This month, I made a new friend: a colleague from work who just started last week. During our typical here-is-my-life-story introductions, I told her I used to be homeless.
This was the first time I had ever done this. This is the first time I had actually opened with that statement – a statement that, until now, I would have avoided mentioning for months, if not indefinitely. But I’m really glad I said it. Through the telling of my experiences with homelessness, not only did it spark an almost two-hour conversation, but we shared and learned a lot about the poverty experience. Out of it came hope and determination, which are two things I believe we all need a lot more of – especially now when efforts feel futile.
The conversation started when asked for advice about finding an apartment in New York City. She had just relocated here a month ago and is staying in a nearby AirBnb. Being that she’s from out of state and new to the area, she expressed concerns about high rents and vicious landlords. She was afraid of getting taken advantage of. As a formerly homeless person, I have had every bad landlord experience imaginable. I started writing down a list of brokers, agents, and agencies I trust.
I told her about the work I do on campus, as well as the writing I do for Invisible People. We sat at her desk and skimmed through some of my favorite posts and videos. “Wow. I had no idea – this is a lot to digest,” she said.
Not soon after, she asked me the difficult question of why – and beyond that, how?
Of course, I’m far from the answers of why and how. Though as I continue to work with Invisible People, and I continue to read and write, I understand all of it a little bit better. As I continue to connect with other homeless and formerly homeless people, and I reflect on my own experiences, these conversations and these questions come up. I am able to put the pieces together of what this so-called Homeless Industrial Complex is all about.
At the center of my understanding is one fact: Homelessness is not accidental.
Waiting 7, 8, 9 years in a shelter for housing placement is not accidental. That was the case for the tenants who lived in my room at Park View, a shelter for homeless families, before I did. Why is that?
In the article “What Our Reaction to Poverty Says About Us”, formerly homeless activist Carey Fuller shares some of the why:
“Poverty in this country is not accidental, it’s a direct result of funneling wealth upwards to the elite and no one feels that pinch more than the people directly affected by bad policies. It’s also policy to under report the true numbers of people living in poverty and the reason behind those policies is politics. Even more exasperating is not knowing when help is going to arrive because some groups get priority status over others, which leads to a lot of frustration due to programs having policy goals to meet.”
With this said, it is not surprising that I ended up calling and emailing hundreds of homeless prevention services and other various homeless services, but still getting pretty much nowhere.
Not only was I facing priority lists and just not fitting in the proper categories to qualify for aid; beyond that, the system just doesn’t work. Under no circumstances should any homeless person, or person at risk of homelessness, have to call and email hundreds of different service providers. This obstacle alone causes preventable harm.
In the few cases where I was spoken to and engaged with, I was told the same exact thing every single time:
Either I needed to come back once I was already homeless, or I needed to enter the shelter system.
In “The Homeless Industrial Complex Problem“, Fuller adds to this by sharing that, “as a homeless person, you have to navigate through a myriad of hoops just to get basic help and that help isn’t immediate. There are waiting lists and run outs (running out of funds so that by the time you get there or find out about a specific program, you’re too late). Then there are places that tell you they have no idea when they’ll have housing available because all their units are full. If you live in a city just outside of Seattle, where it’s already overcrowded, you’re told by agencies in your town that the only services available that they know of are in Seattle.”
And so I ask myself, who benefits from this?
Clearly it is not homeless people. So, why is this happening? What roadblocks are in the way to making a more efficient system?
In “NYC’s ‘shelter-industrial complex’ makes money over rising homelessness” by Michael Kowalchuk, he shares that there is indeed a business of homelessness:
“Picture the Homeless identifies a ‘shelter-industrial complex’ that, rather than trying to solve homelessness, relies on homelessness to exist in the first place. Shelter staff, administrators and associated contractors receive funding based on the continued use of shelters. A whole business of homelessness has emerged and views homeless individuals as potential sources of revenue, thanks to the local, state and federal funding that keeps homeless shelters in operation. What should be a temporary, emergency measure on the path to ending homelessness has become the solution in and of itself.”
Although some of us might see the results of the systems at play, I think we see the poverty. In some cases, we live it. But it is not often that we understand and see the processes occurring in real time that make the realities in which we live. And that’s how understanding the Homeless Industrial Complex can help us. When we become aware of why this is happening, and how this is happening, we can then start really making impactful choices and taking the necessary steps to beat homelessness.
Photo by Robert V. Ruggiero on Unsplash