Why Do People Live on the Street?
The real reasons have little to do with new-found romanticized freedom or lack of motivation
“I like the freedom and lack of responsibility.”
“Too lazy to get a job.”
“I don’t fit anywhere else.“
I have a handful of friends who have been sleeping in doorways, ATM enclosures or under bridges for years. Some are the shaggy, multi-layered folks with haunted eyes that are immediately identifiable. Others you’d pass by without guessing they spent the night huddled in the stairwell of a nearby condo.
The shaggy types seem so “out there” they seem a different order of humanity from you and me. (Indeed, with Toronto’s policing practices, it doesn’t pay to be visibly homeless.) The others can look so much like you and me that you can’t help but think, “Why doesn’t he just get a job?”
Both of these are the “chronically homeless,” the ones politicians, social workers, journalists and church people struggle to find a humane answer for. I’ve heard all of the explanations quoted above and a few more from the mouths of homeless friends, but I don’t believe any of them any more. I’ve been around long enough to hear the heartbreaking stories behind the bravado and the anti-establishment bluster.
Is it freedom when you live out your life within a dozen square blocks of a downtown core and are unable to use the washrooms in a coffee shop? Is a person who hustles 16 hours each day, every day, walking miles for meals, begging or boosting for change, carrying everything he or she owns everywhere, just to make it to the next morning—is that person lazy? Can a person with the improvisational skills and the sheer will to survive that kind of life really not fit in anywhere else?
It’s true that some of my friends have addictions so ferocious that given the choice between sleeping warm and dry for a month or getting high for one night, the money goes to the dealer in a heartbeat. It’s true that a room in a flophouse takes all but a handful of change from the welfare cheque—if you can find a room at all. True, also, that an “affordable” bachelor apartment in my city rents for a couple of hundred dollars more than the monthly welfare payment. Or for full-time workers earning minimum wage, almost three quarters of a month’s pay packet before taxes. And it’s true that perhaps a third of my homeless friends are afflicted with psychiatric conditions that make it difficult for them to get or keep housing.
Although these “reasons” are some of the huge problems to be addressed if my friends are ever to find homes, these aren’t the root cause why they have ended up living on the street. Experiences of significant and repeated physical and/or sexual abuse—which many studies correlate with roughly 85 percent of homeless youth—now that gets a little closer to the bone.
“Greg,” one friend told me years ago, when I asked why he’d bailed out of a good situation and ended up back on the street, “I’m just a piece of ****, and this is where I belong.”
What he said wasn’t true, of course, but it revealed how deeply his soul (his “self-image”?) had been broken. He was living out what he believed he deserved.
Christian communities are uniquely qualified to provide the kind of healing, whole-life embrace necessary to make a difference in such broken lives. The barriers to be overcome are huge—there simply are no easy, five-second-sound-bite answers.
At least we begin with these deep “good news” convictions: healing is precisely for the broken; forgiveness is for the guilty; and grace is for the undeserving. For people like us.
I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.
For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do
– this I keep on doing… What a wretched man I am! Who will save me from this body of death?
Paul, Romans 7:18,19, 24, NIV
Is there a quote anywhere in Paul’s writing that is easier to relate to than the one above?
Benny and I come from very different early life experiences – I don’t know much about his,
but I can only imagine what home life was like if hustling on the street seemed like a better
deal – and our circumstances throughout the course of our relationship haven’t exactly been
parallel either. In fact, I haven’t seen him again since he dropped by that last time. Maybe he
concluded our environment was too dangerous for him after all.
Still, he and other friends from the street have become guides on my journey. The very extremity
of their lives helps pull the lid off the containers where I tend to stuff my own desires. And
I know, if only because he came back after ten years, that friends like Benny also find some
value in walking with me. Despite many detours, blind alleys, broken roads and seemingly
impassable paths, we – the wild variety of pilgrims in our community (addicts, professional
people, university students, people who struggle with mental illness, some who live under
bridges and others who live in beautiful suburban houses), together, I believe, with the Spirit
himself – are guiding each other home.
