mobile 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

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14 Responses to Homeless

  1. Leigh AAR says:

    \What a great article Jane. It makes people who have friends and friends realize how lucky they are, and for the people who don’t have a good support system it gives them an impetus to make changes.

    I have been on both sides of the coin and let me tell having friends and family makes a world of difference.

  2. Mari says:

    wow. What a great and timely reminder of the importance of relationships in your life. Bless you for what you do.

  3. Carrie says:

    Well said. Thank you for reminding us of the importance of emotional connections, and the importance of helping those who don’t have any.

  4. WendyL says:

    Just beautiful, Jane. Thank you for reminding me to count my blessings today – and call my Nanna.

  5. LeeB. says:

    Excellent blog Jane. I know a lot of homeless people spend time at the main library and/or the convention center in my city. But as I walk through the park on the way to work in the mornings, I know a lot of homeless people sleep out in the elements. Very sad.

  6. JFTEE-Auburn says:

    How very humbling. It is when I read articles like yours that I get embarrassed to myself. I have problems and all of them are solvable if inconvenient and uncomfortable, and all pale to frivolous when compared to the people in your care. It is good to be jolted back to reality and regain a clearer perspective. Thanks.

  7. lauren says:

    It takes a special person to do this kind of work…great patience and understanding.
    There are many reasons a family will “disown” a loved one and that loved one may find themselves in a homeless shelter or worse on the streets. Family is not always equipped to handle the person who may be mentally ill and or who suffers from addictions. The saddest thing is that many people do not recognize that someone needs help and the person needing help does not seek it for many reasons.
    However…the most distressingthing to me is the fact that many cannot afford help…and what help is out there is inadequate at best because of cost.

  8. Karenmc says:

    Thanks for sharing this, and for your service.

  9. leslie says:

    There are many degrees of homelessness. Most people asscociate “homeless” with the addicts and mentally ill we see living rough on the streets. But so many homeless are hidden, they live in cars, campers, abandoned homes, and other buildings. Rents are so high, that people can’t afford both an office and a home. I know several reputable men who live in their offices in secret. I see women at my gym shifting lockers with their belongings hoping no one will notice. Libraries, cafes, malls, are full of non streeters if you look you may notice or maybe you won’t. One women who comes to the clinic where I work once a week told me she works very hard at not looking “homeless”. She is 54 and has lived on the street for 5 years and it was for financial reasons that she ended up living in her car, then eventually on the street. She told me how it was impossible to keep a job especially after losing her car (towed by police). This is happening all over America. With our Veterans returning we will have even more men living on the streets, for lack of sevices provided by VA and the Government. Don’t give money to panhandlers, help out by donating money, clothing, camping gear, shoes and blankets to local foodbanks, shelters, or any organization who provides for the homeless.
    A young woman I know spent her high school years living in a garage. When her illegal home was discovered by the owner, the man and his wife called their pastor instead of the police. The girl is now in law school, she wants to become an advocate for children who end up screwed by the system and left to fend for themselves.
    Jane you are right on about lack of contact for the homeless. Many are abandoned by their families. It effects so much not having friends, family, affection or support. Not everyone who ends up homeless is mentally ill, but they end up becoming mentally ill, the stress is unbearable. Can you imagine what it would be like to lose everything! Have no where private and safe to sleep or just sit and relax or place your belongings?
    This is my bandwagon. Helping the Homeless.
    So thanks Jane for your article but mostly for your service in Alabama.

  10. Susan/DC says:

    So the state will close all but one mental institution? I understand that state budgets have been squeezed mightily, but this kind of action often provides examples of a negative trickle-down effect where costs, not benefits, trickle down to the next level of government. As people are discharged from the state institutions, they often wind up in emergency rooms or jails. The state may not pay for those but taxpayers still do, although through their city and county instead of state taxes (and some hospital costs through the federal government), as well as through higher insurance premiums.

