I worked for over a year at North America’s largest homeless shelter for an employment training program. It’s definitely on the right track to helping out the homeless in a holistic way. It was a hell of an experience and I learned a lot about the realities and truths behind homelessness that I’d have otherwise not known.
This article is to raise some awareness about homelessness as an issue and highlight some of the lesser known facts about it. I hope it can open some eyes and shed light on the topic for others.
When you think of someone who’s homeless, what do you imagine? It’s common to think: dirty, unemployed, drug addict, alcoholic… many think they’re a drain on the government and people who have little to no value.
I’ll be honest, before working at the shelter, I had a lot of the same prejudices. The face of homelessness and what you see tends to help us make our judgments. And what do we normally see? We see panhandlers who don’t shave or shower as they ask for change to get a meal or flat out ask for few bucks to buy their next beer. You see them loitering around, not appearing to be productive members of society.
But isn’t this just the face of homelessness? Didn’t our mothers tell us “not to judge a book by its cover?” And when it comes to homelessness, that’s definitely the case.
The Truth of Homelessness
While working at the shelter, I encountered a lot. But one big thing that I found truth in is that they said the homeless population is broken up into thirds: one third have a mental illness, one third have an addiction (which is a mental illness in its own right), and the last third is broken down into those who are down on their luck or can’t find employment.
The truth is that homelessness is a seriously complex issue with many faces and facets.
The truth is that many homeless people have jobs and work either full or part-time, often through temp agencies.
Mental health issues are some of the most prevalent problems facing the homeless population. First, there aren’t adequate resources available to truly address many people’s mental health issues.
People also deny their mental health problems. If someone has a mental illness, it takes a lot of courage to accept and address that issue. Many go on without facing it, denying the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, the Bipolar, Manic Depression, Schizophrenia, and a host of others. And who’s to blame them? To be labeled “mentally ill” has a tonne of stigma attached to it on top of the “homeless” label.
It’s easy to look at an addict and say, “They’ve got a serious problem. It’s their fault. It has nothing to do with me. Why should I help them.”
“They chose their life, right? I’ve made my choices and live with them everyday. Why should I give handouts to addicts?”
The point is that addiction is an extremely complicated issue. Why do people have addictions? For many that I encountered, it was a coping mechanism–people got dealt bad cards in life and found the only way they could drown out their problems or sorrows was through an addiction.
Sexual abuse as a child, rape, violent childhoods, loss of loved ones, and more… These are many of the terrible cards thrown at many people with addictions, which become their only way to cope with the pain, numb their feelings or forget memories.
And the rest? Maybe they were never good with finances and lost their job? Perhaps they’re new immigrants to the country or refugees. Others without reliable family and friends who they can stay with. Some crashed on their buddy’s couch too long and felt too bad to keep staying there. Some can’t find work no matter how hard they try.
An Aging Population
A new trend is an aging homeless population. The majority of homeless now are actually over 40 years old. As the boomers get older, their bodies give out, and anyone without an education or valued set of skills quickly finds him or herself hard pressed.
The truth? He’s too old for labour and human resources see him as a liability and an increase in their insurance premiums, he lacks the skills of the modern workforce (the ability to use computers), and he lacks the life skills necessary to socialize and communicate properly with others.
The truth–it’s hard to find work, as a homeless person it becomes harder, and if he remains homeless, he will die earlier than the national life expectancy.
The truth–if he doesn’t find work and his self-esteem is obliterated, this guy might change from “the rest” category and fall into the “addiction” category due to circumstances and environment.
The Final Truth
How can we so quickly cast blame on others without truly knowing them? I know for one thing that every person I met and talked to seriously at the shelter, I felt compassion for them and their situation. They deserve our compassion, our respect as human beings, and our help.
We all need second chances. And many of us might not get it on the first, second, or even third go around. What I know is that “homelessness” is a complex issue that may never be solved. What we can do is do our best to help.
The truth–people who are homeless are just that: people. We all have complicated stories to tell and we should treat all with respect.
I hope we can all stop judging issues and people by their appearances. Let’s start now. The world’ll be a better place if we have compassion for all.
I’m currently in the process of writing my first screenplay. Finishing the novel was a good feeling for me and now I’m trying my hand at writing a script for a film. The topic? Homelessness. Keep posted for more on it.