Julius Caesar began his Commentaries on the Gallic Wars with a sentence that Latin students once memorized: Translated literally into English, it reads, “Gaul is a whole divided into three parts.” When delving into homelessness causes, it’s useful to keep in mind that homelessness is both a whole and a hole into which people fall for three main reasons: mental illness, alcoholism/addiction, and housing costs.
Many journalists emphasize housing costs, partly because many live in expensive coastal cities. Off the coast, with the exception of a few cities like Austin, it’s different. As I learned in Flint and Pontiac, Michigan — columns to come — apartment cost is not a big factor in many cities that have lost population in recent decades and have room to spare.
A bigger problem in homelessness nationwide is drinking and drugging, but to a large extent we know how to deliver people from those demons: It’s just hard, and many fail. Mental illness is even harder: What goes on inside the brain is still mysterious. So as I’ve leaned into a new round of talking with homeless people, I’ve particularly wanted to hear from those diagnosed with head sickness. How do they understand the hole they fell into and have partly climbed out of?
I’ve interviewed some residents of Eden Village, a tiny house community in Springfield, Missouri, where everyone has a diagnosed disability of some sort that led to years of homelessness. Eighty percent of the disabilities are mental, and Jimmy Scott’s story is typical. He alienated his family and spent four years on the streets of Springfield before moving into Eden three years ago.
Scott, 49, became homeless after majoring in meth along with other drugs. He heard voices telling him he was “worthless… no good… my life was done with.” Homelessness “was hell, man. Getting rained on, snow in your beer, freezing out, man, wondering if I’m gonna make it to the next meal…. It’s not only having to watch out for your life all the time, you hardly sleep because you’re keeping your eyes open, wondering if you’re gonna get robbed… It was hell not knowing that, but just worrying about your life, period.”
The official diagnosis is bipolar with learning disabilities: “It’s terrible, man. It’s a roller coaster…. I’m doing good one moment…. Then I’m down all crash and just feel like the world’s all on me at once to tear me and pick me apart.” Scott says he crashes less violently in Eden Village because he takes his meds (and people remind him if he doesn’t). He talks with neighbors and has “things to do,” such as his 3-times-a-week therapy.
Scott also values a big friend and a little friend. He says the big friend is God: “We have meals where we pray,” and he praises “Coffee and prayer with Kelbi” on Wednesday mornings. Kelbi Schlueter, Eden Village’s community coordinator, says, “We host Bible study from time to time as volunteers are willing to give of their time. We have Adult Challenge (a branch of Teen Challenge) that meets weekly…. Our residents attend various churches around town.”
Scott says he goes to church on Sunday and comes back to his little friend, Tank, a bulldog-mix puppy. Family? “I’d rather not talk about it. It’s too painful…. But I have a life now. . . I have a home. I have groceries in my fridge and stuff. I have a little dog. That’s good.”
The interviews I’ve done with homeless people make me think that those who emphasize the material needs of the homeless are making a category mistake. Yes, it is hard to be in a shelter, and very hard to be “sleeping rough” on the streets. Some begin living that way because they are mentally ill, but others get worse or become ill when paranoia, lack of deep sleep, theft and violence leave nerves jagged. But, with exceptions, the reasons for homelessness in most places are not material. As Christmas approaches, we should be aware that the deeper need, typically, is relational and spiritual. Giving homeless men and women apartments still leaves them apart from what they really need: seeing other humans who care about them, and hearing the voice of a God who does. Christmas is a time to listen to voices about God’s compassion, and let them trigger our own.