Helping the Homeless: A Service Guide (book)

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Why I read it

I read Helping the Homeless: A Service Guide by Chaplain T. M. Babcock in June 2018, I had also recently moved to San Francisco, which has many, many homeless people, and wanting to do start because... well I don't want to just ignore the problem like everyone else. There are over half a million homeless in the US, with over 100,000 in California. Over 2/5 of them are children (under 18)... most with their families but 45 thousand of them alone.

I searched Amazon for "How the help the Homeless" and surprisingly few books came up, and I thought I'd give this one a chance. On thing I didn't realize - the book is written by a person of faith (I should have paid attention to the author's name) and thus has a fairly strong overtone of Christianity and faith, which bothered me a little bit as an agnostic, but I still thought it was a good book.

I think one of the most brilliant things I got from this book is thinking of the homeless as a very heterogenous population. There are many honest homeless people, many dishonest, many hard working, many with dreams, many lacking love, many with mental illness or chronic substance abuse *(~1/2)*, many with problems maintaining relationships... just like those of us with homes. We can can be kind or unkind, addicted, divorced and so on. The difference could be as simple as a little luck - having a support system and parents who didn't abandon or abuse you. Homeless people are just people. I already realized that in the US... most people are one medical emergency away from bankruptcy, so it makes sense that anyone can become homeless. Actually most Americans live paycheck to paycheck (often in credit card debt) without enough savings to maintain housing through a layoff even. However, I've never though in such detail about how the foster care system, overmedication of veterans, prison systems (actually any system that institutionalizes people), dementia, inflated house prices, lack of housing, poor credit history, coma, and other factors can contribute. Let's not forget that outside of America there are refugees feeling war or other disaster (be it caused by nature or government).

It makes you think about how the label "homeless" can destroy a person. It is associated with failure, and after a while, someone who is temporarily displaced (via misfortune) can quickly become chronically homeless (who adopt life on the street as a lifestyle). I don't like people who say it's a choice - but when everything you try fails, some don't so much embrace being homeless as accept that this is their place in society.. their day to day struggle is to avoid rape, disease, find food, learn the system and find a place to sleep each night. Some take pride in their survival instincts. It's about all they can be proud of - perseverance.

Others deny homelessness - they are couch surfers, or living in garages - they don't want to hear "homeless" because the word associates with the lowest level of humanity.

As before, I think it's arrogant to cast any single blanket statement about the homeless. Except the one lovely statement in this book homeless people are just people:

Some unfairly stereotype homeless individuals as being bad people, some have gone wot the other extreme and decided all homeless individuals are just nice people who have fallen on hard times. The truth is they are just people. They run the gambit from sinner to saint, clean to dirty, safe to very unsafe, and all the shades of gray in between! They pretty much mirror the rest of society. Anyone can be the victim of financial catastrophe.

I will write down some of the most notable parts of the book here... I've copied in the whole table of contents because I believe that's actually a great way to remember the book.

Summary Notes

An Introduction to the Homelessness: The Rising Tide in America

We are the solution, one person at a time, making a difference in one person's or one family's lives.

Let me tell you about Sheba (pseudonym) ... looked like someone to avoid, filthy, no teeth. She talked ridiculously fast to herself out loud because she realized it kept people away, thus kept her safe... rapes of women on the street were a daily occurrence in her world. One of her old friends from the streets had come into a Christian rescue mission and experienced real transformation, and show her the possibly that life could be different. She was taught to slow her speech and once Sheba changed, people didn't recognize her as a clean beautiful young Ethiopian woman. She taught me a lot about how far down a person can go and still rise again to find her dignity.... precious people who hide in the shadows of our city.

Not since the Great Depression, when there were large number of unemployed and displaced persons, have we had the level of homelessness we are seeing in America. In 2014, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) counted 113,952 homeless individuals just in California, over half a million in the United States. My personal brush with homelessness was just brief... 11 years old, no money, fortunately good friends of my parents took us in until my parents could secure a place to live.

