Lessons of the street
Lourdes was 69 years old when I first met her in 2012. She was living next to a bus stop on a busy four-lane street in front of a Silver Lake supermarket. Lourdes had claimed the spot three years earlier, after she was rousted from her encampment in Griffith Park. Before that, she’d lived in her 1973 Toyota, but it was eventually impounded because of overdue parking tickets.
Lourdes was one of the folks we call “chronically homeless.” She’d been surviving on the city’s margins for 20 years after losing her low-cost housing because of gentrification. When she couldn’t find another affordable place to live indoors, she found another way to survive, making do with disability benefits as she struggled on the streets with scoliosis, arthritis and hearing loss.
But just because she didn’t have a lot doesn’t mean she didn’t cost a lot. She cost us taxpayers a heap of money, as she circulated in and out of psych wards and jails. Mind you, Lourdes never sought these services. Her crime was to live in public places, and this was our response.
Before I met her, Lourdes had been approached by several outreach teams offering food, warm clothes and temporary shelter. But in exchange they asked her for a lot of personal information, which she was unwilling to share. Besides, she had one goal — to have a permanent home of her own. No one was offering that. But then one day I took her a housing subsidy voucher application with her name on it, and we had something to start with.
Lourdes began her journey home slowly and cautiously, often overcome by fear and distrust. It took daily visits for three weeks for Lourdes to trust me enough to provide the information required for the application. Applying for an identity card at the DMV involved a whole day of anxiety and panic. Getting six months of bank statements, a Social Security card, and SSI income verification swallowed up another week’s efforts.
Each day began with my making new reassurances that if Lourdes got in the car with me, I wouldn’t take her to a mental hospital. This level of fear and distrust does not emanate from some genetic pathology. It comes from years of being marginalized, excluded, exposed and traumatized. It comes from living one’s life in such a public way, and yet being isolated and invisible. Our journey could only succeed if we, together, could dismantle the years of trauma and build an enduring relationship — a bridge back to a genuine place in the community.
We ultimately succeeded. Lourdes now lives in a senior citizen community. She’s a proud American who has a home, privacy and new family.
You can see from this one, small tale that the often-repeated goal of “ending homelessness” is far more complicated than those two words convey. And we’ll never get there without understanding the roots of the crisis, which include economic recession, the draining of resources caused by wars (as well as the damaged veterans wars produce), the deinstitutionalization of people with serious mental illness in the 1960s and the failure since then to provide adequate community-based mental health services, urban gentrification with its resulting loss of affordable housing, an influx of immigrants forced to live on society’s margins, the ready availability of cheap and damaging drugs and our continuing failure to adequately address such issues as racial tensions, gangs and domestic violence.
In cities across the nation, groups and individuals have tried to solve homelessness with heroic rescue operations — shelters in church basements, food banks, drop-in centers and soup kitchens. And governments have gotten involved, too, with a focus on building and operating affordable housing. But for all the effort and money and good intentions, we’ve barely made a dent in the number of homeless Americans.
Why? Because we have yet to address the entrenched systems that are hurling people to the margins without an adequate safety net. Yes, with patience, financial resources and a long-term commitment of time and energy, we were able to get Lourdes off the street and into the home she so wanted. But a far more humane, effective — and cheaper — strategy would be to prevent people like Lourdes from winding up homeless in the first place.
As long as we focus on individual pathologies and solutions, we won’t touch the problem. In recent years, the nation’s priorities have included funding wars in Africa and the Middle East. We’ve pursued a costly and ineffective “war on drugs” and poured resources into sustaining an economic system that rewards the rich and corporations while penalizing people living in poverty. We’ve built ever more prisons to house people who are mentally ill or drug abusers. But we haven’t looked at how to keep those on society’s lowest economic rung from losing their footing and falling into homelessness.
As the country’s costly wars in the Middle East wind down, perhaps we can finally focus on some of their victims — homeless veterans and those they share the sidewalks with. Keeping people from ending up on the streets in the first place is the only way we can finally end this immoral, unjust, violation of human rights that we call homelessness.
Longtime homeless advocate Mollie Lowery is the development director for Housing Works.
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