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Archive for the ‘Causes of homelessness’ Category

Reading other blogs about homelessness is a curious thing.  There are blogs by those who are or have been homeless, those who work or volunteer with a homeless clientele, and blogs about other topics that mention homelessness once in a while (typically when the author has an encounter with a homeless person).

The most frequently commented upon blog articles seem to be those about an individual’s first night of homelessness.  I admit, I frequently leave comments on these articles myself.

Why is it that we’re so sympathetic to the person who experiences their first day of homelessness, but callous toward the person who has been homeless for months or years?  It’s a matter of perspective.  The person spending a stray night in a homeless shelter could well be us, we think.  

What if we lost our jobs and had a concurrent major illness?  What if a loved one (or ones) passed away suddenly?  What if . . . whatever combination of tragedies it might take.  I think we’ve all had thoughts that it could be us.  For some it might take more tragedies than others, but the possibility is there.

In considering the chronically homeless person, we’re less sympathetic.  Why?  Because we believe we cannot sink to that level.  We would pull ourselves out or find help somehow.

We may be able to make the leap to understanding who someone (even ourselves) can become homeless, but we believe that if you’re homeless for more than a few weeks, well, you must just be lazy.  Or ignorant.  Or an addict.  Why don’t they just get jobs after all?  Or just apply for the loads of benefits we finance through our taxes?  Or get social security?

We fail to consider the psychological effects of life on the streets.  It takes many of our clients several days to warm up to staff at the Respite and our mission is to help them.  Imagine how difficult they find it to reconnect with family and friends.

And all those “free benefits”?  True, they’re out there.  But how long can you afford to wait?  It can take weeks to qualify for food stamps, months to gain tenant-based rental assistance, and years to be awarded social security disability.

As for employment, would you hire someone who admitted to being homeless?  How about someone who claimed to have stable housing, but was mysteriously never home when you called?  Would you hire someone with dirty fingernails or ragged clothing?  Maybe you would.  Then again, maybe you’d prefer to hire the clean-cut teenager who made the honor roll last quarter.

Are we really as impervious as we believe?  Or is the hard truth that homelessness, once it happens, can be nearly impossible to escape?  How many of these truths do we ignore because they are simply too frightening to accept?

The ultimate truth is surely more complex, but everytime I read comment-loaded articles about an individual’s first terrifying night as a homeless person, I wonder.

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Respite employee Cleon Hughes was once homeless; Photo courtesy of Jack Kues

Cleon Hughes is something of an unofficial Center for Respite Care spokesman.  Years ago, he arrived at Respite as a homeless and sick; today he works with us.   At our Community Reception on April 10, Hughes shared his story. 

 

During a semi-professional football try-out in December 2005, Hughes sustained a serious leg injury.  Unable to work and without medical insurance, he became homeless as he sought surgery to repair the injury.

 

Months passed, but no one was able to help.  Hughes became bitter, wondering if he could ever gain meaningful employment and housing.  After six months at the Mt. Airy Men’s shelter, he was referred to the Center for Respite Care in June 2006.  Respite staff worked with Hughes to schedule the surgical procedure and cared for him during his recovery.  Today, Hughes has recovered full functionality of his right leg.

 

“I got to the Respite and I could not believe that all these strangers were pulling for me,” says Hughes, “Without them, I’d don’t know where I’d be today.  Being able to recover here was truly a blessing.”  Today, Hughes is a Personal Care Assistant at Respite, where he helps others regain hope in their journeys out of homelessness.

 

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As an agency committed to helping those who are homeless and sick, the Center for Respite Care is part of homeless advocacy in the Cincinnati area.  In each moment, we’re trying to get our clients back on their feet and off the streets.  We know why and how people become homeless, although no two of our clients ever tell the same story.  We understand the factors that keep a person homeless, even when they may have the means of helping themselves.  We speak to these individuals each and every day.

But we’re not homeless.  We have some employees who were homeless once, but the majority of the people who work at the Center for Respite Care are not homeless.  We’ve been here, helping, but we haven’t been on the streets.  We haven’t lived wondering where our next meal will come from or where we will sleep each night. 

This must, in some way, limit our ability to be advocates for the homeless.  Still, I think, we are needed.  The homeless are not always their own best advocate and need “friends in high places.”  (We are not exactly in a high place, but can sometimes appeal to those who are.)  The point is that we do our best as advocates for the homeless when we recognize our strengths and our weaknesses. 

