Sudden Homelessness is Years in the Making

experiencing sudden homelessness

Homelessness is an event that can happen suddenly. One minute a person is housed. The next minute they are not.

While this is true on an individual level, when we zoom out just a bit and get the whole picture, it’s easy to see that sudden homelessness is not so sudden after all. Indeed, the precarious living situation is often years, and sometimes even generations, in the making.

Example 1: Sudden Homelessness Through a Lack of Affordable Housing

Let us look first at the leading cause of homelessness and see how a lack of affordable housing might adversely affect someone years before it finally forces them to become unhoused. This issue of housing affordability was simmering on the back burner for years, but the visible result only showed up once they were out on the streets. Five years before their “sudden bout with homelessness,” there were probably many warning signs.

For the story’s sake, let’s imagine there is a person we’ll call Jade.

A few years back, Jade was among the nation’s 19 million + rent-burdened households. And like the bulk of American workers, Jade lived paycheck to paycheck for years. There were days when she had to make a difficult choice between rent and dinner or rent and electricity or rent and buying her daughter that doll she wanted.

In truth, Jade was always one financially crushing event away from homelessness. The event didn’t even have to be too catastrophic. Something as simple as a delayed direct deposit or an unexpected flat tire was all it would take for the rent to be late.

And so, it was. The rent was late a couple of times due to unexpected twists and turns. We all know those potholes on the road of life. The late fees piled up rather quickly. But Jade managed to stay afloat for years, maybe even decades, until one day, she arrived home to find her rental community had been purchased by a new developer who was doing everything to kick the low-paying, low-income tenants out. This new property owner would eventually double Jade’s rent, turning that payment from a burdensome hardship to a complete impossibility.

Now, Jade, who had unwittingly spent years on the brink of homelessness, would be swiftly evicted. Given the financial strain she endured for years to keep a roof over her head, there’s a slim chance that she has any savings. Jade had no savings available for the first month, last month, and the security deposit most landlords demand.

Combined with a wage that rental increases have outpaced, Jade winds up living on somebody’s sofa, moving into a temporary warming shelter, or pitching a tent in the middle of the sidewalk with what’s left of her belongings inside.

This hypothetical example of homelessness seems sudden, but it was years in the making.

Example 2: Sudden Homelessness for an Unaccompanied Youth

Meet John. His parents are not together. His dad moved to the other side of the country. Now it’s just him, his brother, and his mom. John bears an uncanny resemblance to his absent father, and this causes his mom to grimace every time he walks into the room. But John is seven, too young to notice.

This doesn’t become a serious issue until five years later when John turns twelve and his mother’s boyfriend Bill goes from spending the occasional weekend in the living room to moving in full-time.

John and Bill’s bump head a lot. Explosive arguments happen every morning before school. As a result, John goes to school each day with so much rage it’s difficult to concentrate.

A quiet kid who’s used to being ignored, John is initially thrown off guard when one of the eighth graders picks a fight with him. Adrenaline rushes, and everything becomes hazy when he punches the offending eighth grader with all the might and all the pain between his fingers.

This is the day that John goes from quiet kid to troubled teen, a journey that will land him in police cars and principal’s offices until his mother, who has been secretly harboring hatred for his facial features since the day he was born, proclaims she’s fed up.

John is sent to live with his biological dad, a man he barely knows who doesn’t want the responsibility of raising him. By the ripe age of 17, John is living in an abandoned building with half a dozen other homeless adolescents who share similar stories.

This hypothetical example of homelessness seems sudden, but it was years in the making.

Example 3: Glass Houses, Glass Ceilings, and Sudden Homelessness

Suzy was raised in a revolution. She was once a flower child preaching peace and love. In her youth, there were glass ceilings to break and corporate ladders to climb. Suzy did it all, prioritizing her career above every other worldly aspiration, from building a marriage and family to establishing strong friendships outside of the workplace and more.

For so many decades, her hard work paid off. She was everybody’s favorite auntie, poised to take over the world. She bought into the Cosmopolitan lifestyle, her tastes growing increasingly more extravagant each year. But there was something missing in her life – social and familial support. Her independence was the double-edged sword that simultaneously built her up and bought her down. Indeed, the very definition of independence requires one to stand alone, without connection or governance.

This lack of support is seen in another group vulnerable to homelessness – military veterans. But there’s a notable distinction.

When a former soldier falls into houselessness due to a lack of social and familial support, there is some empathy coming from the public. But when Suzy climbs the corporate ladder to the very top only to realize there is nothing more up there and nobody around to catch her when she falls. Once she figures out that in 2023, singles are spending double the money couples spend to survive and that, despite her high-ranking job title and pay rate, she cannot afford to retire.

Suzy breaks her femur in a freak accident and is bed-bound. She develops a lower respiratory tract infection that exacerbates her condition. The job she invested her livelihood into quickly replaces her with a young, ambitious college grad willing to work for next to nothing. 

Suzy quickly loses her condo and all the accolades that came with her lifestyle. The ceiling above her is finally broken, and the walls that once shielded her from homelessness disappear.

This hypothetical example of homelessness seems sudden, but it was years in the making.

Example 4: Born and Raised into Homelessness

Noah had a rough entry into the world. He was born into homelessness by way of his homeless mother. He vaguely remembers his time as a toddler living in the sewer system with Mom and dad. They didn’t have much, but at least they had one another. That was a long time ago, almost two decades ago, to be precise.

At the tender age of five, Noah’s mother died of exposure. The hazards of homelessness notoriously lead to premature death. She was 27 years old. 

Noah’s father wanted to keep his toddler with him. After all, the little boy was the last thing he had left in the world. But the world was cruel, and his father now knew how perilous unsheltered homelessness could be. He juggled not one but two full-time minimum-wage jobs. The money still wasn’t enough to pay for rent.

Dismayed, Noah’s dad contacted social services for help. But there are no resources available for homeless single dads. Noah was taken from his father and placed into foster care.

Through childhood and adolescence, Noah grows accustomed to relocation. Because he was born into homelessness, he is already statistically more likely to:

  • Drop out of school
  • Fall into poverty
  • Experience homelessness in adulthood

By the age of 18, Noah has aged out of foster care. He has a job as a barista and a smooth smile that glides across the drive-through window. But Noah has no place to live.

This hypothetical example of homelessness seems sudden, but it was generations in the making.

Talk to Your Lawmakers About Ending the Vicious Cycle of Homelessness Today

There are myriad ways that people become houseless. While the situation seems sudden, it is often more deliberate and predictable than we’d like to admit. Please take a moment to talk to your legislators about making housing a human right for everyone.

Cynthia Griffith

Cynthia Griffith


Cynthia Griffith is a freelance writer dedicated to social justice and environmental issues.

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