There have been several items in both local and national news lately regarding homeless people who stay homeless because “it is their choice.” Choice is many things to many people….telling a child they can either eat their brussel sprouts or their boiled okra is giving them a choice, but what kind of choice is it? Being told you can either take your younger brother with you on your date with the cutest person ever or you can stay home, is being given a choice, but who wants to make that kind of choice? Being homeless “by choice” is a far more complicated and life altering decision than choosing one stinky green thing over another stinky green thing, but unless you have experienced the need to make that choice, how do you possibly understand? One of my first “aha moments” came just a few months into taking this position at One Roof. January 2004 was the first Point in Time survey I experienced, and it truly was a learning experience.
What is Point in Time? Think mini-census when just people who are homeless are being counted. One Roof staff (in 2004 that was me, and only me) plus many, many community volunteers blanket soup kitchens, shelters, downtown streets, camps in the woods and abandoned buildings in an attempt to speak briefly with every single homeless person in our three-county coverage area (Jefferson, Shelby and St. Clair Counties). That group of passionate volunteers works with a pre-printed list of questions regarding age, gender, race and things like how long a person has been homeless. This is a monumental undertaking considering the geographic coverage area, misperceptions about people experiencing homelessness, the reluctance of some homeless people to interact with the general public, and the number of people homeless in our area on any given night. In 2004, that number (just in case you are interested) was more than 2,500. In January 2012, that number was just slightly more than 1,700. So we really are making progress on housing people, it is just a lengthy, complicated process.
But you started reading because you wanted to know why someone would choose to be homeless…I’d like to share what I learned that cold, damp (pretty yucky, actually), day in January 2004. I was in one of our beautiful City parks with my survey, a little bit nervous because I didn’t want to offend anyone by incorrectly assuming they were homeless, and I tentatively spoke to a man with several layers of clothing and a dirty backpack. He confirmed that he was indeed homeless when I asked for a moment of his time. He politely answered all of the basic questions that were on my sheet, and then I asked him if there was something that kept him homeless. Even though I was new to the community of people working to end homelessness, I at least understood that mental illness and substance abuse are two big challenges in our area, but he denied having either of those disabilities. He told me that he had severe sickle cell anemia. The weather was bad and only going to get worse, so shouldn’t he go to a shelter immediately? I asked.
This very patient man took the time to explain to me that when he stayed in one of our shelters, even though workers always tried to do their best for him, he would end up hospitalized with a sickle cell crisis each time. Emergency shelters are congregate living facilities (think about all the pictures you’ve ever seen of army barracks), and any germ spreads like wildfire, and no matter how much he tried to keep away from other men, the living space was just too tight. He calmly told me that he chose to stay on the street and take his chances against the weather rather than go into a shelter and fight the germs he knew were there.
What a choice…bed down outside in Alabama’s January weather and stay out of the hospital, or go into a place for a hot shower and a soft bed and end up hospitalized with debilitating pain, the need for blood transfusions, and the possibility of losing your life.
We need your help for this year’s Point in Time survey. Our community needs to learn what changes have taken place in our homeless population since last year. What would you like to learn?
Please contact Stacy Oliver to learn more about Point in Time and to get scheduled for training. We need your help! volunteer@OneRoofOnline.org or 205.254.8833. To find out more or to register online, please visit this page.
On behalf of the One Roof team, we’d like to wish you a happy holiday season. We hope we can count on seeing you in the new year!