Many of us enjoy the luxury of a roof over our heads; so much so that the contrary thought of homelessness doesn’t cross our minds. though majority of us are just one or two paychecks away from being out on the streets ourselves, thankfully it rarely comes to that, and if it does, most of us have a support system to lean on while we get back on our feet. That’s the good news. The bad news is that while many of us do enjoy the comfort of a home there are still far too many of us who don’t and I’m reminded of it everyday.
I grew up in residential neighborhoods. Two story homes. Circular driveways. Lawns with dogs playing in the yard. Basketball hoops hanging from the garage. Homelessness was not a part of my upbringing; not until you exited the highway and the “bum” met you at the stop light with a sign and a hand-out. Or when you were downtown and you passed them by as they lay asleep under freeways. Or when you volunteer with your church to “feed the homeless” on thanksgiving day for those valuable community service hours you needed to graduate. That was my exposure to the homeless growing up in houston, tx. But not anymore.
Six of the seven years I’ve resided in Chicago I’ve lived downtown, and homelessness is all around me, especially since I live next door to a church that has a homeless ministry. they walk all night long. They linger in the alley behind my apartment building. They hang around the redline subway stop and businesses that both run 24hrs a day, just like them. I pass them on the way to work. Some of them I know by name. they are my nomadic neighbors. I’m in constant community with the homeless and as a result I’ve learned a lot about homelessness.
Homelessness is so much more than the absence of a roof over your head. It’s substance abuse; it’s HIV and AIDS; it’s discrimination; it’s mental illness; and it’s veteran’s affairs. Homelessness is 633,782 people in the US according to the national alliance to end homelessness, and it’s millions more worldwide. save vienna, austria (I encountered no identifiable homeless people while visiting), I have witnessed homelessness everywhere I’ve traveled. If slavery is America’s greatest sin, poverty is the world’s greatest sin, and homelessness is poverty’s first born child, and America’s stepchild. We haven’t given homelessness the attention it deserves, probably because we’ve been getting it all wrong.
For starters, homeless and hungry are not synonymous. they are not twins; first of kin maybe, but not one in the same. i often wonder why we are always trying to “feed the homeless” when we should be trying to “house the homeless.” i received a lesson in this about 3 weeks ago when i went to the diner next door for breakfast one saturday morning and noticed a fellow who appeared to be homeless pacing back and forth outside of the restaurant. i thought to myself, “he’s probably hungry I’ll get him something to eat and give it to him on my way out.” so i did, and he would not accept it after i offered multiple times. i felt like an idiot for assuming what i criticize others for assuming about the homeless: that because he was homeless he was also hungry and by feeding him all of his troubles would go away. unfortunately i couldn’t offer him what he really needs, and that’s a home. bottom line, if we are to truly address the issues of homelessness, we’ve got to stop assuming we know what’s best for them, and start asking what their needs are. you’d be surprised as to how many don’t have food at the top of their priority lists.
that same encounter warranted another lesson in homelessness not 3 minutes later. As I rounded the corner I noticed this syringe (see photo) in the doorway of a building where the homeless often huddle as refuge from the frigid wind. I knew right away this syringe wasn’t being used for insulin shots. That’s because homelessness is not just about the absence of a roof over your head, it’s about substance abuse. How else would one survive the pain of sleepless nights and no place to call home? even those of us with homes medicate daily due to lack of sleep; it’s called coffee. Imagine what you’d be dependent on without the comfort of your home and no sleep at all? Earlier this week I decided to sit outside for a while since the weather was so nice. During that time I watched a young brother sell about 6 crack rocks to the homeless. They’d come, check in with him, see what he had and how much they needed to come up with to satisfy their urge, and then they’d run off and return with money. All I could think was “here are a community of people of color with nothing but the clothes on their backs, and they are willing to give up the little they do have for a temporary high.” I also wanted to ask the young man who is himself, black, why he sells that stuff to our people, as If there aren’t enough factors already contributing to the social destruction of people of color. Unfortunately I didn’t need to ask him because I already knew the answer: survival. He’s trying to survive just like those he’s selling to. Homelessness is substance abuse, so if we are to impact it in a real way, we’ve got to deal with addiction, drug trafficking, and consider harm reduction programs as a method of intervention versus substance abuse enabling.
Furthermore, if homelessness is substance abuse, then it’s HIV and AIDS too. Although the primary mode of transmission of HIV is through unprotected sex, the 2nd most prevalent means of transmission in the US is by injection drug use, at 19% (CDC). Imagine a scenario where there is one crack rock and one needle to go around for four people. All it takes is for one of them to be HIV positive, and now you have an epidemic within a specific community of people: the homeless. 1 in 5 americans living with HIV don’t know they are positive (CDC) so there is a strong likelihood of this number being higher within the homeless community. In fact, according to the national alliance to end homelessness, an estimated 3.4% of the homeless are living with HIV compared to a rate of only .4% in the general population. The issue is compounded by the fact that substance abuse increases risky behavior such as unprotected sex, and homelessness itself increases the occurrence of survival sex- sex for food, shelter, or even worse, more drugs. Now the transmission of diseases such as HIV and AIDS is bi-modal instead of exclusively by injection drug use or sex, further increasing the burden of infection in an already small population.
