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As a homeless man with Autism Spectrum Disorder in Salt Lake City, I have been able to gather a very good understanding of the composition of the homeless population and the type of struggles that the homeless face. It seems that everywhere that there is a significant quantity of homeless people, inevitably there is also a push for those people to get into housing.
In Salt Lake, for example, the staff at the shelter were tasked with wearing shirts that optimistically ask; “How I can help with your housing today?”
The whole “help with housing” thing is, sadly, a bit of a cruel joke.
The majority of those in the homeless population don’t or can’t qualify for any kind of housing for one reason or another. Many are hopelessly handicapped with one or more debilitating mental health issues that would preclude any successful housing placement. They shouldn’t be in a shelter, of course, but the availability of adequate psychiatric care is dramatically inadequate for the task. All of those decisions were made, however, by politicians far removed from the reality of homelessness.
Others are too lost in addictions that desperately need treatment to be seriously considered for housing. But we have a war on drugs, not a war on addiction. There again, politicians.
Others are already on Social Security, Disability, Veteran’s benefits, and various other support programs that are inadequate for the ever more expensive housing that is available. Some of those have been waiting for years for some kind of assistance in this regard. Once again; politicians. Still others are somewhere in the limbo between qualification for either Disability or Social Security income or they need adequate job training to earn enough income to make housing a possibility. Some are waiting for the day when they can get an expungement or some other assistance with felony convictions so that they can have a chance to rebuild their lives. These people are just… stuck.
In spite of what some ignorant people would have you believe; the homeless population really isn’t comprised solely of drug-addled wastrels and lazy parasites. We are capable of being thinking, feeling, loved and loving people. Many, perhaps most, are mentally or physically disabled, unable to work and in need of better treatment options. In some cases, people in this group have been forgotten, abandoned by or are without family, and therefore do not have that support.
Some are retirees and elderly people who have found out the hard way that Social Security, Disability, and in many cases; Veteran’s benefits fall far short of providing a living in this era that is increasingly discriminatory to the poor. The only crime these people are guilty of is the lack of ability to navigate the byzantine world of investing and finance and have therefore failed to become wealthy enough to live out the rest of their years in something other than abject poverty and depression.
While it is true that alcohol and drug abuse is pervasive in the homeless population, so too is pain, depression, hunger, fear, loneliness and loss. But alcohol and drug abuse are largely a by-product, not the main cause of homelessness. Sure, some are inveterate addicts or alcoholics, but again, we have a war on drugs, not addiction. The War on Drugs is an utterly failed and discredited exorcise by any sane measure. Somehow America, the “Land of the Free” became the largest imprisoner of its own people, with more people imprisoned than any other nation on earth. During the late 1980’s, we were building a new jail or prison every 40 days! Just imagine, if you will, what may have happened if we had built more treatment centers instead of more jails and prisons, imagine the same resources applied to a war on addiction, with funding allocated for psychiatrists, psychologists, family counselors and intervention experts. We could have done so much better, accomplished so much more, and we could have come so much farther. There wouldn’t be as many broken families, there wouldn’t be as many shattered lives. There wouldn’t be anywhere near as many homeless.
The impoverished, the disabled, those afflicted by mental illness, the chronically addicted and those with tarnished records because of the war on drugs have no lobbyists and we can’t afford to pay for re-election campaigns. Sadly, we have no billionaires to champion us, and that is a tragedy. But that shouldn’t mean that it is OK for us to be shunned and ignored by our elected officials. We are Americans too, and they have sworn to represent us as well. We should not let this happen.
Mitt Romney famously said: “I’m not worried about the poor; they have a safety net.”
We Do? Really? Come spend a few days in our ‘safety net’ Mitt. You may just learn something.
K. Marlo Yost is a man with Autism Spectrum Disorder recovering from homelessness in a small apartment in Salt Lake City. He is writing a book based on his experiences.