What to know and do if you ever face homelessness
According to the public policy organization Demos: one in seven Americans will face homelessness at some time during their lives. In addition, 10,000 Americans turn 65 every day and will continue to do so for the next 15 years. Americans approaching retirement age are looking at the prospect of not being able to retire because many will be unable to live on the benefits provided by Social Security – benefits insufficient to cover affordable housing, adequate food and medical care. For many who are unable to extend their careers past the standard retirement age, the financial and personal challenges are daunting.
A 2016 Marketplace Economic Anxiety Index reported that the percentage of Americans who were experiencing heightened levels of anxiety about the economy and their personal financial well-being during the Great Recession remains the same today, roughly about one-third of the population.
I feel that this persistent anxiety is due in large part to the fact that during the last 40 years the American “Safety Net” has been so strained and tattered by contentious political ideological battles about its purpose, and even necessity, that it is now frayed so bad that it is a net in name only.
Adding to the dilemma facing someone confronting the possibility of becoming homeless is that charitable religious groups that in the past offered assistance without asking for anything in return, now in some instances have been replaced by evangelical faith-based groups that subtly, and not so subtly, demand recognition and allegiance to a “force greater than oneself that will save you from your plight if only you will let it.” If you are a non-religious person in a vulnerable condition, this can be both a confusing and seductive proposition. What I learned from my experience of recovering from homelessness is that it is best to avoid quick-fix solutions. Restoring one’s life following a major financial crisis is a long, painstaking process. Stay sober-minded and keep both eyes open.
Because the social services system in America is so convoluted and varies not only from state to state but even in counties within states, there is no way for someone like me who has successfully faced homelessness to offer a blueprint or guidebook to someone else dealing with this terrifying new norm in American life. But what I can offer are a few practical tips culled from my experience.
Realize that you are not the only one having this experience. Understand that this is a structural social and economic problem, not the result of your personal shortcomings.
Don’t isolate from fear of embarrassment, and also be selective with whom you share your circumstances. There remains a stigma in our culture around people going through difficult economic circumstances. As I wrote in an article for Talk Poverty called Not Poverty, Acute Financial Distress: “When you experience acute financial distress our society looks at you and says, aloud or not, ‘What did you do wrong?’ and/or ‘What’s wrong with you?’” Don’t buy into the generalizations. Your experience is unique and you won’t be able to resolve your situation until you can express it that way and demand to be treated accordingly. Keeping a journal helps.
Go to your local social services office well in advance of possibly becoming homeless so you can learn exactly what it is you need do in order to qualify for basic services such as emergency housing, food assistance and medical care.
Do not rely solely on social services. They are a large bureaucracy and you are just one client. Don’t expect more from them than just getting basic survival services, if that. If you are turned down for services you feel you qualify for (not uncommon), be sure to get it in writing. You can then take that documentation to your local Legal Aid office to see if you have grounds for an appeal.
Reach out into your community and find groups that offer more personalized supportive services to people going through difficult times financially and personally. Recognize that this is a very difficult experience you are living through, and that you are going to need help from people familiar with your experience. Many experienced volunteers, like me, offer advice to others who are now in similar circumstances.
Hold your head up and smile. This is not the same homelessness problem that previous generations of Americans experienced. The demographics are broader and the reasons for it more complex. Much of the personal financial crises that people are having today is circumstantial – the result of a loss of jobs and retirement savings, home foreclosures, catastrophic illnesses and, as in my case, caring for elderly parents. My story, probably like yours, is not about hitting rock bottom and making some “miraculous” rebound. It’s about surviving in a new economy — including facing homelessness — without hitting rock bottom.