Over Thanksgiving the topic of services for the homeless came up at dinner, and last night the subject again resurfaced. In my experience, there is no such thing as a “typical” homeless person, because people are complex and their stories are unique. You can speak of common factors among this or that sub-group (mental illness, lack of a personal social net, etc.) but the intricacies don’t satisfy. People want to “understand homelessness” as if it were a tricky lock in need of the right key and combination.
Finally I told my husband that if he wanted to understand why someone would be persistently homeless, despite the many social services available in our area (which help!), here’s what you do:
Think about something that you, personally, absolutely stink at. The part of your life where you just can’t seem to get your act together. Other people manage to do this thing just fine, but you don’t.
[In my husband’s case: Keeping the garage clean. We could say the same about my desk and my inbox and let’s not even talk about the state of my refrigerator. Other people might struggle with family relationships, or road rage, or over-eating, anorexia, compulsive shopping . . . whatever.]
You persistently, year after year, struggle with this thing that ought to be simple. Sometimes you make progress, and other times you fall back into the pit.
Other people who have this problem are sympathetic; those who don’t have this problem wonder why you can’t get your act together in this area. You’ve got so much else going for you — what’s the big deal?
Think about that problem. Think about all the things that contribute to that problem.
Some of things might be outside your control: Your health, your work schedule, your family dynamics. Some of the things that contribute to your problem are just your own personal collection of weaknesses and foibles. Many things are a combination — your circumstances work against you, and you work against you, too.
Be really honest about acknowledging your problem and all the many things that make it so persistent.
And that’s it. Now you know.
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