I feel like every opinion I offer has to be preceded with the disclaimer that: I’m new at this! Several months ago I didn’t know a thing about homelessness. I still don’t know much about the issue in general, let alone being able to make judgements or offer any insights. I do have the wonderful opportunity of building my knowledge base from scratch, straight from the experts on homelessness. From this unique perspective of being the “outreach assistant” at JOIN, it’s been a daily hands-on classroom on the streets in Portland. Every day I’m exposed to some new tragedy, issue, story, or complicated individual. Today, I got an intimate look into the loneliness that often accompanies the transition from homelessness to independent housing.
At one point I naively thought that giving someone apartment keys would magically solve not just whatever issues had forced them into homelessness to begin with, but would also preclude new issues coming up. Obviously, as needing to have a large “Retention” team at JOIN proves, I couldn’t have been more mistaken. Housing often carries a new batch of potential problems, not least of which is isolation.
Today while running around doing errands and dropping off and picking up our folks, I had a chance to sit down and talk with a few recently housed friends. One of the guys I visited, “Thomas” lived on the streets for nearly 20 years and has spent the past few weeks adjusting to living in his own apartment, far from the downtown scene that he had been part of for so long.Thomas is one of the most sociable and outgoing personalities I’ve ever met. We all love spending time with this guy, and despite his health complications is a constant source of fun. He asked me to read an excerpt from his journal, which included having fear of failing this opportunity, and a desire to “make JOIN happy and do whatever JOIN needs me to.” After the initial few days of unbridled happiness at finally being inside, Thomas is beginning to realize that moving into an apartment is just the first step of a larger paradigm shift along the path to self-sufficiency and independence.
Sleeping under a bridge, individuals have to be in survival mode, and are focused on the next meal, staying safe, avoiding arrest, being able to carry enough blankets, etc.. there is no time to think about “long term” issues that we, as housed individuals consider necessities. Thomas spent his whole day relying on his experience to deal with each day’s logistics, and made canning and survival into a full-time job.. Learning to budget, to save, to manage time, get a job, pay utilities, take advantage of resources in a new community and often, to navigate healthy interpersonal relationships often replace the issues that our folks faced while homeless. Our retention workers help navigate these hurdles to maintaining housing, and possibly most importantly, are reliable friends and a source of moral support when someones entire way of life is suddenly changing.
Thomas, who has a disability, jokes about sometimes being bored out of his mind, and only being able to spend so many hours a day cleaning his already immaculate apartment. He’s talked about how he realized that people whom he had considered his friends on the street, suddenly think that Thomas is “so much better than we are, now that you’re a housie.” He admits that it’s tough to deal with, but for the first time in years is choosing to seek help for his addiction and is ready to own his life, even if his only supportive community for the time being is JOIN.