The Harsh Reality of Homelessness
Worry became my new mindset. Sleeplessness became normal. I had to protect and provide for 4 small children in a situation that soon became a trap.
It was late summer, 2009, I could hardly believe what was happening. It changed my world so quickly, I didn’t see it coming. Homeless. Simultaneously facing job loss and my lease not being renewed, I was scurrying for housing and employment at the same time, it left me in shock.
Like most Americans, I had assumed the myriad of charities and agencies would be there to help. This couldn’t be further from the truth. I soon learned that faith-based charities required you to attend church and addiction counseling in order to receive housing assistance. And non-religious charities were unable to help due to lack of funding.
Suddenly I was living in a tent at a campground for $10 a night, with my 4 small children. I struggled to plaster on a smile and attempt to convince my oldest daughter that we were “on vacation”, even at age 6 she could see right through the lie. How would I convince the campground manager?
I learned within a week that we were not alone. There were 3 other families pretending to be “on vacation” as well. One even had to commute 15 miles twice a day to keep their kids in school. They had been there 4 months.
Worry became my new mindset. Sleeplessness became normal. I had to protect and provide for 4 small children in a situation that soon became a trap. My choices were to violate my conscience and place my children into Sunday school classes which would teach them things that I did not believe in while being asked to take addiction classes. I had never had any addictions stronger than coffee, but that didn’t matter to them.
This proved harder than I’d ever thought possible. $10 a night meant $300 a month. And the campground was far from town. This meant more money to drive to grocery stores and job interviews. Trips were frequent due to lack of refrigeration. A huge portion of our food stamps went to buying ice for the ice chest. Cooking over a fire was easy enough, but gathering enough wood to cook, clean and wash clothes was time-consuming. I soon saw that this was a money pit. How could I maintain AND pull us out at the same time?
The truth is, I couldn’t. What happened for us was a former client called out of the blue and she happened to manage an apartment complex and allowed us to live rent-free for 2 months, which was all I needed to get back on my feet.
What this experience taught me was that our nation has a big problem when people can be out on the streets and nearly destitute so quickly. There truly are a lot of charities that take donations and offer “help” and they do great work in some cases. But what I saw firsthand is that there are very few who will offer assistance and allow you to keep your personal integrity and dignity. No one should be forcefully separated from their children to take an 8-week course on “overcoming addiction” when they have never even tried drugs. No one who is nonreligious or of a different faith should be forced to attend a religious service that they disagree with in order to have a roof over their babies heads. Ethical assistance of the homeless population should always seek to preserve the dignity and autonomy of those receiving assistance.
Thankfully, I am not the only one who has seen this problem. In 2014 a nonprofit organization was founded to meet the exact types of needs my family faced 5 years before. ShelterstoShutters.org provides job training and placement as well as apartments to people just like us, and they currently boast a 93% success rate of participants not re-entering homelessness services. That is definitely great news to people looking for a hand up instead of a hand out.
| Written by Tricia Elliott
Nation Alliance to End Homelessness