“I’m never going to be homeless.” My daughter said this very thing as we were sitting in a drive-through and a man in a big jacket came walking by.
I explained he probably wasn’t homeless, but in recent weeks my 5-year-old thinks every person on foot is. Where this sudden obsession with the homeless came from, I’m not sure. But if I am honest with myself, she probably overhears the conversations I have with my wife, often surveying with disgust much of the homeless population, making those self-righteous determinations over who is truly suffering and who is on permanent vacation from society.
I sympathize and genuinely feel bad for them one moment, and loathe their very existence the next. I walk by them at the grocery store and run the gamut of thoughts and feelings: I cringe, walk by a bit faster, think maybe I should double back and give a dollar, wonder if it’s going to go for alcohol or drugs.
But at the same time I find myself wondering where does that poor soul sleep; it’s freezing out here. God, what awful hand must this world have dealt this guy? Aren’t there programs, services willing to help?
There’s the ill and the addicted, the dirty and dreadlocked, and then there’s the guy on the median whose clean and pressed uniform makes him look like some vacationing snowbird with a fresh pack of smokes. My reactions are as varied as the shapes and sizes of the men and women who inhabit the streets.
I should probably be more understanding, more tolerant and caring, considering the homelessness that has been part of my family. Then again, maybe that’s the root of the ambivalence.
I have an uncle who might be living on the streets of El Centro as we speak, although he might be manipulating his way onto a couch or warm bed. I have no idea. My father was homeless for a stretch, crazy from cirrhosis and a crack habit on the streets of Columbus, Ohio. Another family member was homeless for more than a year here, the stereotypical aimless, dirty, deranged wanderer.
All were or are addicted to drugs or alcohol, or both, and, I’m fairly certain, all could qualify for a dual diagnosis with mental problems.
One found the 12 Steps and, later, God, and is living free from his demons and the streets as we speak. One is still out there in his addiction, begging in front of stores, in and out of jails, crazed and mean. And one is dead, having succumbed to decades of drug abuse, dying of an overdose near the home he grew up in; that one is my father.
So much of homelessness is tied to addiction and mental health. The last wide-scale congressional report on homelessness in 2008 found that nearly 37 percent of the sheltered homeless population is chronic substance abusers and more than 26 percent is severely mentally ill. In 1996, under a different reporting method, some 62 percent of homeless men and women said they had alcohol problems; 58 percent, drugs; 57 percent, mental problems; 27 percent, dual diagnosed.
These aren’t the only reasons, but they are big reasons. For the addicts and the ill, there isn’t much out there for them. California has lain bare so much treatment funding, adults are basically SOL. Federally, millions upon millions go to fighting drug wars rather than focusing efforts on prevention and treatment.
Meanwhile, the streets are populated with men and women being driven mad by their addictions and the voices, and they have nowhere to go. I feel for them, and then I don’t. Understanding how to help, how this country can help, is as confusing as understanding where I stand.
All I know is, “I’m never going to be homeless.” Even that’s no guarantee.
On the Web: http://bit.ly/bizzare_homeless_help