I have had personal acquaintances who found themselves temporarily displaced, ... one they took in said she was "*not homeless*". She was just going through a difficult patch. She was sure I was implying that she was a negligent and untrustworthy person. She said the word homeless as though it implied the lowest level of humanity... a crisis left her unable to work... it was difficult to discuss because the stigma of the homeless made the topic toxic.

Single parents are often severely challenge in finding affordable housing and having enough savings to help them maintaning their housing through a layoff.

a) The Foster Care System is Contributing to Homelessness

In a pinch I knew my mom or my brothers would help me out if I could swallow my pride enough to ask.

This woman didn't have a network of support... orphaned at a young age when her parents were killed in an accidence, then raised in the foster care system, no family to rejoin during school holidays.

Every year there are thousands of kids who "age out" of the foster care system and have a similar story... often severe emotional trauma in their past that interferes with their ability to build healthy relationships. All they have known in chaos. In 2014, 194,000 children and youth (under 18) homeless with their family and an additional 45,205 children on their own without an adult. The majority of the prison population in America has been through the foster care system - in some states as high as 90%. I predict we will continue to see the number of homeless individuals group, as a result of more hidden homeless individuals as cities try to push out the homeless encampments that make their numbers look bad. City officials often move the problem around rather than solve it.... Has it happened to you yet? If not, just wait for another deeper recession and it will impact you or someone you know.

b) A Little History

... author talks about herself: military family, two parents, two brothers. At 11 years old, her family was homeless for just a few months after my father retired from the military. They travelled across country, but the engine of their Buick began smoking. The cost of a new engine wiped out almost everything my parents had saved to resettle in California. Fortunately they had good family friends to come to their rescue.

c) The New Homeless: Couch Surfing and Drive-Through Life

There is a form of homelessness referred to as "couch surfing". Some families are living in a good Samaritan's garage because they can't find housing. There are many families living in their cars. Anyone who has experienced an eviction even if it wasn't their fault, will find it almost impossible to be accepted as a renter. With the advent of... Internet access to people's rental history information, previously unavailable to landlords can now be traced back decades and bar them from housing almost indefinitely. Now landlords routinely look at credit history and any arrests as reasons to deny housing.

Sometimes all it takes is a shortage of rental units. In June of 2016, a study showed that Lost Angeles needed and additional 382,000 rental unites to keep up with demand. In a market that this, landlords can pick from the cream of the crop - anyone with low credit rating, a mental illness, a record of incarceration or just too many kids will be pushed to the curb. Even shelters generally won't take anyone with more than three children. Parents become too afraid to ask for help for fear their children will be taken by social services for now providing adequately for their children.

d) Domestic Violence and Homelessness

I began working for Battered Women's Services in San Diego. It was often the need to recover their homes that drove many of them back into unsafe relationships. I had many conversation with women who just couldn't walk away from their house and belongings. Court-ordered restraining orders can help show a history of abuse and help in prosecution of a batterer, but they don't protect if a person choses to ignore the order... it's a protective device with rational, law abiding individuals, to a batterer it's just a piece of paper.

... How heartbreaking is it to to see someone who has ended up in a place where the total of his or her life's material possessions now fit into a shopping cart.

e) Homelessness in Skid Row

I was recruited to work in the heart of Los Angele's Skid Row (really called Central City), but the term Skid Row has become slang for any depressed urban area know for its cheap hotels, homelessness and prostitution. Most of our clients were form very impoverished roots, but not all. Some has just been derailed by some cataclysmic life circumstance.

The program was a year in length... first year, counseling, support groups, spiritual development, work assignments, social events, and academic study. Sometimes homelessness was the reason they started using drugs... we learned what lead to homelessness, drug use and instability of many kinds often began when their didn't fit into the study of the American education system. Perhaps it was because there was no stability at home; sometimes it was because they had an undiagnosed learning disability(( and were told they were just too stupid to learn. Keeping a job and being promoted to a higher-wage position requires appropriate social skills.

