug abuse – along with a fear and distrust of others and an overall negative and pessimistic outlook on life. Suicide, and attempts at suicide, were not uncommon.
Of course, there had been broken homes in the neighborhoods I grew up in – caused by alcoholism, promiscuousness and other factors-- but they were the exception, not the rule. In one or two generations this had flipped. Dramatically dysfunctional families were now the norm; boring stable households had become the exception.
I attribute this in great measure to the change in economy. Although both of my parents were first-generation Americans, and neither of them graduated high school, we owned our home, bought a new car every few years, saw doctors and dentists when we needed to, and had funds put away for our college educations if we wanted them.
The difference is that my father was a skilled union laborer. One day when I was in grade school, I went into the basement of our home to look for something. I saw my father’s work overalls hanging on a clothesline. There were slash holes and blood stains on it. My father’s union was on strike demanding that their workers maintain a dignified living standard including adequate health care benefits.
My dad, and other unionists of his generation, would roll over in their graves if they saw today’s workers begging millionaire politicians to get them minimal wages and minimal health care coverage. My father and his kind fought bare knuckles so that their families would never have to depend on the minimal or less to survive on, That’s a big difference.
The direction I went with my writing is not what the publisher was expecting or wanting. So, I did not get the contract and advance
I’ve been in the NYC shelter system ever since. Fourteen months, with stays in shelters in the Bronx and now Brooklyn.
Homelessness is an entirely different kettle of fish in New York City.
This homeless population did not only not come from stable homes, most of them had spent much of their young adult life punitively institutionalized – from juvenile detention centers to in-house behavioral rehabilitation centers, to prisons and now homeless shelters. They are the products of a decades-old racist and degenerating crib to grave incarceration enterprise.
The point I am making by comparing these two experiences is to show how homelessness is caused by different factors and experienced differently in different places. Any serious attempts at solving this problem must take this into consideration.
For instance, NYC will never come to terms with its homelessness problem until it confronts the fact that it has created a generation of Blacks and Hispanics who are incapable of living on their own outside of the punitive institutional structures they were forced to grow up in. You can’t just suddenly dump them into homeless shelters and expect them to somehow figure out how to thrive on their own. It’s not fair to them, or to the others in the shelters.
This is one of the main reasons so many homeless New Yorkers choose to live on the streets rather than enter the shelters. Shelters feel and function like prisons, and for good reason.
So, what is universal to the experience of homelessness? It is that it is traumatizing.
And that is what we need to focus on if we are to move forward. How to recognize and treat the individual trauma. Without that a person cannot function toward creating a purposeful and meaningful life, with or without a home.
A colleague of mine, Tonier Caine, author of Healing Neen, experienced a lifetime of sexual and emotional abuse, mental disorders, prostitution, drug addiction and incarceration. She didn’t begin the process of turning her life around and becoming a successful writer, counsellor and world-renowned public speaker until-- while she was incarcerated -- she met a counsellor who instead of labelling her with a psychiatric disorder and prescribing her the de rigueur psych meds, simply asked her, ‘What happened to you?’
This may sound simplistic, but advocates like Ms. Caine and others are transforming how we care for people with emotional and psychological traumas and they are having dramatic and well-documented success with returning trauma victims to meaningful and purposeful lives.
I submit to you that our overall goal should be to restore homeless persons to their full individual potential, not just maintain and warehouse them as we are doing now. We owe that to them as well as to the future health and well-being of our society.