It used to be that, when I saw one of my friends doing the twenty piece shuffle, I shook my
head in bemused wonder. Now I nod in recognition of its essential likeness to that eagerness
with which I anticipate and chase after the things that I hope will grant me pleasure, peace,
comfort… even just a momentary relief from the deadly dullness that sometimes sucks the
color from my days. Benny used to give almost all his time and energy to arriving at that brief
moment of euphoria; it could have cost him his life, and for more than a few friends I have had,
it actually has. For my part, I don’t seek that kind of blow-the-top-off-your-head excitement,
and I parcel out my personal resources more carefully. The ‘drug’ I crave is usually apparently
more benign. It may even be the kind of thing the world around me heartily approves of:
material goods, recognition for the work I do, upward mobility, security, proximity to people
who are attractive or important. Comfort, happiness. I mask my hunger well, moving smoothly
from one ‘addiction’ to another, spreading my neediness around, coping with my losses and
insecurities by medicating myself with another soporific. This may be as simple and obvious
as watching mindless TV (seriously, there is some that isn’t), or as complex as writing another
Yes, Paul’s words speak across every demographic ranking. The answer he supplies to his anguished
question is not quoted above, but it is this: “Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ
our Lord!” What a trite conclusion.
At least, it would be if it wasn’t so manifestly true.
Repeated drug use depletes the dopamine level in the brain. Dopamine is what allows us to
feel pleasure, so the addict is actually killing his or her capacity to enjoy what s/he so strongly
craves. Most crack addicts will tell you that the best toke they ever had was the very first one.
Part of the reason they keep using is the irrational hope that they’ll somehow get back to that
magical peak. The more they chase that high, the more remote it becomes.
“It doesn’t even do anything for me anymore,” one friend told me. His face carved by sharp
desolation as if he’d been abandoned by a lover. He was mystified as to why he kept returning
to something that was consuming him, chewing him up, body and soul, while giving nothing
Strange, this. The things I so avidly seek have the same effect: I need more and more of
them, and they are less and less efficacious. I know by long and repeated experience that
the sources of mental, emotional and physical pleasure I chase after generally offer only a
fleeting ‘high’ at best. If I seek them as a source of joy in and of themselves, they actually
deplete my capacity to experience joy. This is true even if they are legitimate pursuits
– material comforts or job recognition, for example, aren’t wrong or bad. It’s only if they
are sought for their own sake, made the fundamental means of fulfilling my self, that they
assume this diabolical character.
Jesus, on the other hand – when he is the route I travel toward fulfillment, I find exactly
the opposite. (Remember? He called himself “the Way” : the path, the road, the route you
travel to get There.) When I seek him, root my values and desires in him, when I found
my relationships and sense of self on him, my capacity for joy increases. The more I ‘have’
Jesus, the deeper my enjoyment of him. He increases my desire for those things which
are good, adds value to that which is benign, and diminishes the strength of the negative
(the evil) that threatens to throttle me. My dependence on material values and experiences
as the means by which I define or please myself decreases.
If Jesus is the Way, God must be “There” – the Destination. Home. “In my Father’s house
are many rooms… I am going there to prepare a place for you.”
When I think that Benny’s early experiences of ‘home’ were so impoverished that he
chose, very deliberately and by radical action, a federal penitentiary as the best available
place to fulfill those universal longings for health, wholeness, dignity, security, fellowship,
meaning… when I think of that, my heart just breaks. It breaks for the robbery done to
his imagination, the violence done to his spirit, the perverseness of the relationships
that shaped him. It breaks, too, because we at Sanctuary could not be the home he so
NO ONE TO TOUCH
I need to feel your arms around me.
I am surrounded by people
but feel so often alone
I long for intimacy
but carefully perch
where I can scrutinize every approach
The older I get
the more I feel I am a child
aching for the warm security
of your embrace
The stuff I had thought would fill me up
has sucked the life out of me
people I hoped would save me
and though I have tried
I have saved no one
the weaker I become
the more child-like
the more clearly I hear you
to become also a parent
You have fixed nothing in my life
but you have held me
and I am learning
that this is all I need
Help me then
to place my arms
(as I rest in yours)
around another orphaned soul
that it is enough.
Karen and I went to a party last night at the Winchester Arms, a local pub. It was a reunion party for former denizens of “Tent City” and some of their friends, thrown by a few anti-poverty action groups. Tent City was for several years Canada’s most visible display of poverty and essential homelessness, a squatter town of tents, plywood’n’plastic lean-tos and a handful of prefab “houses” smaller than my bedroom. About a hundred people shared the pie-slice of toxic land wedged between Lakeshore Avenue and a Port of Toronto canal with their dogs, an untold number of rats, and a pretty constant ebb and flow of reporters, church people, anti-poverty activists and well-meaning folks who dropped off loads of firewood, food, blankets, clothing and even the occasional generator.
