Guest Essays, Opinion

Guest essay: We’re all closer to being homeless than we think

by Shannon McNicholas

This past week, a girl — maybe five or six — and her dad walked up to me in an alley occupied by a significant number of unhoused folks and handed me a note that said, “Thank you for being you. Hugs.” Although the note made my day, I suspect that it was not meant for me. It was meant for the folks who typically spend their days in that alley.

For the past four years, I have delved deep into my work with unhoused populations across West Virginia and Texas. For over a year, I helped to manage a nonprofit garden that donated all of its produce to local soup kitchens in Beaumont, Texas. For nearly a year, I served with AmeriCorps in Wheeling, farming vegetables to serve low income and unhoused populations. I am now working towards my master’s degree in social work at WVU while helping to facilitate a needle exchange in Morgantown.

In my experience, most people don’t quite get why or how people become homeless. Furthermore, people don’t appreciate the struggle that people who are homeless experience.

My dad has asked me why I am so passionate about helping people who are not “productive members of society.” When I hear this sentiment, I respond that people without homes are not lazy or unwilling to work. Instead, they are experiencing a devastating hardship. The Human Impact reports about 25% of people who are unhoused work consistently and another 40%-60% of the work intermittently. If someone is not working, this is often not a willing choice.

Some people without homes are just like me. They are well-educated, working adults, but live without the safety net that I have. I live paycheck-to-paycheck. I am one paycheck away from not being able to afford rent, but I have friends and family who could help support me. It is possible that if I lost my support system and my job, I would be in the same position as them.

Many people in positions of privilege think that others become homeless primarily due to addiction or mental health disorders. This is not true. In one of very few research surveys on the subject, which took place in San Francisco, a large percentage of the unhoused population — about 26% — became homeless because of a job loss. Many sources say that lack of income and affordable housing are the leading causes of homelessness among Americans. While some people without homes do struggle with addiction or have other mental health disorders, this is often a result of being unhoused rather than the cause. Drugs can be a coping mechanism. Mental health disorders often result from trauma. Only about 18% of people who lose their homes lose them as a direct result of addiction, according to the San Francisco survey. About 8% of people who lose their housing lose it as a direct result of mental illness.

People often blame those who are unhoused for not “picking themselves up by their bootstraps and getting back to work.” However, imagine trying to interview for a job without a shower. Imagine not being able to shower because you don’t have a home. Imagine trying to find a place to live without an income. This is a self-perpetuating loop. Any movement towards reassimilation into housing becomes nearly impossible.

While there is not a simple answer for the issue of homelessness, there is a simple answer for helping those who experience homelessness to feel valued. Try giving these community members a smile when you see them on the street. Ask someone who looks like they could use a meal if they’ll join you for lunch, your treat. Listen as they tell you a story. Some unhoused folks I have sat down with have completely changed my world. As someone who still doesn’t quite have their footing, I could potentially be the person who, one day, you ask to lunch.

Shannon McNicholas is a Master of Social Work student and graduate assistant at West Virginia University. She also interns for Milan Puskar Health Right.