Add to that the large number of young brothers and sisters out on the streets who are lesbian, gay, bi-sexual or transgender; a demographic of citizens who account for nearly half the incidence of HIV and AIDS cases in the US, and have been forced out of their homes and onto the streets by their families and communities who neither accept nor affirm their sexual identities. Although approximately 5% of youth in the US identify as LGBTQ, 32%-40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ (gay and lesbian task force 2007). Homelessness is discrimination. I am thankful for my partnership with organizations like emmaus ministries whose night street ministry to male sex workers on the north side of chicago provides resources like free HIV testing, condoms, job search services, and counseling. My organization, broad strokes faith and community health collaborative, and others partner with Emmaus ministries each year to host city wide prayer walks for the healing of HIV and AIDS in recognition of national HIV testing week. im also thankful for other Chicagoland organizations such as “chicago house” and “the crib” who offer permanent housing and supportive services for all genders but specifically LGBTQ youth. These are organizations that are addressing homelessness in an authentic manner by attending to the needs of the discriminated. The treatment of homelessness is a lesson in the treatment of stigmatization that fuels discrimination, and there has been no greater stigma among us than mental illness.
Homelessness is mental illness. My heart sinks every time I witness a homeless citizen in serious conversation with him or herself (not that I don’t ever talk to myself…but sometimes it’s the only way I know I’m having an intelligent conversation) because I know they are in dialogue with the demons inside their heads; demons that either contributed to their situation of homelessness, or demons that found their voice as a result of it. I’m constantly amazed at the stigma mental illness garners when 25% of adults in the US have a diagnosed mental disorder and at least 50% will suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in our lifetime (depression is classified as a diagnosable mental disorder); whereas only 6% of American citizens suffer from severe mental illness, 20-25% of homeless citizens suffer severely (national institute of mental health), a staggering disparity. Whether we’d like to admit it or not, yes homelessness is mental illness, but so is living in america. Why not have more compassion for our mentally suffering brothers and sisters living on the streets when so many of us share their pain? A large brunt of the blame goes to the health care community. As a health care provider I can honestly say we have done an excellent job in perpetuating the stigma associated with mental illness by separating the head from the rest of the body. We’ve made “health” synonymous with “physical” health which has largely been defined by what happens from the neck down. This concept has even been lived out in the ways in which health insurance coverage is applied (or not applied) to ailments concerning the mind.
the US government is also a guilty culprit in the negligence of mental illness. According to a study conducted by the congressional research service, there are over 2.3 million American veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and at least 20% of them suffer from post-traumatic stress and/or depression (I’ll let you do the math). This doesn’t include those who have mental disorders as a result of traumatic brain injuries. nevermind the 8.2 million other Vietnam era veterans and the ills some of them may be suffering from. So how does this connect to homelessness? Research indicates that 12% of the adult homeless population are men (92%) and women (8%) who served in the armed forces, 40% of them being people of color. In addition to mental health disorders and substance abuse, extreme shortage of affordable housing, livable wages, access to health care and a lack of family/social support all contribute to the crisis of homeless veterans (national coalition for homeless veterans). Not to mention just an overall mismanagement of veteran affairs by the federal government as they are in the midst of a scandal with the department of veterans affairs. But hope is on the horizon: just 2 days ago michelle Obama along with 77 mayors and 4 governors launched the mayors challenge to end veteran homelessness as an outreach to connect the more than 58,000 homeless veterans to available resources. While this helps, this won’t be enough.
The treatment of homelessness is a lesson in the treatment of people. There is a homeless man named “marvin” who you can often find moving slowly around streeterville with bleeding feet and pieces of cardboard as shoes, holding a sign requesting real shoes. At least this was the case until recently. About a year ago I swiped some wound care supplies from the clinic and cleaned and wrapped up marvin’s hemorrhaging feet. Marvin suffered from diabetes but had no access to healthcare as a homeless citizen, so I offered what I could. That was only a temporary fix and of course before long marvin was again bleeding from his feet with cardboard as shoes, holding a sign requesting real shoes. Fast forward a year later and I run into marvin just a few days ago. All of his toes have been surgically removed from both of his feet. I asked how he was doing and he said, “oh I’ve had better days.” I asked where he was sleeping these nights and he responded, “wherever is comfortable.” I asked what he needed and he said, “shoes…I still need shoes, but now I need special shoes that will help with my balance now that I have no toes.” I asked how much the shoes are and he replied, “$160…that’s what I’m raising money for…I’ll get there eventually.” So I told him I didn’t have $160 but I did have $4 toward his need, and he was appreciative. Although marvin’s situation has changed, marvin’s needs are still the same: he needs shoes. He was grateful that I’d asked what he needed, and not assumed it. He was thankful that I talked to him like a human being. Like a person. I walk just about everywhere here in downtown chicago, and often times I get interrupted by homeless people, and I make it a priority to at least acknowledge them, even though I might not be able to help them with their immediate needs. More times than not the response is, “first of all thank you for stopping and acknowledging me instead of pretending like I’m invisible.” Then when I break the news that I don’t have any change to help them with (I never carry cash), they are usually satisfied with just my blessings because I took the time to acknowledge them.
The treatment of homelessness is a lesson in the treatment of people. the proper treatment of people is a task to be carried out by all of us. Be kind to people, even those without a roof over their head, because “your single random act of kindness could just change the world.” – karl moore