Why Aren’t We Treating Homelessness Like the ‘Natural’ Disaster It Is?


Natural disaster, as per Merriam-Webster: “a sudden and terrible event in nature (such as a hurricane, tornado, or flood) that usually results in serious damage and many deaths.”

Like other terrible events that occur naturally and unexpectedly, homelessness takes its victims by storm.

In an eye-opening Twitter thread, Dr. Margot Kushel of the UCSF Department of Medicine pondered what it might be like if we lived in a world that treated homelessness like the disaster it is.

While the brief but informative thread presented a multifaceted look at policy and public opinion, one question really stood out in this message. This renowned housing advocate and medical professional would like to know, “Why do we view middle-class folks made homeless by natural disasters differently than others?”

This is an excellent question given the emergency-level crisis that homelessness presents all by itself. If we really looked at homelessness for what it is, we might even say that all homeless people are the victims of a “natural” disaster – a storm they simply cannot dig out of, no matter how hard they try.

Could it be that we as a nation have become so self-serving that circumstances matter more to us than human lives? Let us look to the entry and exit points of homelessness for middle-class residents displaced by inclement weather and those on the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum. Herein lies the glaring discrepancy.

January 2022: Boulder County, Colorado Residents Show Overwhelming Support for Middle-Class Neighbors Rendered Homeless in the Wake of The Marshall Fire

In a riveting essay published by Westword in January 2022, writer Joshua Barocas reflects on a notorious fire that thrust his aunt and uncle immediately and unexpectedly into a state of homelessness.

Based upon his description, tens of thousands of other locals had a similar experience. Their homes were ravaged, and their lives were in jeopardy. But like a phoenix rising, the folks of Boulder County, CO, came together to aid these middle-class residents in piecing their lives back together after the harrowing storm.

With the assistance of both state and federal government forces, advocates and volunteers established eight new emergency shelters, not to mention a brand-new Disaster Assistance Center providing all of the following services:

  • Rehousing
  • Mental health services
  • Replacement of government documents such as driver’s licenses, marriage licenses, insurance cards, home and property deeds, etc.
  • Donation management
  • Building, planning, and permitting
  • Pet services such as veterinary care, food supplies, and missing pet reports
  • Motor vehicle documentation, including title and registration replacement and more

Post-disaster resources were provided by:

  • American Red Cross
  • Boulder County Human Services
  • Boulder County Community Foundation
  • A Precious Child and more

As is evident from the outcome, the public support for this particular group of displaced people was more than just symbolic. It was heartfelt and actionable.

Indeed, the above information shows that we know how to handle, remedy, prevent, and drastically reduce homelessness. So, then why isn’t this kind of exemplary strategy being used to help other homeless communities?

When was the last time you saw a person experiencing vehicular homelessness being offered title and registration replacement for the car they were living inside of? If anything, they were most likely being handed a ticket for illegal parking.

When was the last time the American Red Cross came out to replace medication lost in an encampment sweep? If anything, encampment residents are often forced to choose between a violent shelter, a new street corner, and a jail cell. The uniforms they see are much more likely to belong to law enforcement officers than medical professionals.

If we took a long, hard look in the mirror and were honest, it’s clear that when we react to homelessness, we are not reacting to what is happening, but rather who it is happening to.

Homelessness Might not be a Hurricane, but it Sure Looks Like One to the People Inside It

Homelessness is such a national emergency that the social services sector often uses natural disaster analogies to describe the situation. Think about recent homeless news and the jargon in the headlines. We have been warned of “eviction avalanches” followed by a “perfect storm” of poverty and pandemic-related emergencies.

Going back to the definition of a natural disaster, is it not true that homelessness almost always presents itself as a “sudden and terrible event”? Verily, noted street photographer Suitcase Joe described many of the individuals he met on Skid Row as having been thrust into homelessness most suddenly and unexpectedly.

All of the following sudden and terrible incidents are pathways into the desolate state of homelessness:

  • Job loss
  • Terminal illness
  • Death of a spouse, parent, or another member of a support system
  • Amputation
  • Disability
  • Eviction, the list goes on

Furthermore, can’t we all agree that homelessness “results in serious damage and many deaths?”

Indeed, just by virtue of being homeless, a person’s life expectancy is cut three decades short. They are also much more likely to become victims of violent crime than people who enjoy the status of being housed.

Get in Touch with Your Local Representatives to Point Out This Grave Disparity

When it comes to homelessness, the truth is we know what works. Sadly, we are shifting away from initiatives that prioritize housing in favor of criminalization and short-term “solutions.”

This mindset can only continue to erode our society, causing homelessness to flourish under the current climate of corrupt legislation. Talk to your representatives about treating homelessness like any other natural disaster. We must act with swift, effective, non-punitive policies that suppress the crisis, not the people suffering as a result of that crisis.

This has been another code black, courtesy of Invisible People.

Cynthia Griffith

Cynthia Griffith


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

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