Many of the adults we worked with had never had the social skills and work ethics required to maintain traditional employment modeled for them. Some of them came from families that were multi-generation addicts and/or criminals.

Once a person is an adult, very little social mentoring takes place. I remember a woman who would lean in and put her face in another person's face abrasively while talking. One day I mimicked her behavior and then told her that this body language was a big part of why people didn't want to work with her. She was shocked and offended. She emphatically told me she didn't do that... until a day later she came back, clearly astonished... I doubt would ever have learned how she was contributing to being socially ostracized.

f) A Life of Crime and Incarceration with No Way Out

Some people are homeless because of their own bad behavior... poor examples at home, substance abuse issues, a life crisis or mental illness. A criminal lifestyle isn't always a choice... I worked with many who came from families that were deeply imbedded in gang life styles... many generations... giving up that means having to give up on relationships with their families, childhood friends and neighbors. ... author gives one example of a woman selling illegal drugs, and the family supported her rehab but her choice to heave behind the criminal lifestyle and stop supporting her parents was not received well.

g) Overmedicating Our Veterans Has Produced Homelessness

There are many veterans among the homeless. Many returned injured and needed pain medication... many of these prescribed pain medications has a serious addiction potential and have been handed out like candy by uniformed doctors... Some pharmaceutical companies even told doctors these medications were not addictive when given for legitimate pain... some have brains injuries and physiological damage.

h) Homelessness and the Mentally Ill

There are a large number of the homeless who a mental disorder. Is a person has a substance abuse disorder and a mental illness he or she is considered to have "co-occurring disorders" or to be "dual diagnosed. For a long time services weren't available for dual diagnosed individuals. I believe the numbers are so large because we have tied society's hands, preventing help to the mentally ill by inappropriate legislation... their freedom of choice outweighs their need for treatment. In 2013, 257,300 (almost half) of homeless have a severe mental illness or a chronic substance use disorder. In 1963, the Community Mental Health Centers Act made it unlawful to detain mentally ill people against their will if the are not current a danger to themselves or others. Now mentally ill people can be so delusional as not to know who they are and not maintain a safe living environment, but they cannot be forced to get treatment.

I have worked with mentally ill senior adults who have been so impacted by dementia that they could not find their way back to their homes, but police would not detain them. If no family members reported them as missing and they did not become violent or suicidal, they would be left to wander aimlessly with no help. Public facilities are few and overburdened. Government-funded facilities seem to be motivated to release patients as quickly as possible, regardless of their mental state.

Most mentally ill are not violent and not a threat to others. However the number of individuals who are acting out with violence seems to be increasing... the increase in synthetic drugs is also causing a rise in those who become violent when drug impaired. Even marijuana, which traditionally didn't cause violent behavior, in it's synthetic form can cause aggressive behavior for some users.

i) Labels that Perpetuate Homelessness

No matter the cause, once a person falls into the hole of homelessness, it is very difficult to climb out. Once a label is placed on a person, like "criminal", or "addict", or "homeless" society naturally treats them with suspicion and isolates them.

This is often a driving force in the life of someone who is chronically as a lifestyle. These are the people who have tired of banging their heads against a brick wall. They are tired or rejection and failure.

j) Has It Happened to You Yet?

Sooner or later, I imagine we are all going to be faced with some family member or friend knocking on our door with no place to go.... if not, just wait for another deeper recession... ask yourself, "what will I do when I see an individual or family in need".

2) Why Are Most Homeless Assistance Programs Faith Based?

so here is where I drifted off a little, but still some interesting stuff...

... is as much about those who help as it is about the needs of the person who is homeless. Homelessness can't help but impact a person spiritually because it impacts every area of a life... people who are homeless can also be quite spiritually mature and not in need of any real tutelage on spiritual issues.

There is a long history of holy men who have left all worldly possessions to seek a higher level of spiritual awareness... this is not the kind of homelessness we are seeking to help.

