Our customers have said that a no-cost way to hugely improve the services they receive is just to treat them with dignity and respect. They acknowledge that social service line workers get the lowest pay in the agency, and that line workers don't make the policies that decide how customers are treated. They also notice that policies aren't often reevaluated to make sure they still serve their purpose and are working equally for everyone.
If we don't go to the root of the problem and make a political decision in this country to adequately address the need, we'll hear these stories over and over--how people have jumped the hoops but were still homeless because enough low-income housing just doesn't exist.
We frequently heard narrators were being forced to wait in lines for meals and services, and that shelter stays weren't long enough. Rarely were our narrators able to end their homelessness in a week, three months, or even in six months as mandated by various programs. Others complained that missions used a lottery system to select people because they had more people than beds available.
Jason: "Over at the mission they have a lotto because they have closed their overflow to where you cannot get a mat or something like that on the floor. They only have a limited amount of beds--I believe it is forty or something like that--so it is first come, first served. If they do not draw your number, you do not get a bed, so you are out on the street. If you have sixty or seventy people trying to bid for these beds, it is almost a lost cause--kind of discouraging."
Jason broached another topic that we'd heard before: often people are so desperate for shelter that they'll use a pretense or fake symptoms to be admitted to a program or shelter.
Jason: "I have been to everybody pretty much, even went to a mental health unit and tried to lay a line on them just to try to get a bed."
Robbie explained that he had not worked for about fifteen years because of problems with diabetes, permanent injuries from a car accident, and three surgeries. He receives disability benefits, which amount to four hundred ninety dollars per month. Out of his check he sends his daughter and son about half of his income. He had been staying at a mission each night because he could not find affordable housing. He disagreed with the missions' policies of not allowing people in until late in the evening, then asking them to leave early in the morning.
Robbie: "If you love me and care about me, then why do you let me stand out here in this rain? You know I ain't got nowhere else to go. Does that make sense?"
We were amazed at the length of time people spent on waiting lists for services, medical attention, and housing. Some of our narrators had been trying to gain Social Security or disability benefits for two or three years and longer. Consequently, they felt frustrated, disillusioned, and "bounced around," and sometimes gave up.
Rodney had applied for SSI and also for General Assistance benefits, which are meant to cover basic needs until the SSI benefits come through. His interviewer asked him about this process.
Rodney: "That is what I am working for now, the GA. I will know within the end of the month, because they sent the paper back one time before and said, 'Oh, we ain't got enough information.' I said, 'Well, you got all the information I know, I can't give you anymore that I don't know.' And so she sent it back and I have not had an answer back, but it will be coming. I just got a feeling it will be coming."
We heard about some counselors and caseworkers that were allies and took their roles seriously. A man described his counselor as "persistent," and another mentioned his caseworkers' tenaciousness in getting him needed services. Yet another narrator described how weekly meetings with his counselor made all the difference in his recovery. It was clear that the attitude of staff in the various public and private organizations made a huge difference in how a homeless person felt about utilizing their services.
Brianna described how a worker served her coffee, and how that small gesture spoke volumes about the policies there.
Brianna: "I am going, 'Wow!' They have a place where you can just sit, if you want to just sit for a couple of hours. That is really important to people that are on the street, not being chased off or harassed."
It is obvious to see how these sorts of relationships can help bridge the gap between hope and despair.
Reprinted excerpt from Voices from the Street: Truths About Homelessness from Sisters of The Road. Sisters of The Road is located in Portland, Ore.