Monday, February 5, 2018

homeless census

The volunteers gathered at 8:45 at Boston City Hall, that local masterpiece/monstrosity of the architectural style that proudly declared itself as Brutalism. People standing in the area just past the metal detector pointed us to our team area.

The homeless census was framed as a local event, but in truth, every city that gets federal money to shelter homeless people is obligated to do this kind of "point-in-time" count. Whatever the flaws of this approach, don't blame your mayor. There are better ways to count homeless people if you're concerned about estimating the number of actual homeless people. But it's the perfect policy for counting homeless people if your concern about homeless people starts with those who are visible to others.

"Homelessness", as an idea for folks who aren't poor, mostly amounts to a category that translates to the visibly desperate, the obviously impoverished. I hear this when I explain what I do for a living in well-to-do social settings. There is sometimes this strange fumbling on the part of the person I'm talking to, where they end up blurting out some story like "I talked to a homeless person once" or "I bought a guy a sandwich" or "I see people with signs on my drive home from work." That's OK. I understand that when I say the word "homeless" that this pokes right into an until-then-healed-over confusion and anxiety that people feel when they actually see other people's desperation. What they feel in that moment when somehow the desperation connects to them, and they know that it's both simple and complicated at the same time.

Homelessness isn't just the man sleeping in a doorway in a wealthy neighborhood. The "homeless lady" who is seen in the park with her bags and her inner voices. This is mostly who people at parties I go to are thinking of. And those are important people too. But, I learned from my boss when I started doing this job, you can get all kinds of answers when you ask, what are the causes of homelessness?--and you can offer a very simple response in return. Homelessness is caused when the cost of having a home exceeds the ability of people to pay that cost. The rest--that's just details.

And this might remind you that there are some other homeless people you'll never count, people whose suffering is immense but not visible, not recalled as a "social problem" because it doesn't enter into the social urban space:

  • A woman who regularly must inhabit a treacherous ever-shifting zone between a man's simply selfish sex and his outright rapes in order to stay in an apartment.
  • A man who is sleeping in a storage unit, in a warehouse storage facility.
  • A woman and her child who won't leave her boyfriend's house because he really might kill them if they do.
  • A transgender woman who gets one kind of abuse in women's shelters and another in men's, and so stays outside to avoid both.
  • A man who has to stay out of his sister's house a few nights each week so she doesn't lose her housing for having people stay in her apartment.
  • A man, just out of prison, taken in by a woman who wants to fix him, to save him, and he's not sure that he's fixable or that he wants to be saved, but he knows he wants to be inside.

And there are so many more.

Even, almost, a small group of women in an ATM vestibule in a corner of the city I won't identify, women we didn't see at first, looking wary. We did count them, luckily. But we didn't count any of the others. And if it was easy to get an affordable place to live, all of them would have their lives changed. If we made housing a priority. If we thought it was what our fellow human beings deserved. If we could count them all, and they all counted.