Most chronically homeless individual have chosen to embrace, rather than fight their economic circumstances. They leave behind self-pity and the definitions of helplessness by adapting to a homeless lifestyle. They have come to believe there is no hope to get out of their impoverished, jobless, homeless state and have decided to embrace it rather than continue to seek solutions. For a person who has lost hope, that hope has the be rekindled through practical help before any long-term solutions can be found. They need help in redefining themselves as part of society that has rejected them.

Almost every charitable organization in America has its roots in people of faith. The first universities, hospitals and sanitariums were created by people of faith... Charity is a long-standing tradition of Islamic, Jewish and Christian traditions, Giving is not based on the worthiness of the recipient, but the character of the giver.

the author then gives some bible quotes like "When you help the poor you are lending to the Lord - and he pays wonderful interest on your loan.".

A mature person gives back to the next generation, to the community, and to those less fortunate than him or herself.

3) Who's that Sleeping on My Couch?

Taking a homeless person into your home is seldom a good idea.

I told her it would be just temporary... that began a year of shared residency. I highly recommend if you work with homeless individuals on a daily basis, keep your home as a sanctuary where you can decompress. It is spiritually and emotionally taxing work, and most of us need some time to rejuvenate.

It is just plain difficult to live with another human being. There was also a lack of trust... fear the unknown.

What homeless have in common is they have lost access to resources. Sometimes obvious, like a hurricane, but sometimes it is because they don't know how to live with people.

Some unfairly stereotype homeless individuals as being bad people, some have gone wot the other extreme and decided all homeless individuals are just nice people who have fallen on hard times. The truth is they are just people. They run the gambit from sinner to saint, clean to dirty, safe to very unsafe, and all the shades of gray in between! They pretty much mirror the rest of society. Anyone can be the victim of financial catastrophe.

Not knowing how to get along with others can lead to divorce, loss of jobs, and alienating anyone who would help you! ... ever met someone overly self-important... just plain mean... or act so helpless that it's a full time job to be around them. Often people can get away with these offensive characteristic because someone is willing to put up with them.

Now invite someone with any of these issues into your home and the "fun" times begin.

When we help others it almost always requires more than we are at first willing to give. But it almost always give us back more than we expected to get.

The truth is that we have very limited information about people until we live with them. Some individuals make their livelihood from suing people.

I have found some of the people who look the scariest to have the biggest hearts.

Trust must be earned, only love is unconditional. If you do not have good personal boundaries, sharing a house with someone is probably not for you. Instead:

  • Volunteer at a shelter or food bath.
  • Often groups will drive for hygiene products and then assemble kits to be given out... many churches in LA do Undie Sunday which isa drive for new underwear to give to the shelters.

Even with a caregiver and hospice nurses the stress of my mothers decline was so taxing I became ill as a result of the stress.

4) Definition and Service Challenges: Of the Temporarily Displaced and the Chronically Homeless

a) Who are the Homeless?

There are generally two categories of homeless individuals (or families):

  1. temporarily displaced, due to economic or social circumstances.
  2. chronically homeless, those who have adopted life on the street as a lifestyle... this group is more resistant to interventions.

The first group can move into the second group if no timely intervention occurs.

b) Recently Displaced Profiles

In America, these individuals include those fleeing domestic abuse, kicked out of home, families evicted, just release from jail or prison, mentally ill wandered away or displaced by natural disasters. Problem comes when the normal network of support is interrupted or the displaced person has such poor life skills that he or she has either alienated those who would have helped them and/or does not have the ability to access other resources. Sometimes in a major natural disaster or war an entire community can be destroyed. This can cause people to lose their entire network of support.

The impact of a traumatic crisis can make it difficult to do normal tasks, like filling out an application or going to a government office. People who are so traumatized that they can't reach out for help can become homeless very quickly. Most Americans live paycheck to paycheck with little if any reserve. The single person who goes into a coma can wake up today have being evicted, all their possessions thrown away, and a huge hospital bill. Ask yourself "*who would take care of my personal and professional business if I was temporarily incapacitated*".

