Surface Level: Why we haven't found a solution to the homeless crisis

No one knows me better than those who have lived with me. My parents, sister, college roommates, the family that lived with us last year, my husband, and my children know me best. They know me best because the facade I show to the outside world is different from the interior walls of my being. Once inside my home, the smile fades, the frustrations show, and my feelings bleed through my shaky exterior. The people who live(d) with me know that I clean obsessively when I am stressed, have a weird (and frankly gross habit) of pulling out my hair when I am bored, and can binge watch the Office like no one's business.

I have been thinking about the difference between the interior and exterior life because I think a lot of it has to do with our lack of understanding about the homeless crisis. Before the family moved in with us, I had a pretty idealized conception about what causes homelessness. When I thought about the homeless, I believed that surely something completely and utterly out of their control happened, and that is why they were homeless. Or I believed that most were trying to do the best they could and life just gave them a crappy lot. And those instances are true—some of the time. However, after having the family live with us last year I now know that we, as a society, only look at the surface level of why people become and stay homeless. Even if you are someone who works with the homeless—you really don't know them unless you have lived with them. Working with the homeless only allows you to know someone as well as you would know a co-worker or a good friend. To really solve the homeless crisis, we need to look beyond the surface and really get to know the homeless population on a deeper level.

We all know the statistics on drug abuse in the homeless community. In addition to those statistics, we also know that 15% are homeless due to domestic violence. We also know that a little over 11% of the homeless population are veterans (some of that population also falling into the drug abuse and mental illness categories). However, I was recently researching what our government says about the cause of homelessness, and I realized that we are looking at and treating the symptoms of homelessness not the disease (to borrow the common phrase).

Here is what I mean by this: according to the most recent survey by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the top causes of homelessness among families were: (1) lack of affordable housing, (2) unemployment, (3) poverty, (4) mental illness and the lack of needed services, and (5) substance abuse and the lack of needed services. (It is important to note that findings show that the majority of addicts are homeless because of their addictions, they do not become addicts to deal with their homelessness - and this is a very important distinction).

Fine. But what is causing unemployment? What is causing poverty? What is causing mental illness/what type of mental illness? Depression? If they are employed, why isn’t their wage higher?

I believe going beyond the surface is important because, at first glance, the family that was living with us looked like they were trying their hardest to find permanent housing. And to be fair, I do think that they were trying (for the most part) the best they knew how. However, after a couple of weeks of living with them, we quickly realized that they had some habits in place that were keeping them from finding permanent housing. I don’t want to betray their privacy, and I have referenced to some of these things before, but these were habits that if Jon and I were to engage in them, we would quickly begin to see our health and work performance (and therefore our financial stability) suffer.

However, there was no way we could have known this without living with them. I think that many people who look like they are doing everything “right” but are still struggling with poverty and/or homelessness are in the same situation. I believe that if we were able to deep dive into their problems we would be able to find the root of their issues and then we would be able to “cure” the illness, not simply treat the symptoms.

We can’t romanticize homelessness, and we can’t demonize it. We have to look at the realities of the reasons why someone is homeless and address those issues. As long as we continue to romanticize the problem, we won’t find a solution. And as long as we continue to demonize people who are homeless, we won’t find a solution. So let’s do neither, and begin to look at the true cause of homelessness - not just the symptoms.

Recently, there was an article written on the homeless crisis in Seattle. In all honesty, it is the very first article that I have read that looks at the situation fairly and addressed the problems accurately. If you are interested, you can read more here.