Much has been written and debated about the need to end homelessness. Ten year plans abound, strategies and funding align people and resources to bring an end to the suffering of those inured in life on the streets.
And I wonder, “Who are we kidding?”
Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s important to have a goal. And ending homelessness is a laudable one. But, is it the goal that will have the greatest impact on changing what has become, as many call it, a crisis in our society? Can we make something end in someone else’s life if that person isn’t committed to, or invested in, making it happen?
Take addictions. A tenet of addiction counseling is, you can’t make someone quit. They have to make the decision themselves and then they have to become invested in their own well-being. Sometimes, an intervention will work and the individual will choose getting help in order to keep love and support in their life rather than the addiction. But, they still have to become invested in the idea that quitting is good for them. Change has value.
Addictions play an integral role in homelessness. Of the 12,000+ individuals the shelter where I work served in 2009, over one-third of them had an addiction. We provided them shelter and food, in essence a place to call home, for as long as they needed it. We provided services and programs, when they were ready, to help them figure out where they were going. We could and did treat them with dignity and respect. But we couldn’t end the homelessness that drove them to our door. How can we end homelessness in someone’s life if they are more committed to their addiction than moving away from our door?
We can give someone a home. What we can’t do is make them do the things they need to do, or make the changes they need to make, to stay housed no matter how badly we want them to or tell them they must. Ask any parent who has struggled with their child’s addiction. It just isn’t that simple.
Which is what makes me ask, “Who are we kidding?” How do you end homelessness in someone’s life if they aren’t willing to do the work to get off the street?
Recently, a woman pleaded with me for help. “Don’t desert me,” she cried. “I really need your help.”
It felt good to be needed and I wanted to help her. I just couldn’t provide her what she wanted, which was a home of her own. We’d already gone through that cycle and she had fallen, several times. And each time she fell, the unavoidable truth she did not want to face kept rearing its ugly head; she was more committed to keeping crack and booze in her life than making the changes she needed to stay housed.
I wasn’t deserting her. She was deserting herself. She was deserting herself by giving into the booze and drugs that had driven her out of her home long ago. She was deserting herself by telling herself, “If only someone else will come and fix this [her lack of housing]. I can’t do it myself.”
The truth is, yes she can. Do it. Fix the problem. Stop the drinking. Cut out crack. End homelessness in her life.
But that’s not what she wants to hear. What she really wants to hear is that I’ll do whatever it takes to help her find a home to rent without calling her on her addictions. She wants me to believe she can do this, and I do, as long as she’s willing to do ‘the hard’ to keep a roof of her own over her head.
“Are you willing to do whatever it takes to make it work this time?” I ask.
‘Yes,” she quickly replies. “I don’t want to live in a shelter anymore. I can’t stand it.”
“Are you willing to stop drinking?”
In her response I know she’s not willing to do whatever it takes. She doesn’t believe she can. Stop drinking. Stop using. And if she doesn’t believe she can stop the very thing that keeps forcing her out of her home, she doesn’t believe she can keep her home either. No matter how hard I do whatever it takes to help her.
I know what it’s like to have so little belief in yourself you aren’t willing to do whatever it takes to get healthy. I was there once. In a place where those who loved me desperately tried to save me and I just couldn’t hear them, or wouldn’t listen. I was more committed to my path of self-destruction than I was to changing what I was doing in a relationship that was killing me.
I wasn’t an addict. At least not in the conventional sense of using drugs or alcohol to buffer me from the reality of his abuse consuming my life. I was using a man as my excuse to not do whatever it took to be a good mother, a responsible adult, a truthful human being. I was using my fear of losing him as my reason for keeping myself in that place that hurt so badly I wanted to die. I was using him as a reason for not letting go of the constant drama taking over my life. I knew he was lying. I just couldn’t face the truth that his lies were keeping me from facing the truth of what was happening to me and those I love. In running from the truth, I didn’t want to face the fact that only I could stop his abuse in my life. Only I could walk away.
Being the victim of his abuse had its payoffs. Big time. I never had to turn up for me. I could always abdicate responsibility for myself as I prayed for someone else to come and stop it. To make it all better. To make it go away. Because, in not facing my own accountability in what was happening to me, in not turning up for me, regardless of my fear, I was proving to myself I wasn’t capable of doing it. I wasn’t worth saving.
And that’s the thing about homelessness.
Homelessness grinds you down. It leeches your self-esteem and pummels you into believing that ‘this’ is all you deserve. This life of no fixed address is the best you can do. The best you can get. The best you can be. This life of grinding poverty, of being stuck in the mire of self-doubt and self-denigration is all you’re worth.
And when we as a society say, we can end homelessness if we just work together to put a plan in place that will make it possible for everyone to have a home, we make it possible for those suffering from homelessness to stay stuck in the darkness of the street. Because in our planning for the end to their pain, they never have to turn up and do ‘the hard’. We feel better about doing something and those suffering the disgrace of homelessness feel better about not having to do something themselves.
Let’s be clear. Nobody dreams of becoming homeless. Nobody wants to be homeless because they like it. They are homeless because they’ve run out of options to keep them going on the path they were on. No matter how self-destructive or narrow that path, as long as it didn’t end, the path towards homelessness was okay. As long as it didn’t disappear into the door of a shelter it was easy to pretend it was going anywhere but there.
Once there, there’s a glaring truth that exists for everyone under the roof of its sheltering space. They are there because what they were doing wasn’t working in their life anymore. They are there because they ran out of options everywhere else.
Ending homelessness isn’t about giving someone a place to call their own and walking away after you’ve closed the door on them. It’s about creating new ways of connecting with people where they’re at, making room for them to stay connected, regardless of what’s going on in their lives. It’s about holding them accountable for their behavior, without making them pay for their mistakes in a bucketful of shame. It’s not about condoning bad behavior. It’s about accepting people where they are, regardless of how they behave. As long as they are not a risk to themselves or to others, it’s about giving them room to act out until they no longer have the need or until such time as they find the courage to say, “Help me please. I’m willing to do whatever it takes to find my way back home. And that includes giving up my addiction.”
End homelessness in someone else’s life? I don’t think so.
Empower people to find their path back home? Help them find ways to overcome hurdles, smooth out the wrinkles on their road? Help them come clean, get together the resources to make the necessary changes to their lives? Provide funding for affordable housing to be built. Absolutely.
So let’s stop kidding ourselves. How do we end homelessness is not the question we need to be asking. How do we stop people from falling through the cracks? How do we keep our children safe? How do we get the drugs out of our schools? How do we keep the dealers from selling crack on street corners and school yards? How do we appropriately and respectfully shelter people with mental health issues so that they don’t feel so helpless they self-medicate their way into forgetfulness? How do we stop people from falling before they hit the street? How do we create a difference in the world, in our communities, in our homes?
These are the questions we need to be asking and these are the answers we need to find. Let’s end homelessness, but first, let’s find a way to make our cities safer, our communities healthier and our homes more loving. Let’s find a way to care for each other before we reach the shelter door. And if we do get there, to the shelter, let’s create a space where people can find their way back home in a place where people matter, no matter where they’re at or where they’re going and no matter how long it takes for them to get there.