I have bounced around the country for the past fifteen years in a homeless state of mind and body.
Although I have slept outdoors most of those years, I have also stayed in many shelters. I have observed firsthand the many trials and errors a homeless man goes through to regain his place in society.
I ask the reader to understand that the reflections that follow are based on my own personal perspective of being homeless, sober, drug free, but somewhat mentally impaired. Based on my experience, I believe there are three major stumbling blocks that limit a homeless man’s chances of success.
Major Stumbling Block #1: Lack of Logistical Support
In my experience I have learned that some of the most basic services are the ones that are most important. Although they have good intentions, invariably, there are breakdowns between a shelter staff’s attempts to steer a client to support groups, employment opportunities, and medical assistance and the client actually being able to access these services.
Lack of transportation is a major stumbling block for a person who is homeless. Shelter staff and counselors may have expertise for knowing the proper support or agency to refer a client to. But they may not realize, or ignore the fact that a client does not have any means of transportation. Without transportation, it is very hard to keep appointments.
If a man asks if the shelter can provide bus passes, he may be sent to another agency that might offer transportation assistance. But even if he is able to make it to one of these agencies in time, he will often learn that they are out of bus passes or tokens. In the summer – if he is physically able - walking to a support groups or an employment interview is feasible. But, in the winter, especially in the Northeast, it is very difficult.
Appearances – all-important in American society – are another challenge for a homeless man. In the shelters I have resided in, I have never seen any of my homeless peers given an allocation for a haircut, shoes, or a voucher for a decent suit.
I also respectfully submit that the small gestures matter. Notwithstanding the fact that a shelter offers food and shelter from the weather and the mean streets, it would mean so much more for a man’s spirit if there were a few more smiles and handshakes.
Major Stumbling Block #2: Police Harassment and Lack of Societal Acceptance
I have had the experience of walking down so many streets, in so many towns, sometimes allowing myself the small hope that it could finally be the place I could settle down. Then, a police cruiser will pass by and noticeably slow down. It gives me a fearful sensation and I feel degraded. Any budding optimism I may have had is quickly erased, especially if the police cruiser does the same thing ten minutes later.
On the other hand, there have been those great moments when I’ve been trudging through a bad section of town with all of my belongings on my back and I become aware of a police car crossing my path more than once. In these cases – and it has happened to me in Pittsburgh, PA and Manchester, NH—I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that the police were looking out for my well-being.
I realize that there is little that can be done to change the opinions of Americans towards people who are homeless. There are many well-meaning people who offer moral and financial support to people who are homeless, especially women and children. However, by and large, men who are homeless are often seen as "freeloaders,” “shiftless,” “entitlement-seekers,” “drunks,” or “drug addicts” by mainstream American society. There are no excuses given for homeless men who might have shoplifted for food, trespassed, or are mentally off balance.
The tragic aspect of these attitudes is that it may simply reinforce the nascent despair felt by a man experiencing homelessness. He may become habituated into becoming the type of person that society already deems him to be!
May the reader please know - in all of my travels and in all of the shelters I have resided in - most of the homeless men I have met are sincere gentlemen who were valiantly trying to better their position in society.
Major Stumbling Block #3: A Lack of "Follow Through" in Housing Placements
In my experience, there does not seem to be a cohesive or realistic approach to finding and/or helping a homeless man to maintain a room or apartment of respectability and safety. I am not sure if it is due to a lack of funding, resistance from landlords, or a man’s own bad habits. This is an aspect of the homeless situation that I have only recently become involved in. I may not have the same depth of experience that I have in other areas of the situation of a homeless person. However, from my personal experience of being placed in an apartment, I can say that there are issues and personalities that come into play that are beyond my present understanding.
I would like to emphasize that if a homeless man does not have a stable and safe home that works for him, all of the help given to him from well meaning counselors and staff will just become “words written on the wind." Even if all of the conditions I mention are met—transportation, haircuts, shoes, decreased police harassment, improved societal acceptance—without housing, a man is left "whistling in the dark."
I would like to thank the readers who have taken the time to read my thoughts. I offer special thanks to the staff of the emergency shelter in Appleton, Wisconsin who have made it possible for me to raise my head long enough to write this essay.
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