Maya Angelou said, “The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”
For the last 13 years, I have worked in Provo in homeless services. I’m often asked questions about my work, but so many of the questions that I am asked are about common assumptions or misconceptions about the homeless.
I wish I could tell you all the things that I have learned in the last 13 years and what it’s like working every day with people who are experiencing the worst day of their lives.
I’ve asked a group of front-line homeless service providers to tell you what they wish you knew about the homeless individuals in our community, what it’s like to work with homelessness, and about homelessness in general.
These women and men work in Provo with people in our community who are the most vulnerable and often the most unseen. They know their names, their struggles, their successes and their failures. They sit with people in grief, in illness, in loss and in triumph.
These women and men come from agencies in our city, including Community Action Services and Food Bank, the Food and Care Coalition, Wasatch Behavioral Health, Provo City Housing Authority, Center for Women and Children in Crisis, and others.
What I Wish You Knew About Homeless People In Our Community:
“Homeless people are just like the rest of us,” said Kena, who had spent 20 years in service. “They have the same wants and needs of everyone else. They want love and acceptance and strive for better lives. They are smart and intelligent and are very ingenious. I always say if you need a problem solved — ask a homeless person.”
“I wish everyone knew how generous and giving many homeless individuals really are,” 14-year industry veteran Ryan said. “Having run a service group for over a decade comprised of currently and formerly homeless individuals with serious disabilities, I have learned that they absolutely love to give back and help others out. I wish people remembered that this is someone’s brother or sister, and at one point, they were held as a child with the same value, hopes and aspirations that you and I have for our children.”
“There are many reasons people are homeless and sometimes because of life circumstances, health, joblessness and being vulnerable people end up homeless,” someone with over 30 years of experience said, wishing to remain anonymous. “It is not always because of addiction, mental illness, criminal activities, etc.”
“They are of no less value than any other person,” Mariah said, with three years of service under her belt.
“For women, being the victim of domestic violence is a leading cause of homelessness,” Center for Women and Children in Crisis staff shared. “These women experience the trauma of domestic violence combined with the stress and uncertainty of being homeless. Often women are the primary caregivers of their children as well. Finding a safe, secure place to stay is especially important for a woman with children. Emergency shelters for individuals and families are often full or not easily accessible. Trying to secure shelter can be exhausting and time consuming. Feeling that society looks down on you and makes assumptions about your situation can lead to depression and other mental health issues.”
“There is always hope,” Dora said, after 20 years of service.
“Most of the people that are panhandling are not the homeless clients that we work with,” said Pam, who has spent 20 years serving people experiencing homelessness. “If people want to help, they need to donate to an agency that is trying to help.”
“Homelessness is not a moral failing,” an anonymous, 12-year service member said.
“They are working as hard as we are,” an anonymous person with one year of service said. “They are doing their best to survive. They do what they think is best for them. We should do our best not to judge. I know when you see a homeless person on the streets our first impression is that they made a bad choice. Guess what — don’t we make bad choices too?”
What I Wish You Knew About Working With the Homeless:
“Most homeless people I know are kind, friendly to talk to and not dangerous,” said an over 30-year industry veteran who wished to remain anonymous. “Those I know who survive on the streets every day are resourceful and are anything but lazy. It is hard work to find food, stay out of trouble and find somewhere to sleep each and every day. I wish everyone would start by not judging the homeless. Don’t say that they deserve to be in that situation — no human being deserves to be hungry and homeless. So if you see someone who is struggling, please do not immediately judge them and write them off. You don’t have to give them money, all they may need is some food or water, a kind word or two, or even just acknowledge that they are a human being, not a piece of trash. That may be all they need to help lift them up enough to make some positive changes in their life.”
“As service providers, we are so grateful for all of the outpouring of support that we receive from our community year round,” Morgan said, with three years under her belt. “If I had one tip on how to best help nonprofit organizations in the area it would be this: ask them what they need most before donating. We do have needs that are obvious and easy to think of, like canned food and socks. We also have needs that are less obvious, but just as vital.”
“The homeless population includes children, veterans, elders, disabled and domestic violence victims,” Claudia said after 14 years of service. “Homelessness can happen to anyone.”
“When my clients die, it’s like losing a family member,” an anonymous person with over 10 years of experience shared. “When I have had homeless people I have cared about freeze to death on the streets of Provo, I get angry and I cry, and I feel devastated at how unfair it is. I am never the same afterwards. And I wonder why more people don’t care when we lose these precious, precious lives.”
