“We are human. We have feelings just like everybody else.“
Jerry was on his usual corner with a hand scrawled cardboard sign that read, “Thanks for anything, Vietnam Vet, God bless.” I asked him if he would take 15 minutes to talk with me. We sat on a nearby bus bench and began the interview. Considering I was a stranger to him, I was struck by how open, cordial, and remarkably honest he was (e.g., "Other Than Honorable" discharge, struggles with drugs in the past and other very personal details about his life.)
As part of we conduct extensive interviews of one thousand persons who are literally throughout our county. In addition to demographic data and very personal questions, we ask, “what would you like others to know about those who are homeless?” The answers surprised, saddened, and inspired.
“I worked for 20 years with Caterpillar. Got injured and laid off. My wife and daughter were killed by a drunk driver. Everything fell apart.”
It was 10 a.m. Paul was drinking and acknowledged that he is an alcoholic and needs treatment. He can’t find work and knows that he would have to be clean in order to get a job. He feels trapped. Widowed and over 50, he has been homeless on and off for eight years. He was open about his struggles with depression, anxiety, and insomnia. He has other serious health problems including Hepatitis C and high blood pressure. Despite his many challenges, he was friendly and described himself as "happy go lucky."
“It’s humiliating. I really don’t want to be homeless. Oftentimes I feel hopeless.”
The information gathered from the count not only leads to $15 million in funds for local services from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), but the data enables us to gather invaluable insights into people who are currently experiencing homelessness. How many are veterans? How prevalent is mental illness? Do the majority struggle with addiction? Is domestic violence the leading cause of homelessness for women? How many are ‘chronically homeless’ and what is needed to ensure house them?
“It could just as easily be you. Many of us are educated, spiritual people. I just want people to understand that we want work and to live like everyone else. Being homeless sucks.”
During our count on Jan. 28, we identified at least 9,000 homeless in San Diego County, up 5.9 percent in the past year and up 19 percent since 2008. These counts reflect the minimum number of persons who are homeless. Many others are unaccounted for due to the inherent difficulty of finding everyone without a permanent home. Thousands more access services during the course of the year. The San Diego County of Education reports that 13,000 youth are homeless.
Our distressed economy certainly contributes as many more individuals are at risk of losing their home or apartment. At least 37 percent of homeless persons interviewed indicated that the primary reason for their homelessness is due to unemployment–more than a third of all who are homeless! Another 10 percent state they are homeless because they have been foreclosed or evicted. With no income for extended periods of times, many people are left with literally no choice but homelessness. Some have families or friends who can take them in, but if not, where do you go? The lack of affordable housing is undeniable and . New initiatives are very promising. Time, commitment, and participation from many can bring results. However, unless funding and political will improves, the problem may worsen.
"I live in my car. I want an apartment but can’t afford the rent, deposit, or living expenses. Whoever says that people choose to be homeless should try sleeping in their car for a week."
Tom was sitting with his belongings (in a small rolling cart) and chatting with his homeless friend, Larry. Tom needed to sit as his diabetes and gout made it difficult to stand. They have both applied for various benefits, but neither currently receives any income through government benefit programs. Both survive on what they take in from occasional panhandling. “Others have it harder than us,” they said. They told me about Terry who always worked the same nearby intersection.
“Terry doesn’t know how to take care of himself. He talks to himself a lot. We look after him, bring him food, make sure he’s okay. He doesn’t know any better.”
Tragically, many individuals who are homeless suffer from mental illness and/or are afflicted with substance abuse problems. However, there is no 'typical' homeless person. There are thousands of homeless youth, seniors, families, and veterans. Our challenge as a community is clear: either commit to truly ending homelessness, or it is here to stay. When we all realize that homelessness is solvable, then there is hope. When we house people and provide the support necessary to help them stabilize and then thrive, then we all win. No one, no one, truly wants to be homeless.
Homeless is solvable. Daily, thanks to the amazing service providers throughout our region, people are being housed every day. However, the challenge to house all is daunting, but not impossible. What is needed? Permanent supportive and affordable housing, job training and placement programs, year round shelters, and accessible health care. In addition to the core services, we need the community and political will to commit to, and fund, solutions.
What can our community do to help end ?
Affordable housing. More ‘one-stop’ shops in other regions of our county, to financially support local service providers, and to proactively plan to resolve emergency shelter needs. Also, as individuals, we need to change our hearts and minds.
Empathize–what would you do if you were significantly challenged (whether "self-inflicted" or not)? Where would you go? What would it take to for you to find housing with if you had no funds, no family, a disability, and no recent work history? Look at homelessness from a purely economic perspective. Study after study makes it undeniably clear that solving homeless has a profoundly positive fiscal impact. According to the data we collected in the count, at least $17 million of health care costs (in-patient days and ER visits) have been needed by unsheltered homeless persons. It costs far more to do nothing.
People who are homeless are people having hard times. I may be homeless, but my heart is rich. I am good.
Peter Callstrom is the executive director of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless.