People use the phrase “homeless people” as if it refers to a type of person instead of a type of circumstance. People without access to shelter are sometimes born into a homeless situation, but they are not “born that way” in the same way that tall people are born with genes for height.
If you spend any time at all talking to people without homes, you will quickly realize you are much closer to being homeless than you are likely to want to admit. I honestly believe this is why so many people avoid those conversations at all costs.
I suppose we are most affected by stories that relate closely to our own lives. At least, I know that is true for me, so I will never forget meeting a homeless man who taught at the same college as I. He was highly educated and had been living quite comfortably until a medical emergency left him in a coma for some time. He wasn’t expected to live, much less come out of the coma and leave the hospital, but sometimes medical miracles do happen.
When this man got out of the hospital, he found that his sister and nephews, thinking he was dying, had emptied all the money from all his accounts and gone on a cross-country spending spree. The money could not be retrieved, and prosecuting the thieves would mean sending his own family to jail. As he told me he couldn’t bring himself to file charges, tears rolled down his cheeks. He was still teaching classes while trying to hide the fact that he was homeless from his students and employer.
I spoke to hundreds of people who were in crisis, and I would say that the most common causes of their homelessness were medical emergencies that resulted in job and/or income loss, failed businesses or theft of businesses funds by unscrupulous business partners, failed romantic relationships, mental illness, grief, domestic abuse, and, yes, addiction. This last one (addiction) should simply fall under illness, but I recognize that many people believe that addiction is a personal choice, and this belief enables them to blame homelessness on the victims of depression, grief, or other factors that lead to addiction. No one chooses to become an addict and lose everything.
Another category deserves a separate post, really, and that is young people who are thrown out of their family homes for being different, usually for being LGBT+. These young people are extremely vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, including murder.
I suppose some people are wealthy enough to be insulated from the risk of homelessness, but many people I spoke to had lost all the things you have and take for granted. They had homes, cars, businesses, and all that goes with those things, including pride, self-worth, dignity and comfort. Many of the people I met were able to maintain their feelings of pride, dignity, and self-worth despite seemingly every part of their families, their society, and their government trying to take those away from them. I was and remain in awe of the people who have managed to fight their way back from the brink without being destroyed by their situation.
Many aren’t able to overcome the odds, and each death is a failure of society to look out for every member. Immanuel Kant famously said that if we will heartlessness to those who are victims of misfortune, we are willing indifference to our own suffering when our time comes. No one gets out of this world alive, so your time is coming. Have you acted in ways that make you worthy of compassion and respect?