Homelessness: Starting Over from the Bottom

Commentary by Alex Grabtree

            There are a few things that we depend on in order to keep the illusion that we live in a modern civilized society. Things like: television news will always sensationalize the news, old people will work the polling places, and landlords will always increase the rent. These are facts of life that we grow to depend on as the part of living in modern day America.

            Then there are things that we rarely experience, but trust will be in place when needed. For example, we trust that an ambulance will show up to help those with a health emergency, or the store will still have batteries available in a natural disaster because we did not put together an emergency pack. We trust that at 65 someone or some agency will help us because we are not saving enough, and we are confident that if we lose our job someone will help.

            There are a large number of people in the suburbs who are secure in the knowledge that if they get in financial or health difficulties that there will be a family, friend, government agency, or social service provider to step in to help. After all, we pay taxes and there is some expectation that someone else is watching to assure that all of these emergency services are in place. As an individual charged with coordinating advocacy, I can say that emergency services are not as readily available as they were in the past.

            The biggest surprise that newly homeless families and individuals find is that when their family or friends cannot continue to help, the individual falls all the way to the bottom and must start over. It is a rude awakening for most to show up for the cattle call at the men’s or family shelter the day after leaving the comfortable life of the suburbs. It is like entering another age, and the individuals waiting in that shelter or food line have that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder look on their face. They are shocked that they fell all the way to this point that they are asking for a pillow, food, help with a job, and time to take a shower.

            We do not have emergency housing; we lost our emergency rental assistance, and those who previously helped with resumes are now looking for jobs. We do not have easy access to cash assistance for families through welfare or the disabled. There is not assistance with finding a job for those with entry level skills. A divorce, a major health problem or operation, or the loss of a job, can send a family into a tailspin and they quickly must enter the shelters. From the perspective of the individual, it is hard to not equate their situation to some form of societal punishment for becoming destitute.

            The worst aspect of all this is that more and more people working in the social services are not qualified and very underpaid. We used to have a situation in which religious and highly motivated people worked in the shelters and social services. After four or five years of seeing the worst aspects of American society, long hours, no pay; many became burned out. We lost some of the best people who were mission driven. Low skilled, low paid workers, working far above their abilities replaced them. The shelters need to pay a lot better or adopt a strategy to retain motivated people and reducing burn out. Imagine seeing a client who was beat up for being homeless by teenagers, a women dying of AIDS, a mentally ill elderly man who cannot take care of himself, and a young child with a chronic health problem living on the streets with an amazing singing voice all in the same day, and not being able to help any of them.

            It wears the directors, case workers, and shelter monitors down. The mountain of paperwork, the grant deadlines, the government red tape, the pain in the side advocate harping on client rights, the client falling backwards are all depressing and overwhelming daily struggles. There is a never ending flow of people in need of help with every possible problem from post traumatic stress from childhood abuse to bladder control problems. We have lost many of the most qualified, mentally and physically, to do these jobs and more and more we have people just collecting a pay check.

            So, the suburban-deer-in-the-headlights homeless individual or family shows up at the shelter shocked at their fall from a life of comfort to the shelters. Now, they must try to get help from an unqualified, testy, underpaid staff person who is watching the clock. Tempers flair. Compounding the tragedy of homelessness the individual must find the rose among so many thorns. It always seems like there is this on-going gold rush in the homeless community with nearly 4,000 people sifting the social service rivers looking for that special case worker who will help. All 4,000 people are sifting everyday and throwing out the rocks and fools gold looking for that one nugget.

            Do not rest easy tonight. The safety net is gone. If most of us are a couple of pay checks away from homelessness, be prepared for a long fall. Then after arriving at bottom, the nightmare gets worse upon the realization that most of the “staff” have no idea and are barely making it themselves. Many of the life preservers are attached to anchors. The final insult is that after surviving all these trials, society does not reward the family for its resilience, but condemns the family. Some homeowner in Ohio City or Tremont puts up every obstacle possible to restrict access to all homeless people and states at a public meeting that “most homeless people are crack whore criminals who will destroy the neighborhood and are a threat to the children.” And Regina Brett or Dick Feagler get angry over the lazy bums sitting in the park having given up on the world, and drinking themselves to death.

Copyright to the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless and the Homeless Grapevine Cleveland Ohio 2003.