Last week I volunteered at a local homeless shelter cooking and serving dinner to the residents. Earlier in the week I had attended a meeting for a local organization, Sierra Roots, where before the photoshoots took place for volunteers, we served lunch for the local homeless. What I noticed is that there were people there whom I observed on the streets a decade earlier; people who were getting drunk, and/or using drugs, creating public nuisances, or whom I saw being hauled off by the local police in public parks, and the Streets of Nevada City and Grass Valley. These homeless men and women, many of whom can also be seen panhandling outside businesses, and along the sidewalks are the faces that we often associate most with homelessness. However, in my experience in working with the homeless, particularly those in shelters, I’ve encountered many faces we can’t put to the stereotypical branding of the homeless. I’ve met the newly unemployed, families with children, the gravely disabled, seniors, teenagers, traumatized victims of crimes including human trafficking, over the years I have been observing homeless people and families. Quite frankly there are people who want to be homeless. And then there are those who don’t. I’m addressing the needs of the latter. I personally am formerly homeless having suffered from mental illness, addiction, and job loss. I didn’t want to be homeless.
Many if not most Americans are only two paychecks away from being homeless. Our economy forces many families to live hand-to-mouth. Downsizing, jobs that relocate to foreign countries, businesses that go bankrupt, businesses that pay their c.e.o.’s exorbitant salaries while underpaying their base workers all contribute to the problem of homelessness, as does greedy medical insurance companies and big pharma.
In dining with the homeless during one of my volunteer shifts, I met a family who was very low income who were displaced because their landlord decided to sell their home and the family has no funds for first, last, and deposit towards a new rental, and yet another individual who lost his place to live because his landlord decided to turn his studio over the garage into an airbnb. Again, these folks were only two paychecks from being homeless.
The prevalent services to the homeless lack depth. We aren’t simultaneously treating mental illness and co-occurring addiction disorder. We lack follow-up. We aren’t making sure those who need medications are receiving them or taking them properly. We aren’t issuing temporary passes on public transportation to get them to work, pharmacies, medical, psychiatric, social services, and work. We are lacking, or limited in the areas of vocational training. We are lacking in facilities for them to bathe even. Some non-profit organizations, and cities have addressed these issues, while there remains a majority that do not. All we seem to be doing on the large scale is feeding them or throwing money their way without looking at the bigger problems or providing a path to a permanent solution.
Giving help, providing meals, money, and medical services isn’t a bad thing at all, we just don’t realize that those things are not the broader overhaul badly needed to provide the means for the homeless to become self-sufficient. If we invest in the broader picture of solution, we will save money in the long run, improve our economy, and can feel good in helping our fellow human beings.
(About the photo: Homeless man in San Francisco, Canon Rebel 35mm, Kodak Portra 800, f8)