By Marvin Olasky and Covenant College students Emma Fallmezger, Jacob Sonke, Elysse Carrillo, Anna McDonald, Charity Chaney, and Lydia Dorman.
Los Angeles has been the poster child of homelessness. The first official act of new mayor Karen Bass was to place the city in a “state of emergency.” The Los Angeles Business Council scrutinized LA public opinion on homelessness and found almost unanimous agreement that the problem is serious, with 73 percent saying “very serious.” Most saw a lack of inexpensive housing as the prime reason for homelessness.
National attitudes are different. Yes, a recent Rasmussen poll showed 92 percent of American adults saying homelessness is a serious national problem in America — and 65 percent said “very serious.” That second number is up ten percentage points since February 2021. Asked to list major causes of homelessness, the 1,000 survey respondents put poverty/lack of affordable housing in third place: 66 percent said drug and alcohol addiction and 60 percent mental illness.
With national media fixation on west coast homelessness, though, it’s hard to get a sense of what people away from the spotlight think. I asked several Covenant College journalism students to interview Chattanooga, Tennessee, residents and visitors. Most, like Catherine King, a nurse who’s lived in Chattanooga since 1973, didn’t buy the idea that the cost of housing is the prime culprit: She said “Homelessness is caused by mental health, substance abuse, and [for veterans] poor VA programs.”
Gwen (last name withheld) has a brother who has drifted in and out of homelessness for the last 15 years, giving her an intimate view into the sub-culture of homelessness. People immersed in it are unlikely to leave it just by receiving material aid or even job offers. She said emotional and spiritual counselling is vital, but ministries also need to offer mentors to walk alongside homeless individuals, teach interpersonal skills, and ready them for the professional world.
In downtown Chattanooga video blogger Caleb Jackson, who wore dark clothing and platform Doc Martens, spoke of friends and family driven into homelessness due to gambling addictions. Nancy Rosenberg, in her 40s, said a co-worker lived in his Jeep for months: “It was devastating to learn that someone I knew so well was struggling so much.” Relationships made a difference, as she and others, once they knew, helped.
One surprise to the interviewers was that so many of the interviewees had personal knowledge of someone who is homeless. Lili Ford, a student at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, spoke of UTC students living in their cars. One father with two squirming children spoke of friends who lost their jobs and were evicted from their homes.
Interviewees at Rock City, a tourist attraction on Lookout Mountain, had a variety of positions. Middle-aged Mark from Melbourne, Florida, recalled how his parents were part of a ministry that brought homeless veterans into family homes. Those veterans, who often suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, received little mental health care. The traumas often damaged relationships years after returning from battle. They ended up isolated from families and former friends. That experience led Mark to believe that mental health and a lack of affordable care was the leading cause of homelessness.
A young couple from Seattle, short blonde Ashlyn and tall bearded Tyler, spent last summer working along the Pacific Crest Trail. They came to know homeless hikers who called the trail their home: Tyler called that homeless lifestyle “very human, primal… beautiful,” and emblematic of humanity’s nomadic ancestors. “It’s the land of the free,” Ashlyn added. “Let them be free.”
Not many interviewees shared that romanticism. A woman of about 50, wearing a navy Patagonia jacket and wide sunglasses but withholding her name, paused to talk about her personal experience as she put her yellow Lab in the trunk of her SUV. She remembered how a homeless man would open the door for her to others at the Starbucks she frequented: “He was the nicest man you’d ever know.” She and a friend of hers paid for a hotel room and some meals for him, but “after a while it seemed like he just wanted more and more, so we stopped paying… A year later, he died, and I felt just terrible about it.”