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How Far Away Is Homelessness

by Kali Ferguson

August 9,2010

I drove from uptown to South Charlotte and back one recent day, and I saw two men that caused me to reflect upon the problem of homelessness. One watched traffic from beside Providence United Methodist Church. The other stood near the intersection of Kings and Morehead Streets. Both were white guys dressed casually in clean-looking shirts. One wore khaki shorts, the other, jeans. Both had signs saying “HOMELESS.” One seemed annoyed with the apathetic car drivers; the second had a tick and a glassy stare. Even Charlotteans who hail from upscale suburbs can no longer ignore the face of homelessness because it now lives on Providence Road.

The reason these men prompted me to count my blessings is that I know I could easily be in their shoes. I have very little savings, I work by contract, I have no health insurance, and I suffer from mental illness. I have avoided homelessness because of the support of my family, friends and health professionals. I’m not the only one. Countless people live from paycheck to paycheck, have lost their jobs, or have been hit with a major illness that has drastically changed their financial standing. Many people work and still live in shelters or worse. Women and children leave abusive homes to find shelter on the street. Life cannot be predicted. How far removed from homelessness are we?

My diagnosis is bipolar, which can mean different things to different people. For me, it is more than mood swings. It causes suicidal depression, inability to sleep and concentrate, and a loss of touch with reality in the form of paranoia and extremely low self-esteem. I have lost five jobs because of my illness. Mental or not, health problems cause people to leave jobs, therefore cutting off their livelihoods and health insurance. This can lead to a loss of savings, then inability to pay rent or a mortgage. Major illness of any kind can spark a downward spiral towards homelessness. When you add unclear thinking and mistrust of loved ones or no social support system, things get even thornier.

Although mental illness alone is only one cause of homelessness, it is an important factor in chronic homelessness. The National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH) reports that people who are chronically homeless represent about twenty percent of homeless cases. Charlotte Urban Ministry’s Vulnerability Index (a document that details and quantifies the lives of people in danger of dying on the streets) found 807 chronically homeless individuals this February. Of that number, eighty-four percent had a mental illness or substance abuse problem. A combination of the two is a common trend. The Index reports that homeless people with both challenges can find it hard to get treatment. Mental health providers want clients to recover from addiction before treatment, and substance abuse recovery programs often require that clients get their mental illnesses under control before serving them.

Mental illness is still something we don’t talk about, although it has affected many, either personally or through a loved one. Homelessness also affects us despite the ease with which we can avoid homeless people and an analysis of what has created homelessness in such a wealthy nation. It is linked to poverty and the need for living wages and affordable housing for some, while others make more money than they can spend.

I don’t have many answers, and I don’t claim to have done my share to eliminate the root (or immediate) causes of homelessness. I definitely don’t have the cure for mental illness. But I do have questions – not new yet still pressing: How can our “sophisticated” society explain away the growing gap between surplus and lack? Why are there so many band-aids and so few permanent cures? Why do we think it can’t happen to us? Can we afford to think this way? What is the merit of inventing the iPhone 4 if an increasing number of folks just want to invent a way to stay off the streets? How far removed from homelessness are we? There are individuals, organizations, and public servants who are answering these questions and more. I aim to follow their example. When we recognize our personal connections to homelessness, we can begin to treat the root causes of this chronic condition.

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