It seems that many people believe that homelessness would not, and could not, ever happen to them. They trust in their education, employment, money management skills, social network, etc., to keep them housed. But all it takes is one disaster, such as a fire, flood or earthquake, to destroy a home. Or a major financial setback, such as loss of employment or medical expenses that could eventually lead to homelessness. There are some who do have the support of family and friends, but those who don’t are turned out to the streets.

One paycheck away...

Once on the street, life changes drastically. In the eyes of the community, you become a “transient,” a “bum,” a “problem.” In the eyes of law enforcement, you become a criminal, someone to be threatened and moved along. In the eyes of your friends and neighbors (and perhaps family), you are an embarrassment, uncomfortable, someone to be avoided. The depression that sets in is intense. Local nonprofits and churches want to help, but their resources are limited. There are just not enough funds available to help everyone who needs it.

As time goes on, hopes of housing begin to fade. Being shuffled about from one hotel to another, waiting for a “Section 8” voucher opportunity, being turned away from housing because you hold a voucher, learning that you are #300 on an apartment complex’s wait list, being told there’s a better chance for housing if you leave the county, losing hope day by day. Some eventually turn to alcohol or drugs. Some develop debilitating mental issues. And some decide they just can’t go on.

After an extended time on the streets, a transition back to stable housing can be traumatic. The fight-or-flight response, active 24/7 while outside, does not instantly switch off with housing. There is a sense of not knowing what to do. You still do not feel secure and wonder how long this housing will last. There is fear. There is sadness. There is a feeling of loss – of your homeless companions, your homeless lifestyle, your identity as “homeless.” There is guilt and a sense of being a “traitor” to the homeless community. Money received cannot go for home furnishings. It must be saved for a van or RV … just in case. 

Judy Wheeler is a volunteer, lived-experience writer for the Sierra Roots/No Place to Go Project, which is funded by the Upstate California Creative Corps. For more information, contact