I see an older gentleman standing patiently in line before he hands me his empty plate. I look into his eyes, half closed from lack of sleep, or the previous night’s alcoholic binge. He isn’t bathed and his clothes are soiled, but I find his smile endearing. As we exchange pleasantries, I wonder about his backstory, the same way I do so many others I see for dinner at the Eugene Mission, for breakfast at First Christian Church, and at Egan Warming Centers, where they sleep in church basements and Fellowship Halls when temperatures dip below 30 degrees F.
Sometimes, I do hear the stories of homeless people I have contact with through my community volunteer work, which also has included visiting homeless camps, hosting unhoused families at my church, and participating in the local Point-in-Time counts.
I’ve listened to narratives about prison life, domestic abuse, losing children in custody battles, struggles with mental illness, and leaving home with just the clothes on their backs.
I tuck their anecdotes in my heart, so I never lose sight of the barriers our homeless population faces every day. Regardless of their weathered faces, their soiled clothes, their reticence to engage with others, I know underneath all this, they are human beings, not to be feared, but acknowledged.
I haven’t always had this perspective.
Even during my 20-some years in a few nursing homes and a hospital, my encounters with homeless people remained at a safe distance, as I entered Medicaid reimbursement checks on the ledger sheet; ensured that medically indigent patients were admitted, but not placed in private rooms; tried to untangle several medical record numbers that belonged to one person with several aliases; helped homeless patients apply for Medicare and Medicaid benefits.
Homelessness was never up close and personal—until a member of my immediate family became homeless after an eviction. Already an alcoholic, her alcohol intake reached toxic levels when her partner of 30 years had a stroke and passed away.
I tried to bridge our distance of 630 miles by calling daily to see if she was taking her medications; keeping her doctor’s appointments; paying her rent. When her landlord evicted her, we drove her back to Oregon, to live with us until she got her feet on the ground. Or so we thought.
Her back story includes a life-threatening infant diagnosis; learning disabilities in the ’50s when few special programs were available; the death of her father in her preadolescence; a negligent alcoholic mother; partner abuse.
She decided to move to an apartment, rather than live with family who expected her to attend twelve-step meetings, seek counseling and find employment. She stopped taking her medications, isolated herself, and continued drinking. She didn’t take the necessary steps to make an income, and her money ran out. A range of services, from neuro-psych evaluations to rehab counseling, clarified for us that her mental health issues ran much deeper than we thought.
Rather than live on the street, she opted to live at the Eugene Mission. There, with attentive staff to guide her, she began taking tiny steps to change her life course. After 18 months, as person with mental illness who now met the criteria for being “chronically homeless,” the Mission social service staff referred her to ShelterCare’s Shankle Residence.
During my visits with her at the Mission and at Shankle Residence, I also began conversing with other guests and consumers who were homeless and whose lives were broken following a series of bad decisions and early childhood traumas.
After moving to Shankle Residence, she began accepting personal accountability for her life: She commenced taking her medications. She learned to ride the bus. She made medical appointments, and kept them.
These days, thanks to ShelterCare, she is living in an apartment independently.
Now, I have a different point-of-view about accessibility to services, medications, and housing, and what needs to be changed: Most people who are unhoused face tremendous challenges, especially when they have no one who advocates on their behalf. Even the most basic steps, such as acquiring personal ID, seeking food stamps, or applying for health insurance, are complicated steps for people who are emotionally wounded and have ambiguous plans.
Wrap-around services, FUSE, CAHOOTS, community courts, Eugene Public Library outreach workers—such collaborative forms of local outreach and advocacy are ushering more effective ways of lending a hand to people who are homeless.
Volunteering, writing letters for increased funding, speaking at Eugene City Council meetings, talking to Oregon state legislators—these are efforts any private citizen can engage in to help improve services and remove the stigma of homelessness. Every effort counts, by individuals, non-profits, agencies, government bodies, local churches and civic groups.
And every gesture can lead to something better.