The Homeless People You See On The Street Matter

This might seem to be a strange subject to write about on a blog that’s ostensibly supposed to be about science, technology, and other geeky things (like biking etc.), but in truth it affects everyone. I’m willing to bet that most of us know someone who has been homeless, or, who might currently be homeless, or who themselves are homeless.

It’s a situation that I’ve been familiar with in the past, and one which I do not wish to repeat at any point in the future. It’s a terrible thing to have inflicted upon oneself, or upon one’s loved ones, or friends, or even a random Joe/Josephine whom you’ve never met before. I’ve spent a lot of time over the last several years watching the homeless here in Portland, because I work as a Security Guard at a location in Downtown Portland. So, I’m going to offer my perspective on the situation, as I see it, here in this area. Before we go any further, my intention is not to judge, or to belittle anyone, these are simply my thoughts. Also keep in mind that I want all the homeless to get the help that they need, so as to get off the street, and live a healthy and productive life (their definition of productive, not yours or mine.)

I’ve seen and or read about several, what I’ll call ‘levels’ of homelessness (plus an additional ‘Level 0’ suggested by a friend of mine who is trying to do just that):

Level Zero: Hypernomadism (suggested by a friend)

According to a good friend, who is homeless at the moment, and is trying his best to make the best of it: 
Those who choose to remain there, but instead of sinking, wish to improve the conditions in which they live to the point they nearly match conditions of living in a home.
This is what I mean by ‘hypernomadism.’ I’ve brought some aspects of ‘home’ to the streets — I have showers at the gym, I now sleep in a hammock every night, I have a bicycle for transportation. Every week, I make living outside more bearable. 

When I lost my last place, I vowed I would never pay rent again. The only way I’ll live indoors again is if I get free rent or I get my tiny house. Rent is a social ill that must be abolished.

Level One: Semi-Voluntary

There’s the semi-voluntary, ‘just for now’ kind of homelessness that happens when one runs across rough times, but that one knows one will be able to get out of it when things improve. (E.G. When you’re saving up money, and have an income, that will guarantee that you’re able to get back out of it.)

Level Two: Goal Seeking

Then there’s the type of homelessness, where one wants to work toward getting out of it, but one is having a hard time of it for a number of reasons, criminal history, drug use, mental illness, or other causes that affect one’s ability to get off the street. I also look at not knowing how to find the right resources as fitting into this level of homelessness. There’s still a chance for the person, but to them it seems like it’s never going to happen. I’ve seen at least one family here in this situation. They’re trying, but never seem to quite make it. I wish I could help them, but all I can do is offer them information on where to go to seek help, it’s up to them to act on that information, and up the them to push until they’re off the street.

Level Three: Lost Souls

These are the ones that have given up, or who are so far gone, for whatever reason that they don’t even try to make an effort to keep going. Most of the people at this level have all but given up the proverbial ghost, and some commit suicide because they either can’t stand it anymore, or just don’t care enough to keep living. Extreme mental illness can put one at this level, or heavy drug use, or extremely bad health (leading to inability to pay the bills, and thus ending up on the street,) or a large number of other possibilities. These are the people that you see on street corners drinking their lives away, and begging for money for the next bottle of cheap alcohol, or other forms of emotional escape. These are the ones that need the most help, because they just don’t care anymore. The one hopeful ray of light here is that a lot of people at this level can be helped, if someone intercedes on their behalf, and can help them to get back onto their feet. I’ve seen it happen myself, and I know it’s possible. I also know that it isn’t possible in every case, people die on the street every day, from suicide, exposure, overdose, drinking oneself to death, violence, or any number of other causes.

How do we help them?

I wish I had an answer for this. I know that Portland has a number of programs that are designed to help the homeless, but most of those programs have firm restrictions on who they’ll help, whether it be Veterans only, or Women only, or Women with children only, or Men only, and others. These restrictions exclude the ones who might be the most far gone, and perhaps could benefit most from the help; the ones who need help getting away from alcohol, or drugs (programs exist here, but are small, and hard to get into,) or who need help with severe mental illness. These are the lost ones, and are the ones least likely to get off the street and live healthy lives, because they have lost the ability to help themselves, and others refuse to do so.

