“People who are homeless are not social inadequates. They are people without homes,” Sheila McKechnie. This Scottish human rights campaigner gets it right. Just days away from Thanksgiving, people all across America have been honoring National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week.
As a result of methodological and financial constraints, most studies are limited to counting people who are in shelters or on the streets. While this approach may yield useful information about the number of people who use services such as shelters and soup kitchens, or who are easy to locate on the street, it can result in underestimates of homelessness. Many people who lack a stable, permanent residence have few shelter options because shelters are filled to capacity or are unavailable. A recent study conducted by the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that 12 of the 23 cities surveyed had to turn people in need of shelter away due to a lack of capacity. Ten of the cities found an increase in households with children seeking access to shelters and transitional housing while six cities cited increases in the numbers of individuals seeking these resources (U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2007).
The National Coalition for the homeless says that the two trends that are largely responsible for the rise in homelessness over the past 20-25 years are a growing shortage of affordable rental housing and a simultaneous increase in poverty. Recently, foreclosures have increased the number of people who experience homelessness. Since the start of the recession, six million jobs have been lost. In May 2009, the official unemployment rate was 9.4% and it is still climbing. The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that 40 percent of families facing eviction due to foreclosure are renters and 7 million households living on very low incomes (31 – 50 percent of Area Median Income) are at risk of foreclosure.
“By it’s very nature, homelessness is impossible to measure with 100% accuracy. More important than knowing the precise number of people who experience homelessness is our progress in ending it. Recent studies suggest that the United States generates homelessness at a much higher rate than previously thought.” The National Coalition is asking us not to care about how many, but to get mobilized with a more empathetic outlook and start doing something about it!
Here in Nashville it is difficult to nail down an accurate number of homeless people. Reports start at 3,000 and go upwards to around 8,000. The Nashville Rescue Mission, Safe Haven Family Shelter, and the Salvation Army are just a few of the organizations that provide services and resources to our local homeless population. The basic problem of homelessness is the human need for personal shelter, warmth and safety, which can be literally vital. Homeless people face many problems beyond the lack of a safe and suitable home. They are often faced with many social disadvantages and reduced access to private and public services such as reduced access to health care and limited access to education. Such difficulties will often be exacerbated by the circumstances in which someone has become homeless, and consequential vulnerabilities such as health problems or alcohol and drug dependence. Ending Homelessness In Nashville is a mini-documentary for the homeless situation here in Music City. In Nashville we even have a homeless man who has a blog. You can follow The Homeless Guy on blogspot and friend him on facebook. Only in the United States do our homeless blog. On his blog you can learn about the issues of our homeless community and find local activities and donation sites. His site attempts to unveil the schema around this untouchable community. He gives a face to the issue and helps to raise awareness!
From the National scene to Nashville and even in the movies, homelessness is definitely an issue that needs to be addressed. This year in the theater, The Soloist confronted the issue of homeless head on. The film is based on the book that was written as a result of the unexpected relationship that formed between L.A. journalist, Steve Lopez, and cellist Nathaniel Ayers. Nathaniel is a musician who developed schizophrenia and became homeless. Steve was struck by the talent and genius that seemed to be tossed aside by society yet lived on in the heart of Nathaniel. Instead of ignoring Nathaniel, Steve immersed himself in the world of the homeless culture that Nathaniel had grown accustomed to. This touching story is a must see on film or a definite read for the new year because it captures the love of music, creativity and matches it with the humanity of the homeless realities of far too many Americans.
Recently, I was visiting my local Redbox to get an affordable flick to wind down with. When I pulled up I wasn’t sure what I should rent and I began to chat with the person in front of me in line. I hadn’t decided on a movie yet when she left so the homeless man who had been leaning up against the wall came over and began to discuss his movie preferences with me. Instead of ignoring him I engaged in a conversation that went from movies, to traveling, and it ended with music. He showed me his harmonica and his mp3 player. He says he doesn’t go anywhere without that. He likes to play along to what he is listening to. He told me that he can tell when music is insincere and when it comes from the soul. He only listens to music from the soul – it is more enjoyable to play along to. He had everything he owned in a sack slung over his shoulder. This was the only time freedom has ever looked like a prison. I could only think of questions as I drove away – why did he live like that, when did it happen, what hurts him?
I wrote The Invisible Man last year with co-writer Frank Michels before my encounter with the mp3-carrying, harmonica-playing traveler. Remember, there is a soul behind the layers and wrinkles of the people you meet on the streets. You never really know if that could be you one day. This holiday season, take the time to recognize the humanity and heart that so often we ignore in the homeless community.