Have you ever made a poor choice? Gotten tangled up in a bad situation? Done something stupid and lived to regret it? For most of us, those choices have a limited time span for their consequences and we can move on. This is often not the case for our guests who are experiencing homelessness.
T was a frequent guest of the shelter over the course of a couple seasons. He bounced between treatment, housing, and homelessness. At the end of the shelter season two years ago, he found himself with nowhere to go. He hung out in the parks and walked the streets during the day and he tucked away in hidden places throughout the downtown to sleep at night. One night someone came and attempted to take his stuff while he was sleeping in a public parking garage. He woke up and his fight or flight response kicked in and he threw a few punches. Cops were called, drug paraphernalia was found and the individual was taken to jail for domestic violence, terroristic threats, and drugs. It is easy to stand in judgment in this situation. Yes- this individual was using illegal drugs, yes, they threw a punch, yes they were sleeping in a public parking garage. But when we look a little closer at the situation we realize that this person was woken up out of a deep sleep- fight or flight kicked in and because of past trauma, fight won out. He was literally protecting the only items he owned. This man had a history of addiction. He wasn’t selling drugs, but he was a user. Suddenly survival skills and a health condition become crimes and those crimes and convictions lead to records that perpetuate homelessness because landlords aren’t going to rent to a violent drug user. But hold on a minute- can we really label him a violent drug user? The man that I have known for the past several years is truly a gentle giant. He has a problem with addiction. He has nowhere safe to sleep. He was protecting his one backpack of possessions. His choices in that moment added layers to an already difficult life.
Being homeless is not a crime and yet, so many of the people we work with end up with criminal records. I guarantee you that in many cases, the stories are similar to the one above. Hard circumstances, poor choices, a trauma response leading to a significant barrier to getting housing. Unlike those of us with resources, communities and families that support us, bouncing back from these mistakes is next to impossible. In our community there are fewer and fewer landlords that will rent to anyone with a drug charge and a criminal history. At this point, we know of only one and the apartments that are available do not necessarily provide a very fresh start. As a society, we are criminalizing addiction, mental health, and homelessness. By doing this, we continue to feed into the cycle of homelessness and create more barriers towards housing. We do not end homelessness unless we flip our systems of oppression. -Pr. Erica