It was not unusual for me to walk around on my bare feet — trudging through fields, chasing goats and cows and playing with sticks and rocks as toys. I lived the quintessential life of a child in abject poverty. I moved to the United States and learned for the first time that my family was “poor.” I wondered why I had to wear FILAS and shop at Payless while others could afford the more expensive options. I slowly started to resent my humble beginnings — purposely ridding myself of my language (and accent) and pushing my experiences with poverty to the side.
I watched my father work two, sometimes three, jobs to pay bills and buy me and my siblings anything we desired. I was sheltered from the reality of his struggle that he would later share as I became an adult. It wasn’t until I graduated from college and took my first job in downtown Boston that my perspective on poverty was shaken to its core.
For years I walked as a teen through the city streets and never noticed — that is, acknowledged the presence of — the men, women and at times children crouched in corners, huddled on benches and sleeping on cardboard. How ironic that I had experienced poverty in a Third World country, but now wore blinders to the plight of those struggling around me. In what I now know was an attempt to remedy my ignorance to the plight of poor people, I eventually took a position as a fundraiser for a nonprofit public policy agency in Boston. The organization’s goal is to better understand and eventually resolve the issue of chronic homelessness in Massachusetts.
According to the National Alliance to end homelessness, “people who are chronically homeless have experienced homelessness for at least a year — or repeatedly — while struggling with a disabling condition such as a serious mental illness, substance use disorder, or physical disability.”
Working for a public policy agency meant I had statistics about the issue of homelessness readily available. For instance, I learned that those who are considered chronically homeless cost the state millions of dollars each year.
Some homeless individuals who take up prolonged residence on the streets and in shelters often lack the resources to secure a primary care doctor, so their only trips to the doctor is in the form of emergency room visits. These costs are eventually covered by the state. I also learned that middle-aged white men make up the lion’s share of chronically homeless individuals in the United States.
However, when the homeless population is examined at-large, the demographics shift tremendously. Black men and women are more likely to be homeless than any other demographic in the United States.
What this says to me is, no one is exempt from struggle. Contrary to what I believed before I worked for the public policy agency, there is no one face of homelessness.
Since there is no one face of homelessness, the solution to resolve the issue must be multipronged. One barrier to individuals experiencing homelessness transitioning to permanent housing is traditional housing programs.
These models insist there is only one way for individuals to receive housing — with an apartment held as a reward for good behavior. I am saddened when I think that there are functioning addicts living in luxurious penthouses, but those who are poor battling addictions are at times vilified and ostracized.
In my opinion, a landlord is mostly concerned about tenants paying rent on time and not destroying the apartment unit. If someone can be a good tenant, they should be able to have their own place to live. However, within this traditional model, homeless individuals are treated as children needing direction and correction, and in some cases like criminals who need to show they are worthy of having a home.
A much more effective and sustainable model is the Housing First model that focuses on the stabilizing effect of housing. I have met people who were addicts while living on the streets, but because of the stability of having a home with supportive services, they were able to stay away from bad influences, attend the appropriate meetings, get therapy, gain employment and get their GED. These stories are plentiful. Housing is the answer to homelessness — go figure.
This brings me to another barrier to housing those experiencing homelessness face — affordable housing prices in Massachusetts. There are audible screams coming from cities and neighborhoods across the state, Lynn being one of them, about the rising costs of housing. Individuals and families experiencing homelessness are feeling the squeeze of rising housing costs like everyone else. In my current position working for a nonprofit in Lynn, focused on assisting and empowering individuals and families experiencing homelessness, I have received phone calls from desperate families who are about to be evicted. I have heard stories of those forced to live in their cars. A child attending school each day, returning to an infested motel room that he shares with his parents and five siblings.
I interviewed a woman who at one point owned her own home, a business and lived with her husband and children until the recession hit and her family separated after losing their house. She lived in our emergency shelter for years until through a lottery she received an opportunity to have a home again. There are more poor people than there are affordable housing units. We have seen across the country, in San Francisco for example, that these issues can gravely impact our most vulnerable neighbors.
So, what is the solution? How do we better transition people from homelessness into permanent housing? There is no single, best answer. However, we could start by treating emergency services as emergency services — emergency shelters should never be a permanent home for anyone. As a state, we must continue to identify and house chronically homeless individuals. We have seen that through targeting this population, the state saves a significant amount of money. With the money saved, we should be willing to invest in affordable housing units — not just as throw away units in the basement of a luxury apartment building, but specially made units that serve those who are trying to get back on their feet.
One of the most important lessons I have learned since I began working with and for this population — is that most people who are currently experiencing homelessness simply want an opportunity to get back on their feet. Most of them are not interested in our hand-outs. They want fair paying jobs, affordable housing options and opportunities for their children to succeed. They are our neighbors, our friends, family members and with a few bad decisions or just plain bad luck, I realized it could be me, too.
During the day, Carrolee Moore works with the homeless population of Lynn and the surrounding areas as a fundraiser. She is also a published poet, a licensed preacher and a professional graphic design consultant. A modern-day Jill-of-all-trades.