For those trying to understand homelessness

An experienced advocate responds to "How did these women get this way?"

The headline, "How did these women get this way?," (IT Sept. 2) evoked my cu riosity (as an author of multiple books on homelessness) about both this book, The Least Among Us, by James Traveler, and what Len Naumovich, the reviewer, thought. As an Illinois woman with a long history in advocacy and providing services for adults and children experiencing homelessness, familiar with Springfield homelessness, I came away with several thoughts. 

Naumovich's remarks underscore the challenge those of us in the advocacy world face: sticking up for a much maligned population who seldom garner compassion, for whom the misconceptions about their circumstances ratchets up society's dismissal, if not outright contempt, while grappling with scarce resources (to say the least). He, at least, didn't express contempt. 

I'll offer a few areas that typically don't get considered when trying to figure out the causes, systemically and personally, of homelessness. These are issues I've grappled with in my 35 years of working in this world of homelessness. 

"Choice" is a biggie. Even those living on the streets will blame their plight on their "bad choices." True, on the surface, but stopping at that point does a terrible disservice. Nothing is simple when it comes to homelessness, but a few benchmarks apply.

Probably every person on the streets, and most of the rest of us, have experienced some levels of trauma. While mental health professionals have somewhat paid attention to the role of trauma as it impacts our ability to function, its connection to homelessness has only recently begun to enter the mainstream.

When a person "chooses" to drink, drug or other harmful practices, are they really choosing? I'd say no.

To survive trauma, a person decides to escape, often self-medicating, typically with alcohol and/or drugs. Other addictive behaviors may emerge – overworking, sex, shopping, gambling, self-mutilation, etc. These behaviors become especially problematic when one loses their place to live and has no walls to hide behind.

Those saddled with addictive behaviors or irrational thought processes likely endured significant trauma-inducing events from birth through adulthood. Even multi-generational trauma has been found to impact unknowing women and men. Traumatic behaviors, unaddressed, often lead to losing one's address, i.e., homelessness. Another less visible cause is traumatic brain injury. While the topic of trauma bears much more attention than I can give in this space, check out the Centers for Disease Control's info on the role of trauma in physical and mental health.

I'm glad Naumovich took the time to speak with James Traveler, the author. Traveler's allowing each woman to tell their story, in their timeline and language, is respectful. It also can confuse readers unfamiliar with life on the streets.

If you ask a woman why they did something, for example repeatedly got drunk and passed out on the streets, which resulted in physical and mental harm, she might reply, "I needed to escape." That response could easily be misinterpreted, and lead to judgmental thoughts by the unknowing observer.

Very little substantive help is available from social services agencies to give a woman a chance to deal with trauma and housing loss. We've made it almost impossible for a woman to access housing if she's had an eviction, or her credit is bad, much less if she lacks adequate income. Even getting essential health care – physical or mental – is nigh unto impossible. Getting a job without a permanent address, forget it. Family bridges may have been irreparably burnt.

Especially in COVID-caused turmoil, those in social services have found themselves and their agencies beset by unfathomable challenges. Whatever may have worked before – well-intentioned outreach, congregate shelters, soup kitchens – has been upended. So, our standard response – turn to homeless shelters or social service agencies – has been rendered moot.

Humane responses required humongous systemic resources, which at least has been instigated by the Biden administration's comprehensive assistance programs. But those are slow to be implemented, and will be of little help to those swirling tonight in the vortex of homelessness.

Factor in the extreme discomfort of life on the streets, in its various iterations. Temperatures, storms, lack of hygiene facilities, no privacy, harassment, vulnerability – those are just a few disconcerting realities.

Naumovich, despite his obvious efforts to comprehend this conundrum, falls into the trap that trips up so many good people. Why is she not like me? All those resources out there to help.

He tilts toward exceptionalism, being awed by amazing stories of those who had rough lives but ended up living "beautiful lives." I would point out that our differences – experiences, opportunities, support and many more variables – cause people to end up different. And who's to say any of the women in the book will not at some point rise to live "beautiful lives." The author's title, The Least Among Us, strikes me as dismissive of these women's lives from the get-go.

Naumovich ventures back to a more enlightened point as he references violence and lack of respect and protection for children. But he veers back to the "choices" judgment. We all can grow from our current state into a more enlightened, compassionate existence. It requires openness and learning, among other things. Asking the right questions would be a good place to start.

Diane Nilan is president of HEAR US Inc. in Naperville, an organization "giving voice and visibility to families and youth experiencing homelessness." Her new book, Dismazed and Driven – My Look at Family Homelessness in America, is available at www.hearus.us.

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