Today, media organizations throughout the Bay Area are devoting a day of coverage to homelessness in San Francisco. Aside from the fact that the project seems originally motivated by an editor’s view of homeless people as a nuisance, there is a deeper issue that makes me doubt how authentic and effective the reporting will be.
The fact is that people generally fail to understand homelessness because they don’t ask homeless people what happened to them—how it is that they ended up in the situation they are in and what their needs are.
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I saw the consequences of this failure recently in Ocean County, NJ, where I now live in subsidized housing. The Jon Bon Jovi (JBJ) Soul Foundation announced it would open a JBJ Soul Kitchen in the county. They will provide quality meals at whatever price a person can afford, or people can do some volunteer work in the café if they can’t afford to pay. If people prove reliable as volunteers they can then enroll in a training program that will teach them skills in the culinary arts and other professions.
I don’t want to minimize the importance of access to good meals when it comes to addressing food insecurity, or underestimate the value of good job training that provides marketable skills. However, a person living in a tent in the woods—and we have more than 600 people in Ocean County living without permanent indoor shelter—does not even have access to a toilet, shower, or a place to wash clothes. What the chronically homeless in Ocean County need, most immediately and urgently, is secure housing.
The money raised to open the JBJ Soul Kitchen restaurant would have been better spent on building a safe, stable, and affordable housing facility for homeless persons in the community. If the founders had spoken to community members who have experienced homelessness, we would have made that clear.
This communication gap is widespread. As someone who has experienced homelessness, and spent more than a few nights in hospital emergency rooms because I didn’t know where else to go, I can tell you that when you try to explain to nurses and doctors that you are there because you fear that the continuous uncertainty and anxiety you are enduring might drive you mad, they generally react by giving you a sedative, letting you sleep, and then sending you on your way with breakfast and a few anti-anxiety pills.
I don’t recall anyone—and I mean anyone—ever asking me about my life, and what happened to me that brought me to this moment.
So I was delighted to see a sign of change recently when a professor at New Jersey State College asked me to speak to a graduating class of nursing students so that they could better understand the treatment needs of the increasing number of Americans experiencing homelessness.
I told the class that I originally started thinking about the importance of simply asking people what they are experiencing after reading Healing Neen by Tonier Cain. Cain experienced severe and extensive abuse during her life: abandonment, rape, physical and emotional violence, and numerous incarcerations. At every turn she was treated in various behavioral modification programs with de rigueur psycho-active medications. But according to Cain, she did not really begin to heal until someone—a trauma therapist—simply asked, “What happened to you, girl?”
So this is the point I tried to convey to the students: if a person comes to you who has experienced prolonged periods of time without housing, don’t treat their symptoms without asking what happened. Trauma gets resolved by confronting the events that caused it. That takes time and artfulness.
Whether we want to understand the crisis of homelessness in the Bay Area or Ocean County, or a healthcare professional needs to treat a vulnerable patient, it starts with a simple question: what happened?