They may be raped, beaten, and robbed. In their delusional state, they make a poor witness to any crime. Their condition, for example, paranoia, may make them incapable of seeking effective help. If they are treated roughly by law enforcement, they may identify all police as the enemy and will not seek help.

c) Chronically Homeless or Homelessness as a Lifestyle

These individuals have crossed from looking for a way to rejoin conventional society to trying to make their life work within the context of homelessness. Usually they have been displaced for a while and out of necessity had to learn survival skills. They develop a system that works for them, and they begin to take pride in their independence and survival skills.

Each day has it's own set of challenges, but they are simple and straightforward. They find a place to sleep, sources of food, and drug connections if applicable and panhandle or develop small street business for cash. It can be a very hash world. They may be assaulted, robbed and raped. They may become indebted to loan shards or others who prey on their vulnerability and become involved in drug trafficking, prostitution, robberies and con games.

They learn the resources in the area, including rescue missions how to work the various systems to their advantage. Some travel from city to city using shelter systems until they are no longer eligible. Then they move on to another city and do the same thing until enough time has passed to begin the circuit again. They learn how to tell the institution like the rescue mission what they want to hear to make them eligible for a bed and other resources. They become acquainted with the social services programs and learn the correct responses to get on the payroll for General Relief or for Social Security Insurance. As a counselor in a shelter setting, I learned to recognize the clients who have become institutionalized. Institutionalization means that they only know how to function within the framework of an institutional setting. They often self-sabotage when it comes time to graduate from a program. They just don't know how to do life on the outside.

When people are in an institution, like prison, so many of their daily decisions are made for them that a multitude of choices and decisions necessary in an unstructured life can be overwhelming. I have heard the difference in a day can be between 3 thousand and 25 thousand decisions.

Some homeless woman would make up stories about abuse to get into the nicer shelters.

One of the problems we had in helping the women in the domestic violence shelter get help was that if we sent them to the welfare office without a staff escort, there were predatory men who would approach them. They would be friendly, helpful, but were only interested in the checks (more money if they had more children).

Many people who come from other countries trying to escape the woes of their own country only find that they are selling themselves into slavery here. Many of the immigrant men I met going through the recovery programs came to the United States in hope for a better life. When they couldn't find work or housing they became depressed and turned to alcohol and/or drugs. They were so beaten down by addiction that they became a shell of their former selves.

But when you see despair become hope and the grime is washed away to reveal a person who has self-respect again, is is a very different experience. The human spirit can overcome great obstacles when we know we have worth. Depression and despair rob us of our humanity.

5) Interventions to the Homelessness

Intervention for the homeless service workers can be broken down into:

  1. first contact,
  2. intact,
  3. initial stabilization,
  4. short-term rehabilitation,
  5. long-term rehabilitation, and
  6. aftercare.

a) First Contact - Who, What, and When

Who makes the first contact? They may be looking for a place to rest up, or they may be ready for real change. In a state of crisis they are looking for compassion, comfort and safety. It is during these times of crisis that they are most likely to seek real help to get off the street.

When a first contact inspires hope that something better than their current situation is available to them at a cost that seems reasonable to them, a homeless person might take the next step. I'm not talking about a monetary cost but an emotional and energy cost. These are individuals at the end of their emotional and physical tethers.

b) Intake

Service organizations, whether they are secular non-profits or faith-based organizations, focus on the applicant promising to comply with the rules set forth for their clients. They usually include things like showing up on time for appointments and non-abusive speech and behavior.

c) Initial Stabilization - Emotional and Physical

Kindness and authentic love are the most important ingredients. Simple things like bing smiled at, having eye contact, being recognized by name, and having small needs addressed become crucial to creating a safe emotional environment.

The homeless individual is almost always physically and emotionally exhausted. They come from a survival mode in which they were running on adrenalin, and when they let down, they may crash for two to three days before they can function even at a minimal level. That means they only hear a fraction of what is said to them, including rules, requirements and instructions.

6) Short Term Rehabilitation

Let's define short-term rehabilitation as an intervention period >= 3 months and < 1 year.

