Jobless, Homeless, Despair: A Downward Spiral That Needn’t Be

The tool I use for this blog gives me a running account of my most-viewed posts. The list almost always includes one or both of two I wrote long ago on homeless people and work.

This seems as good a time as any to return to the issues. I’ve several in mind that I haven’t yet focused on. But they’re relatively abstract, while the reasons homeless people don’t work or do work and remain homeless are ultimately unique, notwithstanding the broad-brush treatment in the earlier posts I’ve just linked to.

Let me instead share the gist of a personal story I heard during a recent webinar sponsored by the Coalition on Human Needs and partners. Then a handful of reflections on the story and others like it.

What Happened to Sharon

Sharon had a steady job and earned enough to pay rent. Then came a layoff during the Great Recession. At first, she thought that daily jobs searches and applications would soon have her working again.

But nothing panned out. She felt “despair,” she said, “and a little bit of self-hate.” She thinks her negative feelings about herself made interviews less successful, since employers want upbeat, can-do workers.

Eventually, she used her last unemployment benefits check to pay her rent. She then faced eviction. So she called 211 — the number Boston residents are supposed to call for referrals to health and human services.

She was told how to sleep in her car. Which she did for 40 days. Then the car got towed and she had no money to retrieve it.

So she went to a homeless shelter. Like many homeless people without children, she had no assurance of a bed. She had to be in the waiting area by 1:00 each afternoon or risk spending the night on the street. This alone, of course, would have cramped the job search.

But the time constraint wasn’t the worst of it. “I had no address, no telephone,” she said, and no place to do her laundry. “All the stuff from the past caught up with me,” she added, referring to some unnamed traumas that resurfaced to haunt her.

But someone from the Department of Mental Health visited the shelter and enabled her to move to one that gave her stability and services.

She can’t hope for another job now because those services included a medical exam that found cancer. This, rather than the “toxic stress” she thinks may account for it is probably why she qualified for SSI (Supplemental Security Income).

The benefits have lifted her out of deep poverty. But, she says, she’s still determined to support herself, so far as she can. She creates greeting cards at Rosie’s Place — a nonprofit source of services for homeless and other poor women. And she’s working on an illustrated book for children.

What Stories Can Tell Us

Stories like Sharon’s have three primary values, I think. First, they remind us that homeless people are as different from one another as thee and me — in both their personal characteristics and the events that paved the way to where they are now.

Second, they nevertheless give us inklings of what public policies and programs could do to prevent hardships like homelessness, even when the storyteller doesn’t say.

Consider only Sharon’s story and the issue of work. We see that she might well have found a job and never become homeless if she’d received swift, sufficient help with her rent — enough not only to keep her housed, but to cover her phone bills.

We see that the typical shelter for homeless singles makes finding work singularly difficult — and indeed, working itself. What sort of job could Sharon have landed when the shelter couldn’t serve as an address?

When she’d have had to quit for the day not long after noon — not to mention show up for work with unclean clothes? Surely first-come-first-served isn’t the only viable shelter model for childless, work-capable adults.

We also see that a publicly-funded program could have served as a bridge from the job she lost to another that offered as much security and opportunity as one can hope for these days.

The Recovery Act provided states with funds they could use to subsidize employment in public agencies and/or private businesses. The subsidies could help cover the costs of wages, benefits, supervision and training. So they could serve as not only a bridge, but a doorway to longer-term gainful employment.

And indeed, they did, story snippets tell us, though only for parents and youth, not childless adults because the funds came through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. But a subsidized job program could also keep people like Sharon from plunging into deep poverty and homelessness.

Third — and following from all of the above — the stories show that people who’ve experienced hardships like homelessness have unique insights about needs, barriers and potential solutions. They are, as Witnesses to Hunger says of its members, “the real experts.”

So our policymaking process should make room for them. Professor Kathryn Edin, coauthor of the groundbreaking book that inspired the webinar, captured one of the big things our decision-makers could learn, if they listened with open minds.

Speaking of the poorer than poor families whom she and her colleague spoke with at length, she said, “They are American to the core. They hate handouts. They want to work.”

Notwithstanding what I said about uniqueness, we should, I think, proceed from the assumption that this is as true for homeless adults in this country as for those of us stably — at least, for the time being — housed.

Our policies and programs would look quite different if we did. And there’d be fewer homeless people too.

 

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