On Thursday volunteers and local government employees fanned out across Thurston County for the annual “point in time” count of people who are homeless. It’s a task that’s challenging, important and never quite complete. No matter how hard they try, census-takers can’t find every tent camp hidden in the woods, every family living in their car, or every person who sleeps under a bridge or in a backyard toolshed.
Census takers also can’t be sure why the people they’re counting are homeless. When asked, homeless people cite job loss, eviction and family strife (including domestic violence) as the top reasons. Next in line come mental illness, physical illness, addiction and other disabilities.
In truth there is a much larger menu of reasons for homelessness.
Rising income inequality coupled with a severe housing shortage is pushing more low-wage workers and people with disabilities onto the street. According the the Thurston Regional Planning Council, rents in Thurston County are now, on average, higher than those in Pierce County. And rental housing that minimum wage workers can afford is as scarce as hens’ teeth.
Mass de-institutionalization of people with mental illness was supposed to be followed with the creation of a robust community-based mental health system in the 1970s and ‘80s. That system is only now under construction.
Addiction treatment is only slowly improving in availability and effectiveness, while opioids and rising anxiety make more people succumb to this chronic brain disease. Researchers are making strides in understanding how addiction works, but right now addiction treatment is not nearly as effective as the treatments for many other chronic diseases.
Washington state Department of Health data show that our county has a higher-than-average rate of people who’ve had multiple Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACES. These include physical and sexual abuse, domestic violence, being raised by someone who is mentally ill and/or addicted, and having a parent or other family member in jail or prison. And although ACES data doesn’t include death of parents and other family members, it ought to. ACES data also doesn’t include chronic neglect, or multiple unsuccessful foster care placements.
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Experiencing multiple ACES is known to increase the lifetime risks of heart disease, depression, alcohol and drug abuse, and suicide, to name just some of the “bad outcomes.” Homelessness is clearly one of those bad outcomes.
Those who have worked with homeless people can attest that most are staggering under a heavy load of trauma and sorrow. The idea that “anything that does not kill you makes you stronger” is cruelly wrong. Sometimes things that don’t kill you crush your spirit and rob you of all hope.
The point of all this is that most homeless adults – the ones you’re most likely to see on a street corner or in a campsite downtown – have had radically different lives than most of us. Many grew up in poverty and chaos. Some lived in more foster families than they can count. Others grew up in affluent but deeply dysfunctional circumstances. Others are LGBTQ, reviled and rejected by their families and communities. Some had a fragile hold on normalcy, but lost a job, an apartment, or a partner and just can’t quite get their life back in order.
Every human being has a unique story. Yet too many think of people who are homeless as a homogenous mass of failure and moral shortcomings. This point of view is itself a major obstacle to solving the problem.
Homelessness is the collision of personal misfortune and economic and political forces that are far beyond any one person’s control. The challenge is to address both the individual misfortune and the larger structural problems that leave people without affordable housing, adequate income, and effective mental health and addiction treatment.
That is the work of a lifetime. But the first step forward is simple: It is to understand that “homeless” is a circumstance people find themselves in, not a category of people. And it is to recognize that together, we can help change those circumstances.