In June, a prospective law student reached out to me for an interview after reading my article “Are Private Companies Profiting from Homelessness?”
I’d never done an interview before.
It’s not that I don’t want to. It’s just scary to be in the public eye as a formerly homeless person. Because of the negative connotations attached to homeless people, there’s this fear that your current or prospective landlord might find out you were formerly homeless. Or just as bad, your employer. Or similarly, a prospective employer! Even your friends, the people in your social circles might find out.
I have no idea what my homelessness might mean in the minds of those I interact with. A lot of the time, even if it’s not great, it’s usually not comfortable or even an easy topic to face with anyone.
However, for some reason, I knew I needed to show up for this interview. This was a conversation I needed to have. This was an intelligent young person who was eager to learn and eager to become an ally. I needed to show up for that, to meet my responsibility – so I did.
In that interview, she asked me what I thought was the most needed, most under-represented, service for homeless people. Immediately I knew the answer: homeless prevention services. While there are a lot of valid answers, and frankly, there is no catch-all solution to ending homelessness, homeless prevention services need more attention.
Yes, we need housing and harm reduction. Yes, we need to tackle income inequality and mental health. We need to tackle substance abuse, private companies profiting from homelessness, and capitalism. The list goes on.
But, to prevent people from falling through the cracks into homelessness, we need homeless prevention services. We need relocation services, no-strings-attached rental assistance, and we need it fast. We need it quicker than the courts can serve the eviction.
Investing in homeless prevention services is acknowledging how realistic homelessness is for a lot of people. Homelessness can happen to anyone. It doesn’t discriminate. However, homelessness increases dramatically for poor people, people of color, lgbtq+ people, and disabled people. Quite a lot of us fit into one or more of these categories.
When I was on the verge of homelessness in 2017, I struggled with finding homeless prevention services that could help me. It wasn’t that there weren’t any homeless prevention services. It’s just most of them couldn’t do anything for me until I was officially on the streets.
They couldn’t throw out the life jacket for me. I had to be drowning first.
In a lot of ways, homeless prevention services are crisis prevention. If we want to stop homelessness, we need services that can throw out the life jackets. We need to prevent people from drowning. We need to prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place.
Of course, we all know that preventing people from becoming homeless is not just life jackets. It’s also making sure the ship is sturdy and doesn’t sink. (That’s where income equality, affordable housing, equality, and equity come into play.)
According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, one of the five principles in homeless prevention is Crisis Resolution. It is no small fact that time is of the essence when it comes to preventing homelessness. In their Homeless Prevention Guide, we learn that:
Every situation that could result in homelessness is a crisis for the person experiencing it.
Crisis resolution responses must include:
- Rapid assessment and triaging, based upon urgency;
- An instant focus on personal safety as the priority;
- De-escalation of the person’s emotional reaction;
- Definite action steps the individual can successfully achieve;
- Assistance with actions the individual is temporarily unable or unwilling to attempt; and
- Reteaching problem-solving skills.
The traumatic event begins the moment homelessness becomes an option. It’s precisely at that moment that help must arrive quickly.
So, what do we do? So many people have been in crisis for a year and a half due to COVID-19. What can we do better?
I ask because I have homeless friends, and I’ve made a few new ones since COVID-19 started. Just last month, a friend told me that they were issued an eviction. They had two weeks to relocate or risk becoming homeless themselves. They live in a small town with scarce resources. Nothing assisted with rapid rehousing or other types of homeless prevention services.
In situations like this, it’s common for families at risk of homelessness to temporarily stay at a hotel or motel. However, we all know that hotels and motels are not cheap, and living in them is difficult and costly.
Any roof is undoubtedly better than none, and it is not uncommon for homeless services to provide hotel stays to homeless families. However, this is not a sustainable solution. Families require a safe home with all of their essential needs met to reduce their future risk of homelessness happening again.
I had a close friend from high school who lived in a car with his parents. They all lived in a car for several years before being housed. I’ve had friends living in motels with their kids. In a tent at the beach.
But it didn’t start there, you know? They were once housed. I just wonder how their lives would have been different if that crisis didn’t result in homelessness. Could homeless prevention services have intervened before that crisis entirely played itself out? I wonder that about myself too – how different things might be today if I was never homeless. It already happened to me. It’s already happening to so many others. One less is a big deal. Every life counts.