This is part of the reason I’m so interested in stories from our clients.  Sure, they may be telling me only what they think I want to here or their perspective may be partial or flawed, but that’s just part of being human.  Sometimes, I’m flawed too.

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Watch two former clients of the Center for Respite Care talk about their journeys into and out of homelessness. 

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How’s your emergency fund doing these days?  According to financial experts, you should have 3-6 months worth of living expenses saved (and liquid) for quick use in case of emergency such as illness or a layoff.  But how many of us do?  Some perhaps, but certainly not all.  Perhaps we have some money saved, but dip into the stash too frequently for fun items like tech upgrades, vacations, and daily lattes.  Perhaps we had some money saved and slowly chipped away at it.  Perhaps we have some money saved, but is it enough?

For some of the clients that come to the Center for Respite Care, homelessness isn’t the only life they’ve known.  In fact, many have held steady jobs, and lived in apartments and houses.  For some, a string of unfortunate events leads to homelessness.  They are the same events that happen to us all, although perhaps more concentrated. 

For example, many people experience loss of a job, death of a family member, or the end of a romantic relationship.  However, when events such as these happen quickly, a person barely getting by may find themselves suddenly unable to pay their rent and utility bills, not to mention find food and other basic necessities. 

Some turn to friends or relatives for temporary help, but many leave or are turned away after arguing with the host, or engaging in a behavior of which the friend does not approve.  Sometimes the behaviors are legal, sometimes not.

Once the person is homeless, an injury which may have caused them to quit working now becomes a lifelong disability as life on the streets doesn’t allow time for healing.  As the days on the street stretch into weeks, people become depressed.  They feel they are undervalued, invisible, worthless, and abandoned.

In many ways (and as we’ve discussed before) homelessness is a cycle.  It is rarely a chosen cycle.  Rather, a series of unfortunate events may tip the scales against our favor.

At the risk of sounding like an insurance salesperson: if you were physically unable to do your job tomorrow, what would you do? 

There are many paths to homelessness.  For some, the journey begins with a tough childhood, for others a string of hardships may be the spark, and for the rest, well, we’ll have to ask them ourselves.

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Two of the biggest challenges faced by the homeless community are addiction and mental illness.  These obstacles are especially unfortunate because they may prevent homeless individuals from seeking appropriate treatment.  That is to say, a mental illness can make it harder for individuals to discern what is truly in their best interest.  Addiction, in turn, eats up savings and can prompt destructive behaviors such as stealing and lying.  

The image of homelessness is an uncomfortable one.  Few of us feel comfortable with the mere sight of a homeless person and, for some, this discomfort gives way to several charming (if typically untrue) fantasies about homelessness.

We tell ourselves that being homeless isn’t so bad.  People learn how to survive, right?  And what could be better than accepting donations all day?  But maybe we forget that survival can be scarring and that for every donation made, a thousand sneers pass by.

We tell ourselves that people choose to be homeless.  If they didn’t want to be on the streets, they’d go out and get a job, right?  The local fast food joints are always hiring.  But for every job opportunity that comes along, there are many barriers to employment.  In other words, you can’t rent an apartment because you don’t have a job, but you can’t get a job without providing a permanent address.

To illustrate, imagine the situation of a homeless person suffering from severe mental illness such as paranoid schizophrenia.  Waves of anxiety throughout the day make even simple tasks unbearable and delusions create conspiracies out of a simple sideways glance. Unable to realize s/he needs medical attention, the individual turns to illegal substances to mask the symptoms of mental illness.  Buying drugs is dangerous and expensive, of course, but nothing else effectively masks the terrors daily life. 

In this way, the cycle of homelessness starts.  Friends and family may offer temporary housing, only to turn the person away when they begin trading household appliances for drugs.  Soup kitchens and shelters provide meals and a place to stay, but may close on weekends or during the day.  Plus, many are simply unable to provide the holistic care these individuals require.

The Center for Respite Care is trying to close this gap by providing medical care, counseling, advocacy, and appropriate referrals for the homeless community.  There is, unfortunately, a much greater demand for our services than we can match with the resources we have. 

Certainly, there is a significant portion of the homeless community which struggles with mental illness and/or addiction.  It would be a mistake, however, to characterize the homeless community as mentally ill addicts, when this is only the reality of some.  Each homeless person has a story to share and the more we listen, the more we will realize that homelessness could happen to any of us via a string of tragedies.

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