Homelessness is a societal tragedy, and in that sense it is like a fire, earthquake or flood. But it’s different, too. It’s a crisis that unfolds in slow motion.
Homelessness is also a crisis that we perceive in very personal terms — we see the person sleeping on the corner near our office, panhandling by our grocery store or pushing their cart through our neighborhood. That person has a face, which we know represents thousands more. Seeing a person who has hit rock bottom elicits feelings and emotions we don’t know how to untangle. Compassion. Anger. Pity. Not knowing what to do or how to truly help, we make simple gestures, like a dollar here, a sandwich there. Maybe a coat in the winter.
Largely though, we unknowingly create narratives that help us separate us from them: They’re drug addicts; they have mental health issues; they want to be homeless; they’re not from here. We rationalize our inaction: I can’t truly help those people; it’s not my responsibility; trying to help isn’t safe.
These personal narratives have power because they have some foundation in reality. Many people experiencing homelessness do struggle with mental illness and substance abuse disorders. Some people do have personal histories that make them suspicious of help. Some people are not Sacramento natives. All of this is true, but it’s not the whole story. Far from it. Every path into homelessness is unique, and every person experiencing homelessness has a different story, but there is a common scenario:
Someone is housed, but living paycheck to paycheck. A life event stretches them beyond their financial means — whether that be a job loss, health problems, their car breaks down. They are unable to pay rent and eventually evicted. They move in with family or friends, those relationships soon straining under the weight of abject poverty. They are forced to move on.
After exhausting every spare room and couch they know, they call their car home. Without an address, shower, toilet, washing machine or a good night’s sleep, they spiral further. Any mental health or substance abuse issues they had previously managed, spiral as well. Alcohol and drugs are used to self-medicate for the stress of life on the street and its accompanying trauma.
Soon, these individuals are living in a tent. Dirty. Disheveled. Dehumanized. Your stereotypical image of homelessness.
Nobody wants to be homeless, but we as a community do not have the capacity to respond en mass, despite tremendous efforts by local governments, the Sacramento Homeless Continuum of Care, homeless service providers, churches and houses of worship, and local business groups. We simply lack sufficient affordable housing and shelter space. On any given night in Sacramento County, even in the coldest months, thousands of people sleep on the street. My organization, Sacramento Steps Forward, counted 3,665 people experiencing homelessness in 2017 and expect an even higher number when we repeat the count this month. They want to come inside to get warm. They want respite from a cruel and unusual existence, but they have nowhere to go. Our shelters are full and universal local opposition prohibits shelter expansion.
Housing deficiencies are vast, as well. According to an April 2018 Sacramento Housing Alliance report, Sacramento County needs 58,552 more affordable rental homes to meet current demand. Following the destruction of the 2017 Tubbs Fire and 2018 Camp Fire, that need has only grown as middle-class families have migrated and construction costs have skyrocketed. Of course, the biggest obstacle continues to be local opposition by caring groups of people who recommend building new shelter “over there.” But there is no “over there.” The crisis of homelessness is a local one, which means we need local solutions in our own neighborhoods. We need both more affordable housing and available shelter.
Seventy percent of people experiencing homelessness are from the community in which we meet them. Another 15 percent are from the local region. Only 15 percent come from outside the region. They’re our neighbors. They’re the kid that grew up down the street. They’re families, veterans, seniors, youth and other individuals in need.
But there are answers. First, when you see a person experiencing homelessness, think of them as a neighbor in need; a person worthy of our best efforts. Second, act on your compassion by supporting the expansion of housing and shelter in your neighborhood. Engage with proponents to understand the uniqueness of each program and talk about how to address the concerns of your community. Look for reasonable compromises and win-win solutions.
Last, get involved. Offer your time, sweat or money to nonprofit organizations on the frontlines of this humanitarian crisis. Nonprofits understand the local need and provide an organized and effective response. If you want to feed the hungry, donate to a food bank. If you own or manage rental housing, partner with a homeless housing agency. If you belong to a church or house of worship, sign up to host the Winter Sanctuary shelter program for a couple nights. If you want to see the crisis up close and help us quantify the need, volunteer for the Homeless Point-in-Time Count on the evenings of Jan. 30 and 31.
Homelessness is a crisis and a tragedy that has hit our community hard. But like any great disaster, we can respond. We can ease the suffering of so many through acts of compassion and compromise.