Six months ago, I left my life in Washington, D.C. and moved to southern Alabama to work at a day center for the homeless. I am doing a one-year service program called the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, and I am halfway done. It’s been different than anything I’ve ever done before. I love what I do, even though it’s draining and I see awful things and hear terrible stories. I love my clients, even if they do things that I find, at best, inadvisable and at worst, appalling.
There are many things that might cause someone to become homeless. Sometimes it’s addiction. Other times it’s a disability, or some other sort of medical emergency. It’s often mental illness. And in this economy, for many it is getting laid off from a job after living from paycheck to paycheck too long.
Regardless of the direct cause (or causes, as it usually is) of homelessness, one thing I have observed is the role of — or, more accurately, lack of — interpersonal relationships, whether those relationships are romantic, familial, or among friends. Some blame often lies with the individual, but every drug addict and alcoholic has an enabler somewhere, and that enabler is not their friend. This isn’t like Romanceland where every heroine seems to have someone to fall back on, or a hero to come to the rescue.
One of my clients became homeless after her son was hit by a train. Both of his legs were severed, and she spent 40 days by his side in the trauma unit of the hospital, because there was no other family or friends in the area to relieve her bedside vigil. As a result, she lost her job and her apartment and relapsed with her own mental health problems. Now her son is addicted to painkillers, and about to become homeless himself. When clients lose the people most important — a spouse, a child, a parent– it can trigger crippling depression or addiction. Another of my clients has a home in Montana, but that is where her three children are buried, and she doesn’t want to return until she joins them herself. Women who flee abusive husbands also often end up homeless.
One of my greatest frustrations is when I find out that one of my clients has family in town, but my client is sleeping in a shelter or on the streets. When a woman escapes from a violent partner, where is her family? Where are her friends? In romance novels, there is always a friend to take you to doctor’s appointments, a lover who will take you in when your house burns down or you need protection from a serial killer, a sister who helps you escape from an abusive relationship.
It is perhaps in this way that romance novels are unrealistic. It isn’t that real, lasting love doesn’t exist; it’s that not everyone has that vitally necessary support network of healthy relationships that can push you back up when you fall down. Our ideal heroes and heroines haven’t burned their bridges and alienated their friends and family so that when they truly reach rock bottom, there are no hands reaching out to help — only weary, cynical loved ones who won’t risk being disappointed again.
I never enjoy the phone calls asking for guidance, but I take comfort from calls that do not come from the homeless person themselves, but from their bosses. I have had several employers call me, looking for resources and support and help when they discover that an employee is living in his or her car. While it is vitally important that an individual wants to help themselves in order for us to help them, I can also understand the reluctance to ask for assistance — so when there is someone willing to take the first steps for them, I get the feeling that they will not become one of the chronic homeless. Sometimes we all need a hand to hold, at least for a little while.
There are some clients that are “permanent members” of our facility. My favorite is an older man who mutters to himself and believes he has a microchip in his tooth, through which he receives messages from the satellites. He’s a sweet man, if sometimes difficult to understand. It is the severely mentally ill homeless that are the most alone, because it is difficult for them to connect with anyone, even each other. And now that all but one of Alabama’s state mental institutions are closing, many of those patients will be on the streets.
I hope that every one of you reading this has someone to whom you can turn if something happens and you find yourself homeless. I am lucky that I have a safety net in my family and friends, none of whom would let me become homeless. For all that the politicians talk about the “safety net” of welfare and government aid, we all need a few people to fill in the holes and keep us from totally falling down.
– Jane Granville