This Homelessness Awareness Week we have had several learning opportunities for those of us in the work of ending homelessness and the community at large. At the end of the day, however, learning about big picture ideas or national and local statistics does not tell you what you really need to know.
For this post, I worked with Shannon to hone in on what it is people really need to understand about homelessness. Shannon has been living in her apartment for two years now, after too many hard years without a home of her own. She graciously agreed to answer some of my questions to share with you. “What are the top three things you think people need to understand about homelessness?” I asked her, and her answer to this one question is enough for this whole post.
First of all— “It’s not fun being outside. No one wants to be out there, but society has put people out.” Like, for example, if a person has a criminal record that can prevent them from getting in anywhere. But, Shannon points out, they should still have a right to be somewhere. We have people “doing the time” for their crimes, but the punishment never seems to end.
Secondly, she says people don’t understand the seriousness of homelessness. It is a literal life and death battle for people on the streets each day. Shannon shared with me the death she’d witnessed in her time homeless. As a woman, there are additional threats. Finding safe people to align yourself with is a better option than trying to find a place to sleep alone. Women too often get beaten, raped and even killed on the streets, and no one is there to care.
This was her third thing for people to understand—the pain of being in a world that doesn’t care about you. As she experienced pain and threat, others walked by her with averted eyes. People experiencing homelessness don’t live in a bubble—they know how the world around them views and judges them. The judgement from people stings—people making judgments don’t have a clue how hard it is to get help, to get ahead. They don’t know how many times someone has tried to access help or to work their way out— all the job and apartment applications that were rejected, the social services with long wait lists. Shannon knows from her work in the Coalition that there are not enough housing resources to move everyone out of homelessness this moment, but she’s seen what it does to a person’s ability to trust when they do reach out for help and are told there is nothing. This leaves people suspicious of anyone purporting to be able to help in any real way. How do you know when it is safe to allow yourself to have hope that this person’s offer of help is going to finally be real?
In our conversation, Shannon shared many more insights with me, but we think this is enough for now. Our hope is that those of you reading this sit with each of these points and really think about them. Think about how you view people you see who might be homeless, the judgments you may make, the pain and danger you haven’t acknowledged, and the struggle it is to find safety in this world with no means. These truths are important for us all to spend some time thinking about, and allow to reshape how we view and treat our neighbors without homes.