  11. Ell says:

    oh Jane, I agree with every single word you said. But there is more, of course. When I drive into Austin to see my kids, virtually every street corner in town has its own panhandler – a whole lot of these people are young and very aggressive. And homeless, at least technically.

    And then an addiction counselor I know from church told me about how she threw her 16 year old out to live on the street because he refused to give up drugs. I know she saw it as tough love, and maybe it was the best thing to do. I don’t think I could have done it though.

    Beyond things like that, our population is aging, and how many folks will be able to afford nursing homes when they can’t take care of themselves anymore? And where will they go?

  12. Tesa says:

    Just from the perspective of a family member who has had a homeless loved one (my mother), I can honestly say that if the family is not in the area they may not even know. My mother, who had become an empty-nester after my sister left to live with her father, decided it would be exciting to leave her life in California and relocate to Florida with a close friend. I was still in California in a really demanding graduate program at the time and she and I communicated by telephone, pretty regularly at that. It wasn’t until I stopped receiving phone calls from her that I even found out from another of her friends she contacted that she and the friend she moved with had fallen out. The friend abandoned her, she had no money or contacts in the area, and circumstances along with other issues she had resulted in a mental breakdown of sorts. She was literally in shelters until she was placed in a facility where she got enough treatment to get stable and let us know the trouble she was in.

    Long story short, we pooled our resources, got her back to California and it took about three years for her to become mentally stable enough to live on her own again and accept that she’d need medication for the duration. It is without a doubt one of the most devastating things that has ever happened to me and my family and the worst of it is knowing that there are pieces of her life she still finds too painful to share with us from that time. The other part that’s really painful is that before she had to leave the apartment she shared with the friend, she knew she had nowhere to go out there and she just didn’t tell us because she was ashamed and didn’t want to burden us. All of that to say, there’s a lot going on when the homeless have family members. They’re not all purposely neglectful, or in our case, even cognizant of the situation.

  13. Jane AAR says:

    Thank you all for your kind comments.

    Susan/DC: Yes, they are closing all but one, and one of the ones closing is our local institution, Searcy Hospital. What you said about the costs diffusing into different systems is so true. Apparently their plan is to relocate patients to private centers (if they can afford it), local hospitals, and hospital psych wards. But I can’t tell you how many times someone has been released from the hospital and sent to us, because they didn’t have anywhere to go, while still being unable to care for his/herself. One of the scarier phone calls/emails to get is from someone asking to help us find someone who had been released, who is paranoid schizophrenic with homicidal/suicidal ideation. Oh, and he might just be hanging out at your day center. All it’s going to do is have these people go in and out of the ERs and jails, when they get arrested because they don’t understand what is happening, and the police can’t communicate.

    Tesa- I’m sorry your family struggled with that. Your situation is one I see often, too, when a client’s family is far away and unable to get them back home, for whatever reason. I get a lot of calls from concerned family members, and that is so important, even if they have a hard time helping. I got a heartbreaking call the other day from a client’s sister-in-law, crying because she had heard her B-I-L was dead. Luckily, he was not — though given that he has full-blown AIDS, it will surely happen soon — and I was able to put him on the phone. What bothers me is when my clients have family in the city, and that family is fully aware of the situation but don’t do anything. I understand every situation is different, and that many of my clients have burned bridges with their family, but there is very, very little that would keep me from giving my sister or brother a place to stay when they don’t have anywhere to go.

  14. Tesa says:

    Jane, it’s really great to hear that you are so invested in your clients and I know it’s a very hard job to do. A friend of mine who is now an attorney used to work in a women’s shelter in California, with some families (mothers and their kids), and she was just overwhelmed by some of the things she saw and heard on a daily basis. But it was definitely an education for her since she went on to work with non-profits around truancy issues tied to poverty. It really helps to know that there are people like you and her out there who are really looking at the uniqueness of each situation. Ours is definitely an example of the connections between mental illness and homelessness. We consider ourselves blessed to have my mother mostly back to herself these days and her experience helps us keep things in perspective. I know that there’s such a shortage of resources for this kind of work.

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