Every night in the Greater Lafayette Area, 50-60 people sleep in with no shelter in conditions “unsuitable to sustain life”. These being literally on a park bench, under a bridge, or curled up in an alley. When I heard this statistic, I was stunned. We’ve all seen people experiencing homelessness before, but I had no idea it was so rampant.
I’ve mentioned before that I am currently working with the Lafayette Transitional Housing Center (LTHC) for one of my classes at Purdue. The class, PR For Social Change, aims to provide students with some real world PR experience, while doing some good at the same time. Working with LTHC recently has shown me how many misconceptions about the issue of homelessness there are. Since I’m going to be working with them so much over the upcoming months, it’s important to better understand the issue of homelessness.
So, of course, I’m going to practice my feature writing skills while talking about an important issue in the community- and the world to be honest, at the same time.
Homelessness can best be understood by viewing the issue as a spectrum. Many of us have the common belief that all homeless people are mentally ill, or lazy, or drug addicts and alcoholics. This isn’t entirely fair though. On the left end of this spectrum, we have what’s known as “situational homelessness”. People that are just down on their luck. They may have had a bad few months, or a bad year. They may have gotten hurt or sick, and unable to work, lost their house and/or car. What may have once felt like a stable, happy life for these individuals was torn from them often with very little notice. Situationally homeless individuals often just need help getting back on track. They may need a place to stay for a few weeks until they get a new job and some income. They may need help with rent in their new place for a few months as they get their affairs in order.
At the other end of this spectrum is what’s known as “chronic homelessness”. These are people that have been homeless for over 3 years, some for decades. Individuals experiencing chronic homelessness can no longer (or in some cases, never could) support themselves on their own. They no longer have the skills necessary to contribute to society that many of us take for granted. Mundane tasks that seem common sense to many, become serious challenges: holding down a job, taking the trash out, mowing the lawn, paying bills on time. Individuals experiencing chronic homelessness need long term, intensive support. In terms of LTHC, this can come in the form of permanent supportive housing services. These are small apartments that have been established with the chronically homeless in mind. They are cheap living quarters with many services provided to the residents.
But- why? Why are they homeless? Why can’t they do something as easy as take the trash out every week or pay an electric bill? Why can’t they just get a job?
Well, it’s not so simple. It’s never so simple, is it?
Take for example, a man named Ivan. We heard Ivan’s story in a United Way video when we first started working with LTHC. Ivan owned a business in downtown Lafayette, Main Street Wine and Cheese. He had worked his entire life, had been a chef at previous restaurants, and poured his heart and soul into starting his own. Until it went under. Ivan suddenly found himself in a situation he never imagined could have happened to him. He was homeless. Actually homeless. He couldn’t believe it. He had gone from a purveyor of fine wines and cheeses to the bourgeoisie to being on the street. In less than a year.
He couldn’t find work elsewhere either. Think about it. Ivan worked in the restaurant industry, how could he get a job without a permanent address? Even if he had gotten a job, how could he have showered and cleaned up everyday to get to the restaurant? Not many would appreciate their waiter or cook roaming around having gone days without a shower, unshaven, and disheveled. Where would he put his somehow clean clothes (including his work outfit), razor, deodorant, toothbrush and toothpaste? These are all things that we take for granted. It makes it hard for us to understand the issue, here. People experiencing homelessness don’t have access to the facilities and advantages that we use without thinking everyday-that’s what makes them homeless.
(Ivan is now no longer homeless, and is currently working with LTHC to give back after they helped him get back on his feet)
Because these necessities have become luxuries, they don’t have access to them anymore. Over time, one starts to forget what it was like living with them. They become so accustomed to homelessness, that it becomes their new normal. The longer they live in this new normal, the harder it is for them to adjust back into society. They no longer have the skills necessary to reenter.
It should be said that alcoholism, drug addiction, and mental illness rates are indeed far higher in people experiencing homelessness than in those not, especially so in those that are chronically homeless. These underlying issues compound, and make it even harder for them to integrate.
So, in order to help people experiencing homelessness, we need to do more than just provide a roof and a cot. We need to treat the underlying issues, reteach these skills they need, and break the cycle of homelessness. This is what LTHC strives to do. Rather than just provide a shelter, which doesn’t help the overall issue; LTHC provides services to get them out of their situation. They provide shelter and food, but also computers to look for a place to live, clothes and counselors for job interviews, supplies to get people by until their first paycheck comes in, and more. LTHC is also currently planning to build a new center that will provide 24/7 service for those in need of it.
Without a solid understanding of what homelessness truly looks like, and without community support, organizations that try to help will merely spin their wheels. Homelessness is more than the stereotype. It could be your neighbor or friend, it could happen to anyone. I had to write on this today to start to build a foundation of a better understanding. There is a social norm to avoid the homeless, to ignore the beggar, and to pretend the issue doesn’t exist. As long as this norm exists, though, we’re going to be fighting an uphill battle trying to help out our fellow community members.