Homelessness Can Begin in the Home

For the upcoming event titled “Finding Home,” the panelists were given this question in advance, “What do you feel are the main causes of homelessness in our community?” When working with people who are struggling to find adequate shelter, I like to always conduct a quick personal interview to learn more about their unique situation. Nearly every time the person’s experience has included a form of abuse beginning in the home where they grew up. Even before I was a parent, I understood that the first four years of a human life have the strongest effect on how a person develops later in life. If that period of time is full of unstable behavior (like binge drinking, verbal arguments, physical abuse of anyone in the family), the home is an unsafe place. Most likely that person is going to grow up with more psychological baggage to overcome than other people. I don’t mean to oversimplify the reasons behind homelessness to say it is one particular thing. My intention is actually the opposite. This issue is more complicated than many people think.

At the Eugene Safe Spot, 12 out of 15 people smoke cigarettes. Big deal, right? Cigarettes are a common stress reduction mechanism that is, in many circles, a socially acceptable practice. During a meeting at the camp, I was curious about when people began smoking. One of the residents who I really depend on as a camp supervisor said he had his first cigarette when he was five years old. At that time he wasn’t homeless, and you might be thinking, “What does smoking cigarettes have to do with being homeless?”

In my opinion, smoking cigarettes is irresponsible behavior. It’s a sign of weakness, not of strength or coolness, as it was portrayed in our society for decades. The fact that we allow messages to be transmitted through advertising that encourage irresponsible behavior is an example of the main point I am trying to make: our society is irresponsible because activities that weaken people are encouraged and promoted. These messages are brought into the home and perpetuate damaging behaviors (smoking is just one of many examples) that sometimes lead to people finding themselves without a stable home. So, homelessness, in my opinion, is a symptom of a much larger disease…it is not the disease.

I believe that hyper-focusing on the issue of homelessness sort of distracts us from finding solutions to more fundamental problems. Getting people into homes is only part of the solution, especially if there is not a responsible community around an individual to help shift destructive behaviors that will send the person back into a ”hole.“ That challenge is made more difficult with all the corporate drug stores (just think of any mini-mart) readily available on every stinking corner in the city, providing easy access to legal drugs of choice. How are people supposed to really kick any addiction? There is a couple of young campers at the Safe Spot, one of them is pregnant and her partner is commonly sick. During a meeting, she was munching on a package of Skittle candy and talking about how often they hang around Voodoo Doughnuts in downtown Eugene. Do I have to explain why this is irresponsible behavior?

I am not saying that these actions alone cause homelessness. I am saying that these behaviors, and many others, are irresponsible and weakening to human health and happiness. I am saying that corporate greed is part of this problem because these behaviors are encouraged to feed profits. When somebody comes to me preaching how corporations are ruining the world smoking a cigarette, I will never take it seriously. I will spare you my rant on how much cheap beer is sold everyday in our community.

Overall, our whole community is in need of some deep healing. It’s not just those struggling with adequate shelter. It’s many other people who have shelter as well. I live next to a gob of low-income housing apartments. The disease, of which homelessness is a symptom, is inside many of those homes as well, but within those walls it’s just harder to see.

Some people believe that solving the problem of homelessness is as simple as putting people in houses (like the housing first model). Housing, or legal shelter is, of course, very important to helping somebody back on his or her feet. Though, we have larger work ahead of us if our end goal is to strengthen our communities. This work includes putting the health of the entire community before our own individual comforts or desires, experimenting with new creative ways to create paying jobs for people, coming up with a truly sustainable American standard of living, making things happen as citizens and not waiting for the great machine of the government to be the change that we want to see in this world, cracking down on manipulative advertising that influences bad behavior, learning again how to be an upright people. No it’s not just putting people in housing…it’s actually changing things for the better and we got a lot of work ahead of us.