“You can find some of the most kind, grateful and appreciative people among the homeless population,” Erika shared four years into serving those in need.
“It is a roller coaster of emotions,” Josh said after two-and-a-half years of service. “On one hand, we see individuals at their rock bottom, struggling to survive. It can be difficult to see individuals make negative choices. On the other hand, we also see individuals overcoming various barriers and challenges and succeeding at changing their lives.”
“Helping the homeless is not as easy as getting someone a job,” said Grace, who is about 16 months into serving those experiencing homelessness. “People don’t become homeless just because they lost their job. Homelessness is usually the result of a lifetime of abuse, lack of education, poor social support systems, and mental and physical problems. Individuals come to me that have a disability, a criminal record, a mental health diagnosis, a large amount of debt and a poor credit score all combined. Even if they can find a job that they can work with their disability that will take them with their background, saving money with court fees, collections agencies and back child support is a slow process. Then if they can somehow find a job that provides a living wage and save money finding an apartment with poor credit in a housing market as competitive as Provo is even harder. There are no quick solutions when it comes to homelessness. And laziness has never been a part of the problem.”
“It’s not dangerous at all!” Ruth said after one year of service.
“We spend so much time debating about which program to fund or which strategy to implement … but the bottom line is all these people need is love,” Cees said after two years in the industry. “If we start seeing PEOPLE instead of a PROBLEM, I feel we’ll find the best path to help naturally. All it takes is a moment to ‘see’ someone and ‘love’ someone.”
What I Wish You Knew About Homelessness:
“I wish people knew how hard it can be on an individual’s mental health,” Ruth shared after a year of service.
“It is very rare for me to find anyone that would choose to be homeless as it is an exhausting daily survival experience,” Ryan said, with 14 years of experience. “I wish people would know that many experience homelessness as a result of enormous trauma histories, abuses and severe mental health conditions. I wish most of all that people knew that this is something that we can resolve and prevent with enough support and kindness one to another.”
“We have criminalized homelessness, making it even harder for transient individuals to succeed,” Grace said, 16 months into serving people experiencing homelessness. “Sleeping on the streets is illegal in most areas of Utah, but Utah County doesn’t have any emergency shelters. Transient individuals frequently have fines and charges added to their burden simply because they don’t have a place to stay.”
“I wish people knew the solution to homelessness is pretty simple,” said an anonymous individual with 32 years of service. “Homelessness is caused by lack of access to appropriate housing. The solution, then, is to find and provide more housing options for our homeless. When those experiencing homelessness are housed and offered supports, they’re able to successfully remain housed. No matter how a person became homeless or what struggles they are dealing with every day, we all need to work together to make sure they have a stable home that they can call their own. After that, any mental health, addiction or other personal issues become much more manageable.”
“Homelessness continues to be a serious and devastating social issue plaguing the United States,” Center for Women and Children in Crisis staff said. “People from all walks of life can experience homelessness. It can be embarrassing for them to ask for help. Homeless people need to feel that they can trust agencies who offer services to them. Safe, secure housing is a basic right for all.”
“Homelessness is a societal issue not just an individual issue,” 20-year industry veteran Kena said. “Telling someone to go find a job is not the solution to getting off the street. We need a comprehensive strategy that includes livable wages, job training, affordable housing options, effective addiction and mental health treatment, and well-funded support systems to improve the growing homeless problem in our community.”
“People can change, especially if they have support available,” Josh shared with two-and-a-half years of service.
“Affordable housing is the biggest barrier to combating homelessness,” Erika said after four years of service. “We need more landlords who are willing to work with service providers to help this vulnerable population.”
“A lot of homeless are mentally ill and could use a safe environment where they can get treatment but also be treated fairly,” said Ken, who has spent 14 years working with the homeless.
“For our homeless clients, it’s not always about pulling themselves up by their bootstraps to get back on their feet,” Morgan said, with three years of experience in the industry. “We have clients who do everything right and still struggle to regain their financial independence because of the flaws in our current societal system. Our clients apply to our transitional housing program, they stay clean and sober, they find jobs, they save up their money for months, they do everything right only to find that there isn’t any housing available to them that fits their income and they end up right where they started — homeless. While I think our state is doing many things to combat homelessness, there is more that can be done to fix the system that allows the poor who are doing everything right to fall through the cracks. What we are doing now is not enough. We can do more. We can do better.”
To support the homeless in our community, consider donating to the Housing First Fund at http://mountainlandcoc.org/housing-first-fund.html.