I like to do word association questions with people when I interview them. By that I mean that I provide a word and the interviewee responds with the first thing that comes to mind.
I enjoy it because it gives me a lot of information about the person without them knowing what I really want. There truly is no right or wrong answer with me on word association.
I was interviewing someone for a position, and when I got to the word association part of the interview, I used the word “homeless” as one of the words. The interviewee responded without hesitation, “Greed.” I was impressed with the answer, but I was more impressed with his explanation.
When he first said, “Greed,” I assumed he meant that people become homeless because of their greed, or their desire for self-fulfillment over responsibility. In my experience with the homeless, I have encountered an innumerable number of people who have said they would rather stay homeless even after they get to a point where they have income because they can spend their money how they want and don’t have to worry about paying bills like rent and electric.
One guy actually told me he was more concerned with having beer than having a place to stay.
The interviewee, however, did not have that in mind when he said, “Greed.” He was lambasting the greed of society, our society in particular. Capitalism, he said, is what leads people into homelessness because capitalists can only gain at the expense of someone else, and when a person is so greedy that they only think about making their quality of life better and having more stuff for themselves, then people who are already struggling to make it will continue to fall until they are homeless with little hope of escaping.
Thus, he believes that homelessness is ultimately because of greed.
While I think there is a measure of merit to what he is saying, I would contend that on the meta level of homeless causation, he is wrong.
- According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, several reasons exists that are causes of homelessness.
3. Eroding Work Opportunities
4. Decline in Public Assistance
5. Lack of Affordable Housing
6. Lack of Affordable Health Care
7. Domestic Violence
8. Mental Illness
9. Addiction Disorders
I think anyone could look at the items on this list and assume that they are legitimate reasons why people are homeless.
Again, however, I disagree.
Each one of these issues, whether by the person I was interviewing or the National Coalition list, are absolutely reasons that contribute to homelessness, but I believe the root cause lies even deeper than what we’ve already discussed.
I contend that a breakdown of the family unit is the ultimate reason for homelessness.
Understand that when I say family unit I am including friends, relatives, and other support networks like churches, fraternities, et al. in that category.
By way of personal anecdote, let me explain. When I was released from the Marine Corps I received my discharge papers and a moving truck and was thanked for my service. I did not have the opportunity to take terminal leave because my discharge was related to a service-connected disability. Leaving base with my family and our household possessions we had no home, no job, and no prospects. Thankfully, my mother-in-law was gracious enough to rent us a storage building to store our possessions and let us stay in her small two bedroom townhouse for a few months while we got situated back home.
Our situation was fortunate. If my mother-in-law had not opened her home to us, my father-in-law or another family member from my side of the family would have given us a place to stay.
Many people do not have that support.
When people become homeless it is because they don’t have that family support to catch them. They aren’t allowed to go stay with someone, they don’t have anyone in their life anymore that can help them, or by their own actions they have alienated their support system and cannot use it anymore. That last one is just as important to remember. We cannot naively blame the family network for someone’s homelessness. It is often the case that the person who becomes homeless has done something that has caused that breakdown in the family unit.
But out of the above listed reasons for homelessness, I believe each of them is overcome by having the support of a family unit.
Think about it for a minute. Millions of people suffer from mental illness, but family members come together to care for them, give them a place to stay, or provide insurance to give them the support they need. Millions of people struggle with addiction, but relentless family and favorable circumstances provide addicts with a place to stay or a facility to get treatment. At the same time, however, the mentally ill and the addict can become too much for the family unit to handle and they back away. In other situations, the family that was providing the support dies or moves and is no longer able to help.
All of the items listed above can be tough to handle, but a supportive and intact family unit can prevent someone facing those problems from a life on the streets.
The family unit is much greater than blood relations. Friends, co-workers, family members, fraternity brothers and sorority sisters, churches, and other networks are the family unit that keep people off the streets.
The next time you see someone who is homeless, then, don’t wonder if they are a drunk or mentally ill. Realize that they don’t have the same support that has brought you to where you are.
Soup kitchens, tent cities, shelters, and other service providers are working to take the place of the family unit. Be part of the solution by volunteering your time at one of these organizations.
I’m fairly partial to the Chattanooga Community Kitchen and Relevant Hope. If you’re in the Chattanooga area, try one of these out. If you’re somewhere else, then find somewhere in your town where you can get involved and be part of someone’s family unit. If someone close to you is about to be or is already homeless, step up and be the family unit they need.