One friend had a baby while living there, another died by hanging in his own lean-to, several others were burnt out of their places – sometimes through their own carelessness, other times by arson. Some lived amid piles of garbage and others lined little walkways on their “property” with painted rocks. One guy built amazing scrap metal sculptures. Some went out every day looking for work, several got pinched for break and entries, and rumour has it there were a couple of women who would turn tricks in the port-a-potties. Most drank and/or smoked crack at an astonishing rate.
It was the kind of place where an intimate gathering of bosom pals could turn into a fist fight and back again in a matter of minutes. The kind of place where, if you broke the code, a group of very serious guys would explain to you that you needed to leave Tent City now – right now – and not come back. And where, if you were laid up for some reason, those same guys would show up every day with food and a couple of cans of strong beer.
One fine June day last year, the police showed up with private security people and some contractors. They came around 11 am, when most people had left for the day. They moved the stragglers out, established a perimeter, and by the time the residents started to return late in the afternoon, there was already high fencing around half the property. They had shut down what claimed to be the longest standing “squat” in modern Canadian history.
The invitation to the party said we’d be celebrating a victory – in the wake of the closure of Tent City, most of the residents were placed in apartments around the city, subsidized to the tune of up to $800 per month. I’m glad for my friends who now have safer, more dignified places to live, but I wonder about how just this is for other friends who have to try to find a place to live for the regular welfare payment of $325 per month – a literally impossible task in Toronto.
It was quite a party. There were pans of lasagna and souvlaki, trays of fresh veggies and three free beers each for everyone. A band played, people danced, and Jack Layton (former city councillor and now leader of the federal NDP) showed up to say a few words. Everybody seemed to be having a good time.
I sat and chatted with a public health nurse I’d met for a few minutes. We talked about how crummy it feels losing our friends one after another – at least three of my own friends just from Tent City have died in the past two years. One was hung in his own tent under mysterious circumstances, another had a brain hemorrhage after a drinking bout, yet another died bloated and turning yellow because he wouldn’t go back to the doctor a second time. Several others I knew had been burned out of their squats. Earlier in the day, some of our outreach staff discovered that one of our people had been run over by a truck on Yonge Street, just minutes after they’d given him a pair of socks.
As we watched our friends partying, we were both mentally identifying the ones we expected to lose next – I could easily pick out four or five who could go any day. Most of the people there had been placed in apartments, but the destructive lifestyles hadn’t changed. Housing, such as it is, doesn’t seem to have stopped the slide.
There’s no question that Toronto suffers from a severe shortage of affordable housing. $800 monthly will get you a small bachelor, if you can find a vacant one. It’s a problem for more than just the homeless. Increasingly, lower to middle income families are finding it virtually impossible to find safe, dignified housing they can afford. Unskilled work that pays a living wage are hard to find, too. A growing number of “ordinary folks” are being forced into homelessness by this situation.
As serious as the problem is, though, housing is not enough for my friends. The problem is too big to be described, let alone solved, in a 5 second sound bite on the evening news. They need homes, with all that powerful word implies. Interesting, isn’t it, that we talk about homeless people needing housing? As if, if we can just store them someplace that’s weatherproof, they’ll be okay. They need, as I do, families that hold them and tell them they’re precious, friends who support, encourage and challenge, communities that provide a place to do work that is dignified and valuable. That, in the broadest, deepest sense, is what home is. And many of my friends have never experienced anything but a cruel parody of it.
When we talk about community at Sanctuary, this kind of “home” is really what we mean. That’s why we share meals together instead of serving them to the poor; it’s why we’re trying to buy a house and plant a family made up of street and “normal” folks in it; it’s why we’re starting an employment training program, and someday, we hope, a series of small businesses. We’re trying to find ways to live our lives together.
God’s invitation to all of us through Jesus is to “come on home”. Some of us are lost in a far country; the journey home is long and hard, and full of self-recrimination. Some of us are just out working the field, in sight of the house. The journey home barely merits the word; it’s just a short walk – but resentment and self-righteousness may keep us out there long after the sun has gone down. Either way, the Father is waiting.