Genuine applause to the New York Times. On Monday March 6th, 2023 the paper published a separate section entitled What You Don’t Know About Homelessness. Part of the paper’s Headway Initiative to explore social issues, the section cogently describes the challenge of homelessness and unwraps the deeply human stories of people who are houseless and homeless Nothing new you might say? Heard it all before: drug addiction; lost jobs; broken family attachments; poor choices; trauma; mental illness; ridiculously high housing costs. But what the stories reveal is the paucity of the category “homelessness” and our understanding of it.
The first thing to learn is that how homelessness is calculated grotesquely misrepresents the reality of those who are precarious. While homelessness is increasingly visible, with the counted and uncounted numbers growing, it “remains hidden by design”. We are so fearful of seeing “it”, that authorities work diligently to keep homelessness “out of view”. We shield ourselves from the real human truths.
The garbage cans in Walmart parking lots, before they were removed, were a vital source of goods and food. Libraries are important sanctuaries. While you might find a place to lie down, people don’t really ever sleep. And in most shelters, you rarely find a decent blanket.
Disdain, rudeness and disregard are constant daggers that destroy confidence, self-worth and courage. The price we pay for individual responsibility is that we hold individuals entirely responsible for their conditions, even when we know that we could just as easily be there. We may be rude and mean because what we see is us.
We learn remarkable truths from the “homeless”. We learn from Paige that she is never “houseless, but has always been homeless”. What we seek is not a room with a bed and bathroom; what we need is connection to a place and to people. There is a reason Home Depot is not House Depot.
We hear Cersilla tell us that she would not be the self-reliant person she has become if it were not for being homeless. “As traumatic as it was, if I could go back in time, I would repeat it.” Perhaps what we really fear is that we are not as adaptable as, or possess the fortitude that the “homeless” have. We fear seeing the lack of our own courage.
And Dean tells us that “homeless folks taught me that by giving, you’ll get back” - a remarkable assessment of living without a home. This reminds one of the generosity and elegance of spirit that Nelson Mandela emerged with after being incarcerated for 27 years. Perhaps we fear that we would never have this insight.
The truths that one glimpses are not what you expect or assume. The folks we meet challenge the standard explanations of, and reasons for, homelessness, and indeed the category itself. As the researchers and authors Susan Shain and Aidan Gardiner put it, the stories show how “different the experiences are from one another, and how impossible it is to generalize about them”.
Being in the People Research business, we see, learn and practice this everyday. In our quantitative research we strive to see how every number is a real person, so that our collective summaries reflect constellations of people-specific needs, perspective and desires. In our qualitative research the human-to-human connections we cultivate unveil what really matters to people. The superficial is easy to see; revealing the hidden thoughts, fears and sources of joy requires care, attentiveness and human trust.
Every individual is a unique collection of conditions, desires, fears and hopes. When we start with this, we can see and understand their conditions and only then, have the possibility to improve them. At Bovitz our fundamental goal is to see the individual, not the condition, or the category. That is the only way we can get to the truth of the human condition.