There’s comfort in distance, in barriers. Standing behind caution tape makes us feel secure. Guard rails at the Grand Canyon keep us from tumbling to certain death. A divider on the highway protects us from oncoming traffic.
This feeling of comfort through distance holds true in less tangible settings, too. A balanced diet and healthy gym routine make us feel we’re securing good health for years to come. Watching news coverage of a war overseas makes us thankful for vast bodies of water that separate us and our loved ones from danger. A certain amount of money in the bank assures us we’ll be able to float ourselves over the next few months or years, depending on the balance.
Comfort diminishes when lines are blurred—when blacks and whites turn into greys. And there’s never been more “grey.” The sudden onset of illness can cause good health to vanish overnight. Weaponized drones can cover large distances faster than ever before. A financial reversal can turn equity on its head.
And for our purposes, “housed” can turn into “homeless” seemingly faster than ever before. The line of distinction between the two has never been fainter. homeless hub, a Canadian observatory on homelessness, puts it this way:
People who experience homelessness are not distinct and separate from the rest of the population. In fact, the line between being housed and unhoused is quite fluid.
Indeed. The homeless person you see on your commute to work or asking for some help outside of Starbucks often seems worlds away. That could never be me, our inner dialogue may assure us. But many of those very homeless people once had the very same thought.
An often-unrecognized factor blurring that line between housed and unhoused is loss. How does loss and unresolved grief lead to homelessness?
Slippery Slopes to the Streets
A study conducted in Toronto, Canada, was quite revelatory in the otherwise under-served field of how grief and loss contribute to homelessness, especially in terms of older homeless men. Although the sample size was small—some 20 men over the age of 50, all of whom had previously led housed lives—an overarching theme came to the fore: loss. In fact, 85 percent of interviewed participants “felt significantly impacted by their experience of loss.” Shared experiences included:
- Death of a parent
- Divorce or separation
- Loss of employment
- Workplace injury
A number of those interviewed referenced failure of marriage as being particularly impactful. Why? Many felt their failed marriage was symptomatic of a failed life. They lost a large part of their identity and gained a sense of failure that loomed over their lives. Some highlighted the link between loss of employment and failed marriages. Loss leads to loss, it would seem. And this link holds water, as studies show financial struggles are the second leading cause of divorce in America, behind infidelity.
Not to be underestimated is the mental and emotional toll that loss takes. Some members of the Toronto study reported that loss events had “taken away their only purpose” in life. The process of rebuilding after a loss was an insurmountable mental hurdle for some. Others soberly admitted to living their lives constantly looking in the rear view mirror, reminiscing about what was and what could have been had events transpired differently.
A comprehensive three-nation study (US, England, Australia) conducted in 2005 highlighted a similar link between loss and homelessness.
Interviews were conducted with 122 recently homeless older people in efforts to learn what had contributed to their homelessness. Significant personal loss, such as the death of a loved one or close friend, was a major contributing factor for 10 percent of those interviewed. Marriage breakdown triggered homelessness for another 20 percent of the subjects. Loss of supportive relationships also took a toll, with unresolved arguments with landlords, roommates, relatives, and neighbors leading to homelessness for one in four participants.
The previously quoted Toronto study concludes this way:
“What is scary is how homelessness can happen to anyone. A simple illness can lead to loss of employment, loss of income, loss of property and in the end the loss of a meaningful relationship.”
Remember that distance that made us feel safe?
The fluid line between housed and homeless can disappear after one profound loss. And that is a tough pill to swallow, as loss is admittedly and unfortunately an inevitable part of life. For most of us, loss is followed by a grieving period, and hopefully some closure and the ability to move on. But for an increasing number of people, especially those that experience significant loss later in life and are unequipped to deal with it successfully, that loss can be the first in a series of falling dominoes.
There is value in recognizing the link between loss and homelessness. If we recognize that any one of us may be one loss away from despair, perhaps we can be more sympathetic to others’ suffering.