My husband I were on a short get-away last month when I received a text message from my closest friend.
“Rob just left my apartment. We need to talk.”
When I called my friend back, I learned our mutual friend Rob, whom I have known for the majority of my life and who stood up for me at my wedding party when I married in 2017, has just become homeless. He walked over to our mutual friend’s apartment which is the size of a postage stamp, explained his situation and asked if he could stay with him. After over 20 years in the same apartment, the sheriff arrived that same day my friend texted me and within hours Rob’s entire life was in storage and he was on the street.
Although I have spoken to Rob on the phone, I still wake up every single day from my comfortable bed in my modest home, wondering where he slept the night before and if he truly is safe.
He is 61 years old.
Today is May 8, 2023 and on May 11, 2023 Title 42 ends. Title 42 refers to an emergency law passed in 1944. It allows federal health authorities to prohibit migrants from entering the country to prevent the spread of contagious diseases.
The circumstances surrounding immigrants regarding the invocation of Title 42 during the Covid 19 pandemic were cruel and frightening. Some were stranded in dangerous countries, or forced to endure abhorrent inhumane living conditions and some were targeted simply for the crime of being from another country, thus thrown into prisons and seemingly forgotten.
The circumstances surrounding Americans who find themselves facing a cruel and unforgiving system are equally perilous.
Perhaps like Rob, their careers abandoned them years ago and they simply could not find meaningful employment to finance their rents or even their basic needs, to live.
For instance Cathy woke up one morning and found her 52 year old long term partner had stopped breathing. Hours later the EMT pronounced he was dead. At the time of his death they were renting an apartment together and he took care of the rent and finances. Without him, she found herself evicted and for the last four years she has battled homelessness, starvation, deep anguish at losing her partner, his family harassing her endlessly and the constant stress of following chaotic orders of a bureaucratic system that keeps leading her along, promising her an affordable rental in Section 8 housing yet never producing the voucher she needs. Some days she couch surfs then other days finds herself sleeping in her car. Most days she is without hope.
Story after story pours into my inbox and scatters across my social media feed of very specific circumstances where people, even grandparent-aged people, are humiliated into being unhoused.
These stories were at one point over there, faceless and nameless. We would read, disconnected, the latest NY Times statistic of the rise of the unhoused or the jobless. They were numbers and graphs and charts or occasionally they were a trending social media post that found itself on our news feed. But now these stories are within our daily midst. They are our friends, our brothers, our sisters and mothers.
They are Rob and Cathy.
So, now is not the time to blame these individuals for the circumstances they find themselves in. Generations past enjoyed salaries that could easily pay for a nice affordable home to raise children, send those children to college and pay for family vacations. There were pensions waiting for them when they retired. There was steady work. That golden age doesn’t exist anymore and hasn’t existed for decades.
Although the surge of the immigrant population might feel like it’s increasing, it’s not. With Title 42 ending on May 11, 2023 the immigration policy will go back to the way it’s always been run. But, to some Americans, it feels like it’s worse than ever especially when the media assaults our screens with photos of long, long lines of immigrants waiting to cross the border.
What those Americans are actually feeling is rising rents, rising home costs and rising inflation in general. It costs more money to just live now and that is not the fault of immigration policy, it’s the fault of a system that is resetting itself financially and within that reset comes austerity.
It’s why a younger, divorced father must move in with his mother in order to be able to afford his child support. With rising rents he cannot pay his rent and his child support on his salary. It’s why an elderly mother must move in with her elderly sister so she doesn’t face the rest of her life on the street. It’s why so many men who once enjoyed lucrative careers find themselves staring, stunned, at empty bank accounts, defaulted mortgages, feebly attempting to cobble together a diverse income stream so they can afford a rental with roommates. It’s why couples with children are leaving cities in droves, driven out by joblessness, the high cost of rent contributing to the decay and de-valuation of urban life and instead turn to neighborhoods of poverty that are affordable; or choosing to simply move in with family until they can figure out their next move.
The Unknown is probably the greatest contributor to stress and repeated trauma in the lives of The Unhoused. They become The Forgotten or The Throwaways. The stigma of being unhoused is unshakeable and no one looks at them the same. Some fall into drug addiction and find themselves wrapped in dysfunctional relationships that provide a false sense of acceptance. But outwardly they display what’s missing in their lives: authentic loving kindness, patience and care.
Without these things in a person’s life, a life becomes demoralized and an individual becomes inhuman, a shell of their human selves. Once, they walked with pride and dignity but now they are reduced to the status of a trauma victim, incapable of even describing what’s happened to them. Their voice is quieted, their words are scattered and depending on the level of human interaction in their lives they become incomprehensible to the outside world.
Like those who have experienced shock, they’ve lost the capacity to speak. They can’t find the right words to express their own needs. They have become mute in a world that only wishes for them to remain silent, invisible and forgotten.
Recently it was announced Gabrielle Lurie and Stephen Lam of the San Francisco Chronicle were being considered for a Pulitzer Prize for their painstaking documentation of fentanyl addiction in the city that led officials to create supervised drug consumption locations and voters to approve an oversight commission for the homeless hotels where 40% of overdoses occur.
Although it is good that they took the time to document these atrocities and the galling failure of City officials to address the unhoused addict’s plight, these stories exist to once again distort the truth.
The benefits of keeping addicts homeless and keeping them chained to wrap-around services and even keeping them addicted are too lucrative to institutions, causes and programs that depend on funding streams to keep people with sociology degrees, for instance, employed in these arenas.
For example, many who live in neighborhoods where the unhoused addicts occupy public spaces will tell you a new experimental treatment called “harm reduction” is actually contributing to rising addiction.
These intentional practices and public health policies designed to lessen the negative social and/or physical consequences associated with various human behaviors, both legal and illegal are not the definition of patience, loving kindness and acceptance. These harm reduction practices are not interested in human life and dignity. The practices exist solely to keep people addicted and demoralized.
Individuals who are deeply concerned and troubled by the degrading and demoralizing state of the unhoused and addicts, bettersoma and jj smith, feed and be-friend the very people that need it most. These two lead with empathy and authentic kindness and through their cell phones and Twitter pages have been able to humanize those who most of society would prefer to be disappeared, wiped away from our streets and labeled as criminals for the crime of being abandoned by a culture where empathy has been carefully and purposefully removed from the zeitgeist of our lives.
BetterSoma and JJSmith give these individuals names: Stephen and Jessica. They humanize Stephen for instance. Despite being unhoused and struggling with his fentanyl addiction and lapsing in and out of consciousness, Stephen is also very animated and funny and loves to mug for the camera.
Carl has a close relationship with his mother. At one point in his life, about 12 years ago, Carl found himself homeless. He also couldn’t find it in himself to burden his family or his mother, so he chose to enter into the shelter system. He methodically completed all the paperwork and waited it out. He didn’t want to worry his mother so he stayed as healthy as he could, staying off drugs and signing up for Food Stamps so he could feed himself. Because Carl’s mother treats him with loving kindness, patience and acceptance and dignity, Carl was able to weather this low point in his life, always knowing he had the love and support of his mother to carry with him. Now, all these years later Carl runs a small, modest service business, has his own apartment in a nice neighborhood and lives a comfortable life, satisfied.
I am convinced if Carl didn’t have such a close relationship with his mother his circumstances would have turned out very very differently.
Never underestimate the value of dignifying another human being’s existence by showing authentic loving kindness, empathy and care. Most of the time these individuals don’t even want food or money.
What these people want, really, is someone to talk to, to hear them and to encourage them and to say true things to them.
To follow and support: http://www.book-of-ours.com/linktree/