In this weather, I think a lot about those without housing. As a homeless liaison for the school district, I often hear callous comments like “people who are homeless choose to be that way”. But after working with homelessness in many forms for the last 18 years, I know that the causes of homelessness are many, and I can say I have rarely met someone who “chooses to live that way”. In the northwest, shelter is imperative during the winter months, where the weather creates a multitude of health issues.
Truly addressing the causes of homelessness, means being willing to look at numerous complex contributing factors, which can be daunting when we live in a world that wants all the answers in the scope of a tweet. Poverty and homelessness are complex problems that require long and complicated solutions that can’t be addressed in 280 characters or less. It can be overwhelming to think about how to change it.
Based on my experience, one of the most significant factors in homelessness is a lack of affordable housing in its many different forms. Just to define the term “affordable housing” can be a daunting task.
Another major factor is access to medical care. Medical care is critical to wellbeing and our ability to meet our basic needs, but the gaps in these services on Whidbey contribute significantly to housing loss, when people either cannot care for the housing they have or maintain the income they need to pay the bills.
It is almost impossible to talk about homelessness and not talk about mental health. Victims traumatized by domestic violence often struggle with homelessness. Trauma impacts our brains and our learning and behavior in such profound ways. I'm reminded that we have been involved in a war since 2001. Kids that were born that year are just now entering adulthood. They have lived most of their lives in a country engaged in war. If we don't give them the tools and skills they need to be successful, how can we expect people that have grown up with so much conflict to be healthy? How can they maintain good relationships or have the skills to keep a job? These are very important factors in a community so heavily influenced by the presence of the military. Think of our military members who are coming and going from Iraq and Afghanistan and many other war torn areas in the world. They experience profound trauma, and then they return home. It cannot help but impact their families and the lives they are leading.
We also can’t talk about the impact of mental health on homelessness without also considering factors like loneliness and isolation. We are meant to connect with other human beings. If we weren’t, we wouldn't be born out of an act of physical contact. We need a sense of belonging in order to thrive; a sense that somewhere, someone cares about us and that who we are and what we do matters. It is incredibly hard to have a sense of hope or self worth when you don’t feel like you are part of a community that wants you to be there. Without that sense of self worth or belonging, drug use and alcohol looks pretty attractive. You don’t notice you are alone and cold when you’re high on heroin or you have a bottle of whiskey in your stomach.
Another key factor is meaningful work opportunities that pay a living wage. How do single parents often working 2 and 3 jobs at minimum wage afford a two bedroom apartment or housing at $1200 a month? It's ridiculous to think that’s even possible. A single parent who pays $1200 a month in rent needs to earn $3600 a month to meet basic needs and cover child care. That works out to be almost 69 hours a week at our current minimum wage. If you are working those hours how do you spend quality time caring for yourself or your child?
SPIN addresses some of these factors. At our last staff meeting, we did an exercise to define the values of the organization. I was pleased to see what came out of the activity were the values of Community, Dignity, and Service. It feels good to know that as an organization we are walking our talk. These values are based on core factors in resilience, which include a sense of belonging, meaningful work opportunities, and a sense of self worth. This is what SPIN Café is all about and I am very fortunate that I get to be a part of that endeavor.
Amid all the frustration and the pushback about this work, I am reminded that a lot of people care very much about their fellow man. For that, and for so much more, we are grateful.