07/21/2011 06:13 pm ET Updated Sep 20, 2011

Homelessness Close to Home

Homeless people scare us. They remind us of our own vulnerability. We avoid eye contact as they ask for money, as if simply gazing upon them could infect us with whatever disease put them on the street. Homeless people, we think, have given up on life. We wonder whether we could give up, what our breaking point might b. Life is unfair and hard and sometimes flat-out brutal, but we all try to carry on and somehow keep a roof over our heads and everything turned on.

For years now we've been asking how and why this country has so many homeless citizens. Are they all drug addicts, or mentally ill? Did they slip through the cracks in a callous, uncaring society? One thing is certain: there are homeless people who are where they are due to no fault of their own; they are called children. As for how adults become homeless, I can only go by personal experience.

In the past year someone very close to me has become homeless. To protect his identity I will call him "Joe." Joe is an alcoholic, just like both his parents and his brother. Joe is 49 years old and in recent years has been unable to keep a job. He has been arrested multiple times for DUI, shoplifting and spousal abuse. Joe had been living with his ex-wife for the past five years, which is far from an ideal arrangement, but she took pity on him based on his I-have-nowhere-else-to-go argument. Joe had a point. Moving in with his mother was no longer an option after Joe took her debit card and went on a spending spree. Robbing his mother would prove to be a costly choice for Joe; she was one of the last people in his corner. But after years of being slowly bled dry of her cook's salary, not to mention constant verbal abuse and sometimes even physical abuse, Joe's mother had had enough.

Joe likes to shoplift bottles of wine from grocery stores. Then he chugs the wine while hiding from his family. Joe's ex-wife's house and yard are littered with empty bottles. They are everywhere: his 9-year-old daughter's closet, the laundry room, the carport, the bushes, you name it.

Sometimes Joe gets drunk and slaps his kids around. Finally, Joe's ex-wife got fed up enough to take him to a homeless shelter last Christmas Eve and say goodbye. Joe still breaks into her house whenever he wants, eats whatever he wants, takes a shower and uses the phone while she is at work. With Joe, it's all about what he wants and when he wants it.

It makes you think about your own life. Let's say the goodies hit the fan: you lose your job, have a car accident, are hit with crushing medical bills, lose your house. I'll bet most people have at least half a dozen people who would let them stay with them (in the garage or basement, on a futon or couch, whatever) at least for a while -- friends, family, in-laws. They might not like it, but they would do it. But if, while they were interrupting their lives to help you out, you got drunk every night, stole things, lied and sexually harassed their daughter, pretty soon they would ask you to leave.

One very positive thing about homeless shelters is that if a person wants to get sober and turn their life around, they generally bend over backwards to help the addict do just that. But if you're like Joe and you have absolutely no desire to even attempt to quit drinking, then they, too, run out of patience.

Joe did not slip through any cracks. Joe wore out, used up and abused every meaningful relationship in his life, over years, while everyone he knew implored him to clean himself up, to be a father, to be a man. Joe's kids (9 and 12) have never known a reliable, sober father. They never will. Saddest of all, addictive patterns tend to be handed down from one generation to the next. So I guess Joe did give them something.