A day didn’t go by without my wondering about his whereabouts. Certain days were always more of a cause for concern; bitter cold winter nights, scorching hot summer days, and holidays—especially Christmas and Father’s Day. “I wonder where he will sleep tonight? Will he have enough to eat?” These were my perpetual thoughts as a child with a father experiencing homelessness.
Throughout most of my adolescent life, my father lived on the streets, facing complex mental health and substance use issues. These issues cycled him in and out of recovery housing and street living. My father’s separation from my mother, along with his severe mental health and substance use issues, complicated our relationship. After about 10 years on the streets and a traumatic brain injury, he now safely resides in an assisted living facility.
Despite our complicated relationship, I still carry him in my daily thoughts and send him a Father’s Day card every year. I was also inspired to work in the field of health and human services due to my father’s experience of homelessness. Through his experiences on the street, I learned about the intricacies of homeless services and the importance of treating individuals experiencing homelessness with respect:
1) People Experiencing Homelessness are People First: If you walk by an individual experiencing homelessness, remember that they have a name, a family, and a story. Treat them as such. Ask their name when you pass them on the street. Don’t just define them by their current state of housing.
2) Stigma Impedes Progress: There exists such a stigma around homelessness. But, it is important to remember that housing insecurity can happen to anyone. Part of the hurdle in propelling progress around eliminating homelessness is in erasing the stigma. Most individuals experiencing homelessness arrived there through a tragic life occurrence that could happen to anyone, such as loss of employment, divorce, domestic violence, or loss of a loved one. Let’s stop blaming individuals for their current housing situation and instead work toward policy change.
3) Services Matter: Throughout my father’s experience of homelessness, housing was integral to his survival and well-being. But, even more integral to his success and re-entry to society was housing paired with services. Recovery housing services and healthcare for the homeless programs proved vital to a healthy trajectory for my father and countless other individuals while experiencing homelessness.
4) Every Little Bit Counts: I remember making pit-stops with my mother and sister: our car filled up with socks, underwear, deodorant, and snacks—routine deliveries to my father while he was living on the streets. While most people take these common goods for granted, individuals experiencing homelessness need these basics to survive. Through this experience, I have learned the value of donating, fundraising, and serving—whether it is through launching a local sock drive or participating in a fundraising walk.
5) Homelessness is Systemic: We must examine homelessness with a socioecological lens, analyzing the multifaceted factors that contribute to the issue. Structural and systemic factors (e.g. poverty and racism) combined with individual factors (e.g. substance use and mental health issues) act as complex determinants for homelessness. To address these causes and prevent recidivism, programming must support re-entry into employment and educational settings.
Witnessing my father’s experience of homelessness has opened my eyes to the ways homelessness is a systemic injustice in our society. No individual or family should endure the toll that homelessness exacts on health and well-being. Ensuring that systems are adequately funded and appropriately allocated to individuals experiencing homelessness is imperative. Treating individuals experiencing homelessness with the dignity and respect they deserve is also crucial to erasing the stigma around this major public health crisis.
The person that you walk by on the street could be a father, a mother, a lawyer, an artist. Individuals experiencing homelessness are people. Let’s treat them as such. While my father may not have a permanent address, he will always have a home in my heart. Now off to write my Father’s Day card…
Hear more about approaches to ending homelessness by listening to a t3 podcast: "Housing First: Retention and Recovery:"