The goal of homeless individuals is usually to achieve a level of financial and residential independent; i.e. a place of their own, and a means to support an independent lifestyle. If recently displaced and has a relatively stable lifestyle, some short-term help may be all they need.

It usually takes a series of events or failures to produce homeless. One could blame drug or alcohol addiction but there are many more addicts who are not homeless than ones who are.

A case management plan, which can be as informal as a list of goals, needs to be established.

Obstacles to producing an income, like lack of education, training, or experience can be addressed. Part of the short-term plan is getting the person into a longer-term process. A short-term goal could be to discover what the person's health problems are and how he or she will determine what jobs he or she can do.

More often the real underlying problem is destabilizing the individual is the inability to make good choices with regard to relationships. They either chose untrustworthy or destructive partners or are themselves untrustworthy and destructive.

If all you've seen is dysfunctional behavior, you will not even be able to imagine another course of action.

Hurricane Katrina victims may have been stable before, but the compounded loss of loved ones, friends, their community and property left many people traumatized. A period of depression and grieving is very normal but can be very debilitating.

a) A Story of Grief and Healing

  • author tells a story of a woman with a great upbringing, but her husband turned to alcohol and lost everything... when she left him he committed suicide... she had to address the grief and guilt that were keeping her in a destructive cycle.*

b) Spiritual Care


7) Long Term Rehabilitation

Lets' define long-term rehabilitation, as >= 1 year. Once people begin to feel normal - non-traumatized - they begin to crave a normal routine. Teachers must be willing to give their pupils opportunities to succeed or fail.

8) Aftercare

a) The Close of a Relationship

The process does not end at a point on the calendar... though the nature of the relationship changes, hopefully a new dimension allows for continued affection and respect.

b) Countering Institutionalization

Some clients become institutionalized meaning they can function within a residential program, but can't function successfully outside. If they have not reestablished their confidence in who they are and what they can accomplish, the world may overwhelm them.

Many individuals who become homeless come out of the foster care system. When children hit eighteen it is said they age out of the system. When they leave one foster family, they usually never hear from them again.

Over the years, many clients have told me that after they left the residential treatment program, they could still hear my voice in their head, encouraging or correcting them in the tasks of life. Most of us carry the sound of our parents' words in our head... what if those words were only words of shame?

c) Celebrating Progress

One of the thing long-term members of twelve step programs often refer to are celebrations and tokens given for anniversaries of sobriety. Little mementos like lapel pins, or a cake at a group meeting, are spoken of as if they were made of gold. It is important to teach those who have overcome great difficulties to celebrate their success.

The person who lost a big house, multiple cars, and the right to live with their own children may find it difficult to celebrate getting a small studio apartments. However with they can see it for what it is: a step in the right direction.

Aftercare if lifelong.

9) The Stigma of Homelessness

In conclusion, homelessness is a description of a physical circumstance, not the definition of a person's character or status. There is such a stigma with the label of homeless that it in itself becomes a trauma from which recovery is necessary.

Some Irony For You

I actually read this (June 2018) while I was on a cruise to Alaska with family. For mum it was her first ever cruise and all of us have Alaska on our bucket list. My step father commented on how exactly it looks for someone enjoying the luxury of a cruise to be seen reading a book titled "Helping the Homeless". I had realized the irony already of course. The boat's median age was probably about 70 years old, but while I was one the boat I remember walking past perhaps the only small groups of people about my age, who were relaxing in the hot tub, and one of the guys said "I wonder what the poor people are doing right now". Everyone laughed - even me - walking past. I don't feel rich, and these guys didn't dress or act rich either, but in that moment I think he was appreciating that yes - not everyone gets to enjoy a cruise. It's always easy to look around you at people who have more.... in my case I feel like anyone who actually *owns* a house has more than me - where I live feels to expensive to buy. If you are always looking up, you always feel like you are at the bottom of the pyramid and scrambling to get higher. You forget to look down, and only a rare few people have dreams to help those at actual rock bottom. Not because they are at the top... but because they care. I admire those few people - regardless of their faith.