“I want to end homelessness.”
“How do you think that can be achieved?”
“I believe the answer to homelessness is secure housing. It might be housing that’s supportive, or it might be housing that’s independent. It depends on the individual. All homeless services, including housing services, should be person-centric. They should start with the choice of the individual and then work on recovery as part of their choices.
If you are looking at someone who is chronically homeless and tends to have high addictive and high mental health issues, recovery should be a focus, but it should be client led. That means that the individual leads their own recovery, and it’s not a forced type of program because those programs don’t work. They have about 12 percent success rate.”
“A city official working with homelessness once told me that a lot of people choose to be homeless.”
“This is one of the problems. The field is full of people who don’t think. They think within the stereotypes. Does that make sense—that people choose to live like that? The idea that someone is homeless by choice is utterly absurd.”
“I’ve only had one person tell me that he is homeless by choice because he was working three jobs in New York City and still had no money and also had no leisure time.”
“So, he says that he is homeless by choice. But if he had choices for housing that was affordable and equitable, and he could obtain it without having to work seven jobs, I imagine he wouldn’t choose to be homeless. It’s absurd to say that someone chooses homelessness because given the choice for housing that’s affordable and realistic, no one would.
The same is true of saying, ‘Oh well, they choose homelessness because they are mentally ill.’ First, being mentally ill is not a choice. An individual who is mentally ill has trouble navigating everyday normal social situations, particularly if they have Axis I mental health diagnosis or even Axis II mental health diagnosis. These diagnoses make it difficult to navigate everyday life. To say that they’ve chosen homelessness would be simply to say that they’ve chosen it over trying to navigate normal society. That’s just not an answer. So, do I think people choose homelessness? Never. And do I think that placing people in institution-like settings such as shelters is the answer? Absolutely not! They are of high health risk, they are costly to the public, they are unsafe, they are unclean, they are aggregate housing, and they spread disease. There is a plethora of issues with aggregate-type shelters. It’s an institution that institutionalizes people. It also limits opportunity. You are only allowed to sleep during the allotted hours. Does that limit your possibility of working nights? Absolutely. Where do you sleep? When do you sleep? You never sleep if you work nights. Does it limit the hours of your availability for employment? When you put your shelter on a résumé, does that limit your opportunity to obtain employment? Barriers to employment are just one example of the many barriers living in shelters creates. I’ve been in lots of shelters throughout my career and every time I go in one, I get the heevy-jeevies, for lack of a better word. They just make me sick.
“You also touched on several other related issues such as affordable housing and maybe even income inequality. Do you think that a more comprehensive approach to homelessness that addresses these larger issues is the right one or is that too ambitious?”
“The current way in which we are dealing with our homeless system, without a comprehensive view, without looking at jobs and affordable housing, without looking at it from a policy standpoint, doesn’t work. If we don’t change the way things are addressed right now, we will continue to see a rise in homelessness. There is a dwindling middle class in this country. The unequal distribution of wealth will only rise if we don’t figure a way to change the social structure in which we live, and that includes affordable housing and a host of other things—employment issues, mental health systems, healthcare and preventative care. Is it ambitious? Yes. Is it doable? It has to be. It’s the only answer.
It will be difficult because there is a prevalent attitude, particularly here in the US, that says—and I hate saying this because I make enemies—that people deserve this. It says that people don’t work hard enough. I think that’s obscene. I think someone who works at McDonald’s works very hard. And I think many of these jobs are essential to the entire running of things. A janitor is essential to the running of a Fortune 500 company or a university. When you don’t have a janitor, you realize how essential the job is. Pretending that these jobs aren’t of value is ridiculous. Having such a job shouldn’t mean that you have to choose between eating and having a home. It shouldn’t mean that you have to choose between basic needs in life. It shouldn’t mean that your kids have to wear shoes that are too small because you can’t afford shoes. These are not normal choices, particularly in a developed country, which the United States is. Choosing to feed or clothe your children should not be a choice that people in a developed country are making, at least in my opinion.
“How did you become involved with these issues?”
“I started my career working with people with disability, mental or physical. I worked for a place that had dual diagnosis part. So for a while, I worked with people who had mental disability and mental health issues. That’s how I started working in mental health. Then I went back to university and studied political science with a focus on poverty initiatives, so the two things sort of melded for me. My focus has always been people who are chronically homeless, with the key indicator often being mental health issues. Over time, I learned more about drug addiction, which, believe it or not, is also an Axis I mental health diagnosis. Often, people with drug addiction are self-medicating out of their disorders. People tend to simplify drug addiction a lot. They say, ‘Well, they’ve made bad choices.’ Yes, there is some of that, but it’s far more complicated or sinister than just making poor choices. I’m sure there has been a time in your life when you thought, ‘This is the worst day ever. I’m going out to have a drink.’ Some people go out, have a couple of drinks, and they forget it for the night and go about their lives. Some people go out and have a few drinks because they had a really bad day, and they just don’t stop because that becomes their only coping mechanism.
So I am focused on chronic homelessness, but it’s far broader than that. There are several categories of homelessness. In fact, 80 percent of the homeless population are not people you see. Dad loses his job, and they become homeless, for instance. They tend to funnel in and out of homelessness because they have family and other resources. But if you’ve ever dealt with someone who is schizophrenic, for instance, you know that it’s harrowing. The family wears out, bridges are burnt and the person is on their own. And there is both a lack of understanding around mental health issues and a lack of mental health care. It’s prevalent not just in the US but even in countries with more equitable health care systems such as Canada. It’s almost as if someone asks for that, as opposed to cancer, which they don’t ask for. To me, they are one and the same. They are both diseases. Have you ever heard a child say, ‘When I grow up, I want to be homeless, mentally ill and addicted’? Those aren’t things people want in life.
I also find that homeless people are very interesting to talk to. They have a lot of things to say. They have a perspective that the average person doesn’t have. They have usually gone through things and—shockingly!—they are not bad people. They are people who struggle with things. And people who are struggling are far more interesting than people who have everything handed to them.”