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Human Services

A Closer Look at Homelessness

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Young woman giving money to homeless beggar man sitting in city.

In the early morning hours on a cold January night, city officials in a small college town took to the streets with a clear purpose. Their mission: to take an accurate count of the number of homeless citizens living in the city. As they checked under bridges and highway overpasses, the count escalated. Then they found it; a city within a city filled with disheveled people, tattered tents, and worn cardboard boxes. The inhabitants bore the looks of individuals who encountered an arduous life on the streets. As the morning dawned, the count increased and the evidence of marginalization was hard to deny.

Citizens, who had been relegated to the outskirts of the municipality, were being brought back into the fold, if only for a brief period of time to be counted. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, on a single night in 2017, over 553,000 people were homeless, and in 2016, over 1.4 million people who are homeless sought services from emergency shelters and transitional living programs. To fully understand the diverse needs of these citizens, we must look deeper into the lives of those who experience chronic and short-term homelessness

Too often, misguided outsiders mischaracterize these citizens. Attitudes range from contempt and blame to empathy and compassion, often with little understanding of individual circumstances. This article profiles four homeless individuals and highlights their unique challenges.  As competent professionals, social workers must consider the importance of empathy and collaborative support to move them to a better place in life. Beebe, Dan, Mary, and San shared their stories of how life challenges led them to homelessness. All resided in a mid-sized, college town in the Southeast laying bare their feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, their stories shed light on the individual and collective needs of homeless citizens.

Beebe

Beebe, a 30-something year-old African-American mother of two, left her home in a major metropolitan area to move to a town for a fresh start. Having no family in the new location, she was referred to a local non-profit organization for assistance in finding a home. Beebe came to this town in search of a different lifestyle for herself and her two children. Having lived in a large city for years, she made a decision to leave her familiar surroundings in search of quality health care and career advancement opportunities. She entered a housing assistance program with a focused intent to find a home. Upon entering the program, Beebe encountered issues that strengthened her resolve to provide for her family. Finding employment was not her initial focus, because she lives with rheumatoid arthritis, and her teenage son lives with Autism.

Putting her educational pursuits on hold, she pushed forward. Beebe’s desire to live in a detached, single-family home was based on her prior experiences in public housing, where she faced distractions that were particularly troubling for her son. Her decision to enter homelessness, for a short-term, was done with a bigger plan in mind. Along the journey to find a more suitable location for herself and her family, Beebe found shelter and support from the staff at the small non-profit organization; their assistance and support helped her navigate the bureaucracy of the local housing authority system.  

Dan

A 40-something year old African-American mother, Dan temporarily resided in her church’s fellowship hall. Unemployed and receiving public assistance, Dan was in desperate search of a permanent means to care for herself and her teenage son, who also shared the living space.  Dan moved from a rural farming community in search of employment in her field and a home for her family. In her previous work life, Dan experienced the benefits of having a steady clientele as a licensed professional cosmetologist in a booming economy.

A dramatic shift in the local economy brought about a change, and Dan observed a rapid decline in business. This resulted in a loss of income, and she was not able to continue paying salon rental fees where she worked. The income loss immediately seeped into her personal life, rendering her unable to maintain her home and provide basic needs for herself and her son. Within two years, Dan became homeless and unemployed.

When Dan arrived in her new location, she sought help to find housing from a local non-profit, in an effort to regain stability and control of her life and to transition out of homelessness. Realizing the value of education, Dan enrolled in school for training as a medical assistant. However, the stress of being homeless and unemployed weighed heavily on her causing overwhelming stress and resulted in her suffering a stroke.

With her dreams of entering a new profession hampered by health challenges, Dan found herself in greater need of even more financial assistance, in the wake of her health crisis. At the time of her interview, Dan was awaiting a decision on her disability case.  Her church fellowship hall was a temporary place of shelter to call home, but Dan sought permanency and gainful employment outside of the confines of homelessness.

Mary Blue

Mary is a middle-aged African-American mother, who resided at an emergency shelter.  Prior to entering homelessness, she relocated from Florida to the mid-sized college town after leaving an abusive relationship. When she arrived, she found employment in the food services industry, housekeeping and as a seasonal employee for a security company. As a single mother, she worked diligently to provide for herself and her son, all while she struggled to help her son overcome behavioral challenges. Eventually, she sought help from a local mental health program and staff from family services. Over time, she lost employment, because of her inability to manage her personal situation. Due to her inability to properly care for her child, he was placed in foster care. With mounting obstacles, most notably a lack of financial resources, Mary became homeless.

Initially, she resided with acquaintances for a time, but soon found herself without shelter and facing chronic homelessness.  Mary entered the Salvation Army emergency shelter twice in one year because she had no other resources. During her last stay at the shelter, Mary established a goal of going to college for training as an occupational therapist. Unable to secure funding, Mary’s time in school was short-lived. During the same time, Mary juggled the responsibilities of following her family case plan and meeting the requirements for residing at the emergency shelter. 

Mary Blue’s desire to change the course of her life and to reunite with her son created challenges that were overwhelmingly burdensome. Even as she worked to improve her life through educational channels, certain challenges made it difficult to reach her goals.  The compounding issues that overshadowed her life were ever-present.

San

An African-American man in his mid-40’s, San resided at an emergency shelter. Having obtained his GED, San was a self-proclaimed, over-achiever in the world of work.  San had dreams of exiting homelessness and helping others do the same. Traversing the eastern portion of the United States in search of work, he believed that the local community, while filled with opportunities, offered very few avenues for employment for him. San laments that he completed and submitted over 150 employment applications in hopes of securing a job.  

Recalling the reasons that led to homelessness, San spoke solemnly of the circumstances that contributed to his current living arrangements. He suffered through a home foreclosure, and he sought recourse to save his home but was unable to do so. With no employment and having no children to care for, he assumed the role of a migratory worker, believing that one must be willing to follow where the work leads. While his work history mainly consisted of being a construction laborer, he boasted of gaining new skills as a kitchen worker in the restaurant industry.

We have a responsibility to understand the causes of homelessness and to identify public and private non-profit organizations designed to raise awareness and offer services to help people exit homelessness; several resources are provided below:

  • Family Promise-a national movement to end family homelessness;  go to www.familypromise.org
  • The Salvation Army-a national organization with local affiliates providing emergency shelter for individual and families; go to www.salvationarmyusa.org
  • National Alliance to End Homelessness-provides research and education to support public policies to end homelessness; go to www.endhomelessness.org

The citizens profiled in this article are regular people who came upon hard times, which resulted in their entry into homelessness.  Social workers have the knowledge and skills to aid clients who are homeless by helping them navigate a number of systems, as they work to find permanency.  Most importantly, collaborative partnerships are key in identifying and creating positive change for homeless citizens.

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Kenya M. Cistrunk is an Assistant Professor of Social Work at Mississippi State University.  Her research focuses on helping all citizens who battle oppression and marginalization in various forms.  She may be contacted at kym1@msstate.edu

          
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