Tuesday, February 2, 2016


Because of my involvement in projects aimed toward people experiencing homelessness, I think people see me as a kind of advisor, or expert, in the area.  Let me say straight out -- I am far from it! In fact, I hold more guilt and shame surrounding my encounters with people in this condition than I do for most other interactions. Why? Because homelessness is messy. It's complicated. It's different for everyone experiencing it, and there are currently no easy solutions. Just when you think you have a situation figured out, it explodes in your face and people suffer for it.

This past year, I worked hard to help a particular person escape homelessness. This person was homeless because of an exacerbation of mental health issues that sent him into a spiral of distrust and withdrawal. Plus, the very condition that caused him to pull away from people also led him to believe he had no mental health disorder. He refused to seek treatment or medication. Therefore, without a definitive diagnosis, it was impossible to access the small number of services available to him through mental health providers.

So, I decided our community center and churches needed to step in. He had applied for Section 8 rental assistance. We would pay his rent until the voucher came through. It was a long waiting list (five years in our area), but I determined we could manage it as part of a new transitional housing initiative.  He also had a small part-time job which could help toward utilities, providing he could keep the job in the midst of the deepening darkness. 

I called around to a few landlords with my plan and explained our commitment to help this person until his Section 8 was approved. The first few said "no." Undaunted, I kept calling.  More "nos." One yes, but this landlord casually mentioned he would be selling the property soon and could not guarantee a long-term residence. He just wanted some easy cash for a few months. More "nos." Finally, one maybe. I spoke with this landlord at length, but as it became clear they would be housing someone who was homeless for many months prior, they backed out as well.  "We've had homeless individuals move in before. It never works out."

Desperation and bewilderment set in. We were willing to provide rent for an extended period of time, but no landlords were willing to take on the risk of housing a homeless individual in cooperation with a church. What was I doing wrong? 

I was willing to keep trying, but weeks had passed in the effort, and my friend started to distrust me. I felt I had kept his trust longer than most, but because of the repeated denials, our relationship began to sour. I was just one more let-down in a long string of let-downs. Reluctantly, and in consultation with friends in the area who help others in similar situations, I decided I needed to back off. It was undeniable. Everyone agreed he needed professional help. Without treatment, he would continue to quit jobs, break leases, cut off others. But I felt -and continue to feel - like pond scum, and he no longer speaks to me. 

We are still trying to move a family into our transitional housing program, but we are now working in connection with a local shelter who can identify a family ready to move forward and can provide the much-needed support the family needs after they move in to their new home. I learn from my mistakes.

I'm asked all the time, "How can I help someone who is homeless?" By this question, I've discovered most people mean, "What stuff can I give a homeless person to help them out?" Socks? A warm meal? A tent or blankets? Hand warmers? Batteries? A hug and a prayer?

All of these things are wonderful expressions of unconditional love, but none of these get someone off the street. If our society truly wishes to end homelessness, we need to work toward providing the one thing that works: a home. It's not the easy answer, and I can't do it alone. A few well-meaning churches can't do it alone. We all must decide together that no one needs to live outside like an animal because of mental health battles, physical ailments, PTSD, or even poor financial choices. 

Then we need to put our money where our hope is. Support increased funding for mental health services. Support transitional housing programs facilitated by experts in housing. Support increased funding to local shelters so they can add the staff they need to provide thorough case management. In other words, support solutions that offer lasting results.

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