Why do I care?

Because I’ve been homeless a few times, and each time I made it back, but it’s gotten harder each time, but I’ve also come back on firmer footing each time. I don’t intend to ever fall down that hole again, if I have any say about it. I went through an agency called Transition Projects Incorporated (TPI for short.) They helped me to get off the street, and out of homelessness, and into my own place. At the time I was a single adult, healthy, drug and alcohol free male (still am), and not many other agencies would have helped me, but I went through their program, followed their rules, and took advantage of their (and other agencies) resources. I’m glad to say that I’m fully self-sufficient today, because I had the will to do what was necessary. I don’t know how many people can say the same; a lot of others in the place I was staying during the program fell through the cracks. I suspect that these were people who were headed for Level Three, as described above.

What can we do?

If you can, donate to the agencies that are helping the homeless, it may not seem like much, but it’s something. Also, don’t hand money to the ones looking for alcohol or whatever kind of escape, give them food, or vouchers. If you see a family on the street, find a way to get some vouchers for a place to stay, some food or whatever you can afford. If you’re able, and think you can trust them, offer them a room. Help them help themselves.

Suggested by my friend:

As far as giving homeless people money goes, I slightly disagree here. Of course, if one is only comfortable giving a specific thing (be it food, clothes, whatever) then only give that thing. Never give with expectation. But the homeless need liquidity too. I’m standing here right now with a sign in my hand, and I’ve got $350 or so in the bank – because what I need to make life bearable out here (a laptop capable of running Star Citizen in VR) is far greater than mere food.

Don’t treat the homeless like pigeons — throwing them bits of bread and stale french fries. Put together hygiene packs, fresh socks, take them clothes/gear shopping, get them eye-wear or visits to the dentist. Buy them pay-as-you-go phones, sleeping bags, tents, hammocks, sleeping mats and rain tarps. Everything a refugee needs, so do the homeless. And if you give cash, do so without reservation, without strings attached, without expectation. If you can’t, then don’t. Often the problem with cash is the trickle it comes in. What is a homeless person supposed to do with $5? Give them $500 and watch what they do. Or $1000. When all you get for a day of holding a sign is $7 (as I write this, I’ve been standing here nearly three hours, and I’ve got $1.50) it’s easier to buy a beer than save for…what exactly? This ‘trickle’ is s huge contributor to substance abuse because it’s never enough to actually accomplish much.

Perhaps above all push your local politicians to enact #HousingFirst policies. If Utah can reduce its homelessness by 91% then anywhere can do it. And technology which advances zero/marginal cost of living, as well as can make living outside easier for them (hydrophobic clothing, for example, comes to mind). Also, spending time with and talking to homeless people is greatly needed.

Isolation and lack of connection leads people further down the path of disintegration. Befriend the homeless, if you can. And overall, as a civilization, we need to learn that the harm reduction method works best for everyone. Just as a needle exchange or condom dispensary isn’t designed to promote or prolong drug use or promiscuity, but to reduce disease and unwanted pregnancy, housing the homeless is CHEAPER than leaving them where they are. So even if you’re an indifferent, selfish, heartless sociopathic excuse for a human, it’s still in your best interests to support #HousingFirst

The real harsh truth is that the majority of people in the world don’t give a fuck about anyone except their own friends/family, if that.

Final thoughts

There’s a lot that I could try to cover here, but I don’t have all the information. I’m not an expert, but these are my thoughts, and I just wanted to put them out there, so that others have some idea of what it’s like out there for those who are on the street. It’s not a picnic, and just because a random homeless person has a cell phone, doesn’t mean that that person has money. It means that they managed to scrape enough together by whatever means to allow themselves to maintain some sort of social contact with others who may not be in the area. Don’t Judge.


Thank you for reading,