The events leading up to becoming homeless are always traumatic and often related to violence in one's childhood.
About 90 percent of homeless women and about 50 percent of homeless men have been rape or incest victims, often as children, and often repeatedly. This, and other instances childhood violence, result in early onset post-traumatic stress disorder, which interferes with our ability to concentrate in school, makes us fear going home and being at home as children, and makes us wonder why other adults are not stepping in to protect us, even after we have told teachers and others what is happening. This leads us to rebelliousness, isolation and desperation, all at the same time.
Many of us became homeless as teenagers, suddenly, traumatically (after getting beat up, raped, etc.), thrown out of our homes by our drunk or violent fathers, or step-fathers, when we are too young and with only the clothes on our backs — with no money, car, education or other resources, and cut off from our families.
With no housing, education, skills or work history, many of the homeless are unemployable on the first day of their homelessness and only became progressively less employable. Desperate to keep from starving, some turn to begging or shoplifting from grocery stores. When you have nothing at all, there aren't a lot of choices.
The state of being homeless means experiencing trauma 24/7. It is not post-traumatic but currently and constantly traumatizing to anyone who is homeless. Not being allowed to sleep anywhere, many are constantly "moved along" by the police, security guards, business owners and property owners. Many of the homeless are unable to eke out more than two or three hours of sleep per night. This chronic lack of sleep produces behaviors that, to the outside observer, look like mental illness. But sleep deprivation is, according to international law, considered a form of torture.
Many homeless women have been raped and constantly in danger of being raped again. And again. (I have met a decades-long resident of Humboldt County, who traces the beginning of her homelessness back to the Flood of 1964. She has been raped five times so far. She is still homeless and, needless to say, deeply traumatized.)
Many homeless men and women, some still in their teens, are repeatedly robbed and sometimes beaten. All are starving for food in various degrees, every day. Very few have access to showers, fresh clothes, clean and dry bedding, medical care or a safe and legal place to be at any given point of the day or night. These conditions are traumatizing and they persist day after day, night after endless night.
Humboldt County residents who are homeless are treated as criminals just as they are denied internationally recognized, basic human rights, such as the rights to housing, adequate food and medical care, all while living in the richest country in the world.
The desperate situation of the homeless is plain for all to see, yet very few do anything to help, as though people who are homeless are invisible. To homeless people, this is bewildering, frustrating and, yes, sometimes people feel so angry about it that they scream or break a window just to stop feeling totally invisible for a few minutes. This is not justified but it is understandable.
It is not that the general public doesn't have compassion — it does. If the 1,400 people who are homeless in Humboldt County today were homeless due to an earthquake or a flood, everyone would be rushing in to help. No one would question the fact that this person owns a dog, or that that person drinks beer, or that this person needs a shower. We would understand that all of the people would immediately need housing, food, showers, clothes, medical care, child care and help finding permanent housing, employment, training and social services. Each of our communities would be bending over backwards to provide these things, and we would continue providing these services until every last person was taken care of.
But this is not done for the people who are currently in trauma and living outdoors. Even though winter and the rains have already started. Even though the community centers, vets' halls and granges stand empty and heated most of the time.
The question is not "What is wrong with the homeless?" but rather, "What is wrong with our community?"
Fhyre Phoenix has a master's degree in human services administration and has been the executive director of three nonprofit organizations, two of which operated homeless shelters. Phoenix housed homeless individuals in the back of his pickup truck for 47 nights in Arcata last winter. He was first made homeless at the age of 17, and has since raised more than $2 million to help others who became homeless.
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