Today I was on a panel of 12 community ‘experts’ talking about homelessness to a group of 100 doctoral students who had spent weeks dissecting the issue and they were waiting to hear from us, “What are the root causes of homelessness?” The panelists were told to write their answers on a sheet of paper and hold it up to the group. So because I am a researcher and an evaluator and because I believe what people tell me, I wrote on the paper, “Homeless people say unemployment and low wages are the cause of homelessness.” I know this because I’ve conducted surveys and focus groups with homeless people and, yep, that’s what they tell me. So it’s gotta be true, right? The twenty-something emcee looked at me and said with a smile, “Is that a data-driven answer?” So coy.
Yes, but it’s complete and total bullshit.
Does anybody really know the cause of homelessness? There’s a whole industry of agencies and services who think they know but the fact of the matter is that every homeless person got to their place under the bridge in their own unique way. Some lost jobs. Others got addicted. Some are mentally ill. A few can’t do anything right. More just got out of jail. Many hate helpers. Most hate rules.
The woman that I met living in a little cozy encampment in the shadow of the USS Midway in San Diego where tourists would have to step over and around her friends to get to the attractions and cute shops told me that going into a shelter would mean she’d have to stop drinking and she was a ‘diehard’ alcoholic, an alcoholic squared if you will. She looked at me, she could’ve been forty or sixty, her nose red and pocked, and she said, “Hey, I’m going to keep drinking. Shelter people say I have to stop. I can’t do that. Plus I have to take care of my friends out here.” She pointed to a very pregnant girl, maybe 19, lying on a blanket, and two men sleeping in the sun. “She’s my street daughter. I’m all she has.”
In that moment, standing there, talking to her, it made sense to me. It’s the curse of relating to people. Everything makes sense to me at the time. So I’m thinking, wow, that’s so good that she’s taking care of this girl.
And then I get back in my car and I think, but, hey, what about prenatal care and food and not sleeping all night on the damn ground being six or seven months pregnant? And what about the baby and what happens next and is anyone thinking that the baby can come home to the park next to the USS Midway and sleep with mom on the damn ground?
And I want to lean out the side of the car and puke.
Part of me loves meetings like today. I like the special name tag and my own bottle of water. I like my name on the big screen and people passing me the mike. The nodders and notetakers. As I was leaving, several students came up to shake my hand, like I’d said something amazing and life-changing. I didn’t.
I should have said, “No one knows the root causes of homelessness. It’s a complete mystery.”
The only person who knows is the woman camped next to the USS Midway. Ask her. She’ll explain.