Before I campaigned for State Representative, the main context I thought about homelessness in was a reflection of my past work for jail and prisons. Inmates being released from jail or prison need housing first and foremost because without a place to sleep the night they are released from incarceration, they are immediately at risk for recidivism.
However, since being elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in November 2012, I have found that there is no bigger crisis than when someone calls me up saying that they don't have a place to sleep that night. Each case is different. Sometimes it is an adult with a pet, sometimes a pair of adults, sometimes a parent with a child. A pregnant woman and her boyfriend. Sometimes it is a single woman avoiding domestic violence. I have even worked on cases involving seniors losing their housing. Can you imagine a senior citizen losing their housing and having a hard time finding a place to go! It happens. How about a mom running up a credit card at a motel so her daughter has a place to sleep that is dry, warm and (somewhat) safe.
I do what I can to help connect people with the different organizations but the real heros are the people and nonprofits who provide the direct services to people in need. There are two cases I want to talk about.
Tom and Maria
I went to high school with Tom. He served in the Marine Corps, he graduated with a BA in criminal justice. You would think that he did everything right. But with an unfortunate turn of events, Tom was homeless sleeping on a friend's couch for a while.
Tom had a job in private security and lived with his family, which included living with mom, dad and a sister. As it turns out, his sibling was not paying her share of the rent and so the family was evicted. Mom and dad were able to find a place to stay. His sister went to live with her boyfriend. But Tom had no place to go. It was complicated because he has a pitbull dog, Maria.
The situation became even more complicated when Tom broke his foot. He could not work. He could not even apply for jobs because the openings available were immediate hires.
Working with the local animal shelter, they were able to find a temporary home for Maria. Eventually a friend allowed Tom to stay at his place for weeks on end. This was a band-aid; it was not a solution.
Tom contacted me and I started working to get him state assistance. Can you imagine the feeling that Tom -- he was in his mid thirties with a college degree and service in the Marine Corps, and a good resume, but he had to turn to state help. I drove Tom to the welfare office. Can you imagine how Tom must have felt to have a classmate drive him to the welfare office?
Tom was able to get some assistance, his foot healed, he applied for and was hired for a job. Eventually, Tom did so well at work, he was facing different opportunities for promotion. Tom is a taxpaying citizen again. He pays back into a system that helped him get back on his feet. He was even able to buy a Cadillac Escalade. When I saw him driving that I asked him how he pulled that off. He told me it was used from 2003 and only $8000. I was impressed. And Tom was reunited with his dog, Maria.
One takeaway from this is that even with a college degree, someone can become homeless because of factors beyond their control. Another takeaway is that just because someone was once homeless and was once getting state assistance, don't judge them by the car they drive. Tom works hard for and earned his Cadillac Escalade.
A Mother and Her Daughter
Gina and her daughter ran into some bad luck. Gina was married to someone who provided for the whole family. However, Gina's husband died. Gina didn't have a resume as she was a housewife. The bills started to pile up and eventually Gina and her 16 year old daughter were living off of and maxing out a credit card at an inexpensive motel. Clearly, this was not a sustainable strategy.
After talking with the school, the city social worker and state agencies, I don't remember how they came to my attention but once again, I found myself driving them to the welfare office, which also has an emergency shelter division. After their business was through, I remember driving them back to our hometown asking them if they had had anything to eat. They hadn't. So we stopped by a Chinese restaurant and I bought them some dinner.
Gina's daughter, 16 years old and a student at the same high school I graduated from, was such a delightful girl. Despite all of the hardship that her and her mother were going through, she remained positive, not bitter and overall happy. They were able to get support and Gina and her daughter are still recovering from the hardship of losing their husband and father. Gina is in a computer training course paid for by a nonprofit so that she can envelope some marketable skills to get a job, and her daughter is still in high school. Even with state assistance, they are having a hard time getting an apartment since many landlords want to make sure that the tenant has a job.
Recently, Gina contacted me and said that she would love to attend a fundraiser for the Massachusetts DEM State Party I am hosting at my home, but she doesn't have any transportation. This made me think that people without the financial means are often left out of the political process, whereas we clearly know that wealthy donors are often very influential in politics. This is a sad reality we live with in America.
Coming into this job, I never thought I would be dealing with as much homelessness as I am. This is probably the most frequently recurring and complex constituent issue I face. The National Alliance to End Homelessness reminds us of the scale of this problem:
- In January 2014, there were 578,424 people experiencing homelessness on any given night in the United States.
- Of that number, 216,197 are people in families, and
- 362,163 are individuals.
- About 15 percent of the homeless population - 84,291 - are considered "chronically homeless" individuals, and
- About 9 percent of homeless people- 49,933 - are veterans.
The thing that is misleading about these numbers is that it is a snapshot of a single point in time. The number of people who were homeless or who will become homeless significantly increases over the course of a year.
Housing and homelessness is a complex issue made even more complicated with criminal records, drug or alcohol addiction, debt, an eviction on your record when trying to get public housing, the lack of employment, and so much more. So-called 'affordable housing' is not always so affordable but can actually be expensive to people living in poverty, and 'low income housing' is in short supply with wait lists that are often five years long or longer. NIMBY is often a problem as many citizens don't want a homeless shelter in their neighborhood; development often becomes a political hot potato.
The moral of this story to not judge people who are homeless. Many people make good decisions and there is often an unfortunate backstory to their situation. Not every story has a happy ending, which is why it is programs that act as a safety net and that help lift people out of poverty and homelessness need your support. Do what you can for who you can when you can. That is the American way.