The Invisible Problem

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For six months now I’ve been volunteering with A HOPE, a day center for the homeless in Asheville, NC. The goal of A HOPE is to get people housed, not just to shelter them temporarily. They counsel people and put them in touch with resources to help with mental health, substance abuse, and domestic violence. They’ve housed well over five hundred people in seven years — but there are still around two hundred homeless people who need help on any given day. That’s where I come in.

I am not a counselor or a social worker. I am a volunteer who spends 8+ hours each week with the local homeless population. These are some observations.

Homeless_Vet_CartoonInvisibility. In larger cities homelessness is sometimes visible, as when you see people dressed in rags and begging for money, but here in Asheville you rarely see overt signs. Every time I walk downtown or pop into the library or run to the grocery store, I see homeless people. This means you see them, too. You just don’t realize it.

Education and literacy. Some of my clients have college degrees, and some are taking classes at the community college, but many others are not educated. The other week I had to explain to one guy that Judaism is a religion. This is more severe than simply not having a high school diploma or GED. You can get through adult life just fine without knowing algebra, but you’re going to be in trouble if you’re unaware of basic facts that most other people know: literally, “common knowledge.”

It’s hard to learn common knowledge if you can’t read. It’s hard to understand how the world works if you do not have books, newspapers, magazines, and the internet at your disposal. Try setting up the voicemail on your cell phone if you can’t read. Go on. Try it.

Communication skills. If you’re illiterate or semi-literate, you can sometimes cope by speaking to people who can read and interpret on your behalf. But this can be tricky if you’re not a good speaker. If you come from a social background that didn’t teach you good communication skills, it is unlikely that you’ll have figured out how to be an effective, articulate speaker. For added difficulties, try going to the dentist absolutely never because you can’t afford it. Bad dental habits can make a mumbler of anyone.

Crime. Let’s say you committed a crime some years ago. You received a fair sentence and served your time without being corrupted by the culture of violence and amorality in the American penal system. (This is unlikely, but we’ll assume so for the sake of argument.) Once you get out, I have two questions for you: 1.) Where are you going to live? 2.) How will you get a job?

Our prisons do almost nothing to prepare inmates for re-entry into society. You’ll probably end up homeless once you get out, because you have nowhere to go and no money to pay rent. Even if you have employable skills, many employers refuse to hire people with criminal backgrounds.

Financial skills. Look: even people with steady incomes are bad with money. Think of how many people you know who have bad credit. Some folks are good at saving, investing, and spending frugally, but most people, regardless of income level, are pretty bad at personal finance. It’s just that the consequences are more dire when you have little or no income.

Transportation. Doesn’t matter if you get hired for a job if you can’t get there. The bus system in Asheville is not great, but it will do. In more rural locations, public transportation does not exist. Walking on your own two feet is an option, if the workplace is nearby, but that only works if you’re healthy — and “robust health” is not a phrase often associated with the homeless. It’s also a really crappy option in rain and other inclement weather conditions.

Lack of transportation can interfere with other facets of life, too: doing laundry, getting to your lawyer, getting to your mental health counselor, buying groceries, getting to a job fair.

homelessShelter. Some people stay outside, in a tent if they’re lucky, in a doorway if they’re not. Some can get a bed in one of the overnight shelters, but there’s not enough room for everybody, and I hear that one of the local shelters has a mildew problem.

Others people can sometimes crash on a couch if friends or family are willing to take them in, but here’s the thing: this is a bad idea if those “friends” are abusing drugs or alcohol.

I had the flu earlier this year. All I wanted to do was to lie in bed and sleep, so that’s exactly what I did, for three days. Good luck finding a place to crash when you’re sick if you’re homeless.

Social network. Some homeless folks come from good backgrounds and manage to burn bridges with their own behavior, be it unintentional (i.e. mental illness) or fully avoidable (i.e. heroin). Family and friends are there to provide a safety net when things get bad, but if you’ve had one alcoholic binge too many, that might not be an option.

Alternately, you might be recovering from addiction, but if your family and friends are getting drunk while you try to fall asleep on the couch, you’re in grave danger of falling off the wagon.

Identification. You know how every time you get a new job, the secretary will run a photocopy of your driver’s license and social security card? This only works if you have a driver’s license and social security card. You probably did, once upon a time, but it’s easy to lose them when you’re homeless. It can be a huge pain trying to replace your identifying documents, even if you are good at reading, writing, and speaking.

Cognitive skills. Clients can receive mail at the shelter. They write their names down on a list, and I’ll write either “No” or “Yes” next to their names, depending on whether or not we’ve received anything.

“Some days you write ‘on’ next to my name,” a client told me once. “Why is that?”

Never mind that he’s dyslexic: he did not have the cognitive chops to deduce that the word was actually “no.”

And he is not alone. There are some bright folks among the homeless population, but there are many others who are struggling with serious cognitive shortcomings. There are people who can’t fill in the blank (“Yes or _____”), who can’t apply for a replacement driver’s license, who can’t keep track of their mental health appointments — not won’t, but literally can’t. These are people who, on some fundamental level that I can only guess at, do not understand that the stupid spur-of-the-moment crime they commit in 1994 is going to contribute to their homelessness in 2013.

Bad choices. A final thought here: most of the clients have made some bad choices, somewhere along the way. While I can think of at least one client who is suffering more from bad luck than from any personal culpability, the fact is that most of the people I work with have done some stupid things. Without addressing root causes (mental illness, precarious childhood, domestic violence), I can make surface observations and acknowledge that most of the homeless people I work with have made some bad choices regarding friends and family, drugs and alcohol, crime, violence, and money.

I can say the exact same thing about people who aren’t homeless. We all make bad choices sometimes.

Here’s an example: have you ever had stupid sex? Has anyone reading this led an entire lifetime of safe sex, with no danger of disease or unwanted pregnancy?

If you have, bravo. The rest of us, somewhere along the line, have had a sexual encounter that was not as safe as it should have been. Normally we manage to squeak by with no unfortunate consequences, but sometimes babies happen. Or sometimes diseases happen, and even if they don’t kill you, the social and financial price might be more than you can handle.

But maybe you’re a saint. Maybe you suffer no temptations for booze or sex or spending. Maybe you have perfect credit and no mental illness and maybe you’ve never suffered violence from parents or lovers or friends.

You’re still not immune. Even if you make all the right choices, you can still get hit with bad luck. All it takes is one nasty disease to wipe out your savings, or one nasty divorce, or one nasty car wreck.

Six months of volunteering with the homeless is not enough time to understand the breadth or scope of the problem. I don’t fully understand the causes or the cures of homelessness, but I do understand that it’s something that can happen to nearly anybody, given the right — or rather wrong — set of circumstances. There but for the grace of God go I.


3 responses »

  1. As always, beautifully written. Perceptive and compassionate. This is a publishable piece of writing and deserves to be read widely. Maybe you could send it to the Lives page/section of the NY Times magazine.

    • Thank you. I wasn’t thinking of anything as lofty as the NYT magazine (though it couldn’t hurt to try). I did send it to the shelter director and the volunteer coordinator, thinking that they might have some use for it.

  2. Jess,
    Am encountering technical difficulty leaving a reply, but will give it one more try… You should indeed pass this poignant piece on to a source able to reach wider circulation. At a minimum please send it along to the offices of your N. Carolina Senators and Congressmen. Those folks are paid to do something concrete about precisely such issues. The Public Affairs Office at Fort Bragg might also be an address to which the piece might be passed in as much as it touches upon the fate of some older military service veterans


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