As someone, who was worked for a homeless shelter for over five years and whose job description sometimes meant signing in walk-ins and staffing the phones for referrals, I have met many homeless people. I can tell you that they are a mixed bunch. However, from my experience, there are four major reasons why someone is homeless:
- They lost their job, their home and they are only temporarily homeless. However, this depends on why they lost their job and their home in the first place.
- They are drug dependent and, that is why they lost their job and their home. Those who are homeless in this category perhaps may not be so temporary. Drug dependency tends to keep someone down. Jobs are difficult to keep and unfortunately — again from my experience — they tend to be thieves in general, though there are exceptions to the rules.
- Mental illness — many individuals end up on the street because they cannot take care of themselves. There seems to be different degrees of mental illness in some of the homeless people I have met and seen. There are those who can function and communicate, who do end up in many of the homeless shelters, and there are those who do not or cannot communicate with anyone.
- Opportunist — are those who may be homeless, but then maybe not. Opportunists make a living off the street, such as panhandling, hustling, mugging, and con games. They are the most visible and they are the stereotype that many people judge the homeless in a general sense, from this group of people because this is whom the public sees.
Though these are the basic reasons for homelessness from my perspective, these categories sometimes cross and a homeless person may be a member of more than just one group.
I have met all different types of homeless people, they all have a story to tell, and they all have come from somewhere and most of them are loved by someone. Some have families who want them to come home and some have no families at all, or at least that want them.
Many are shunned, yet some can fit into any crowd, be it a crowded subway station or even the most elegant restaurant. Many are just families, trying to get by, and yet some are hustlers, thieves, and drug addicts.
Many are veterans of the armed services that have served our country valiantly, yet when they need our help, we have failed to find a way to help them.
Some are just young teens who have run away from home or perhaps they are no longer welcome at home. Many end up selling their bodies and many end up so addicted to drugs they will do anything for their next fix.
There are elderly people on the street who suffer from mental illness or dementia and can barely keep a post box, let alone a home. I have seen men and women who lived by pushing stolen grocery carts down the street with all their earthly belongings in it.
Then there are those who are the most detached from the world around them, searching trash cans along the street for their next meal. Cardboard box homes, barely enough shelter from a cold freezing wind, are the home of many whom for one reason or the other; refuse to stay in a shelter.
They become victims of crime, robbed, beaten and even murdered on the street. They are found frozen to death in storefront entryways and beat up or murdered and thrown into dumpsters in alleyways. The ones who are the most defenseless — the elderly and the mentally ill — are those who are targeted most, because of their vulnerability.
Homeless shelters can only do so much and they cannot force someone to come in out of the cold. I think many of the mentally ill on the street should be institutionalized because they cannot care for themselves. Politics have ruled and many, who should be taken care of because of their illness, are simply dumped into the streets to fend for themselves.
We can never cure homelessness entirely but much of it should not exist in such large numbers in a nation that by far has the highest capital of any nation. Perhaps we can fix some of it, like improving our housing for the homeless and fixing our mental health laws in this country so that those who are deemed unable to take care of themselves can be cared for.
Some of us only think about the homeless when the Holidays roll around. Because of our Holiday spirit, we feel much more generous, but homelessness is year round and our giving will always be limited because homelessness goes much deeper than a free meal and a place to sleep.
The long-term solutions are not always clear to see and the solution for one homeless person is not the solution for another. Let us all remember the old saying that “You cannot judge a book by its cover”. Each has their own story and each traveled down a different road to get where they are at, the same as the rest of us. The road back will be just as difficult and just as different.