Many years ago, I fondly recall sitting on a curb with a gentleman who was homeless. Reflecting upon that day, I distinctly remember many characteristics, mannerisms, and particular traits that made this person an individual. He was wearing an old black leather coat that was tattered and barely holding together by a string. His jeans looked as though they had been handed down to him by a man twice his size and his shoes were duct taped together keeping them from falling apart. I was mesmerized by his smile, because it made you feel as though you were the only person in the room. The man had a genteel way about him. Sadly, it was all-to-obvious that he had been living on the street for some time with the matting of his hair, stained finger nails and overall hygiene. It is an experience that will ever lie dormant in my mind.
At that time of my life, I was working with patients and volunteering with a homeless organization in downtown Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. As I reflect, I can still recall the distinct tone of his voice and the trembling therein. As you might be capable of telling, I had grown to admire and deeply care about this individual. As we got to know one another, he began by telling me about his own childhood and the happiness that reflecting upon this experience brought him. Admittedly, as a clinician, I could not define a single segment of his personal childhood story that instilled concern. Rather, my journey down this individual’s reflective process, removed all doubts of the stability and care that he may have experienced in childhood.
As we continued down the life highway of this individual, I soon began to learn of the many pathways of chaos, destruction, obstacles and unmeasurable pain that he had encountered. Likewise, I also recall how his own personal mannerisms shifted and this seemingly steady handed man became fragile and inconsolable.
I recall his constant fidgeting with his hands and how every so often he would pluck out a single eyebrow. Even as I tell this story, my own eyes tear up; my mind is shifting back and forth on mental images snapped on that day. The man begins to tell me how he had been an officer in the Canadian Military and how he had served in the United States during the “Vietnam conflict.” As I listened, I learned of a man who had executed his civil duty to protect not only his country but the citizens of two separate countries: Vietnam and the United States. It was apparent that while this conflict had caused him unbearable mental anguish; it was further obvious that this was only the tip of the iceberg.
Wiping my eyes and shifting my legs, trying to keep comfortable on a very uncomfortable curb, I felt compelled to listen. As he told of the horrors and atrocities experienced in the “Vietnam conflict;” he would occasionally discuss how he was missing out on the raising of his own children. Before departing for the Vietnam conflict; the gentleman had been blessed with a third child. As I learned of the birth of his third child, I felt as though I was almost present at this birth. He still had a giddiness about his son’s birth. Moreover, it was apparent that he still maintained an unbelievable joy and tenderness for each of his children. The man would go on to tell me stories related to his children and it was apparent that he adored each and every one of them and authentically loved being a father.
Upon his return to Canada, he would learn of his wife’s departure from the country. She not only returned to her home country of India, but she would flee with their three children. He explained that she was completely against the Vietnam conflict and could not support his decision to support the war. Throughout our time together, the man shed many tears. While he refused to make excuses, he explained that this was the primary catalyst that would lead him down a road of self- loathing and self-doubt. He remains unapologetic about his role in the Vietnam conflict and the various choices that he had made upon his journey that he called life. He told of his own personal decisions to begin partaking of various mind-altering substances and how they enhanced his mood. The man seldom made excuses or found fault in another.
THE CRUELTY OF HOMELESSNESS
There should never be any blame or shame in being homeless. Homelessness is frequently met with many mental health challenges. It is stigmatized by society, the media, and the general public. It is rare that you might meet an individual who genuinely loves being homeless. I have yet to meet someone who felt that they were destined to be homeless. Homelessness is not a choice, but rather a journey that many find themselves in.
Please understand that not every person living on the street is homeless; nor is every homeless person an addict. “According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, approximately 30% of people experiencing chronic homelessness have a serious mental illness, and around two-thirds have a primary substance use disorder or other chronic health condition.” There is undoubtedly a relationship between homelessness and mental health issues. Furthermore, we know that those suffering from severe mental health issues and poverty are less likely to seek-out quality mental health services. Interestingly enough, research has also shown that there are many homeless who reject certain types of government care.
YOU ARE NOT ALONE
If you know of someone who is homeless; or by chance you are homeless yourself; you are not alone. It is of the utmost importance that providers of mental health services have a clear and unbiased understanding of homelessness. Clinicians should be trained to identify any underlying conditions that may be associated with homelessness. Of equal importance, clinicians must provide a judgement-free atmosphere that is evidence based.
Homelessness is a growing concern in Canada, the United States and across this global community. Unfortunately, homelessness is an ever-growing and misunderstood segment of the population. Did you know that data clearly shows that minorities make up a larger percentage of homelessness than any other population? “According to census numbers, African-Americans, for example, make up approximately 13 percent of the U.S. population, yet 39 percent of the U.S. population experiencing homelessness are African American. Other subpopulations experiencing homelessness also present with unique needs, including mitigation of trauma: over 68,000 are victims of domestic violence, and over 35,000 are unaccompanied youth.” We live in a culture that prefers to have a blind eye to this troubling epidemic. Let’s consciously work as a society to change the image and awareness of homelessness.
If you, or you know of someone that is having housing difficulties, please contact the HUDVET National Hotline at (877) 424-3838, or view Resources for Homeless Veterans on the HUD Exchange.
National Runaway Safeline- help is available 24/7 at 1-800-RUNAWAY (1-800-786-2929)
National Center for Homeless Education https://nche.ed.gov/states/state_resources.php
To learn more or get assistance, visit the website at nche.ed.gov or contact the helpline at: (800) 308-2145
National Domestic Violence Hotline – 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)
National Human Trafficking Resource Center – 1-888-373-7888
Volunteers of America- voa.org/homeless-people
Or text “HELP” or “INFO” to BeFree (233733).
Do not avoid helping a friend in crisis. The time is often of the essence. Please contact someone if you are thinking about running away, you know of someone who has run away, is a victim of violence, or is struggling with a housing situation. Many of these programs are available for everyone and are free, and confidential.
Dr. Asa Don Brown, Ph.D., C.C.C., D.N.C.C.M., F.A.A.E.T.S.
References Provided Upon Request