Odyssey
Facing Homelessness:

According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, “On a single night in January 2009 there were an estimated 643,067 sheltered and unsheltered homeless people nationwide."

I was one of them. I lost my home in January 2009 after spending more than two years caring for a terminally ill parent. At the age of fifty-five, I was exhausted physically, emotionally, spiritually and financially, and yet I had to go about finding a place to live and a way to restore my life.

This, unfortunately, is no longer uncommon. According to the public policy organization, Demos: one in seven Americans will face homelessness at some time during their lives. Additionally, 10,000 Americans turn 65 every day and will continue to do so for the next fifteen years (MSN). Americans nearing retirement age are looking at the prospect of not being able to retire because they will be unable to afford housing on the benefits provided by Social Security. For many who are unable to extend their careers past the standard retirement age, the financial and personal challenges are daunting.

Facing Homelessness is one of the most dreaded experiences a person can have. Having sociologists interview people struggling with housing issues is not the same as having a professional writer write about their actual experience.

"James Abro speaks in a candid and clear voice in his latest book, Facing Homelessness. He is without a doubt a talented and fearless writer; and I truly appreciated that he shared the utter darkness of his experience, not just the light at the end of the tunnel. We as readers have much to learn from him as he shares his perspective and personal story. James grew up in a secure family, but then experienced the sudden loss of his support system when, as an adult, he suffered the loss of a dear family member. He then found himself alone, unemployed, and detached from the world -- facing poverty and homelessness. Through his honest, authentic story-telling, James is able to evoke our empathy and compassion as he shares how he came to inhabit a strange and hostile reality of economic and social poverty." -- Trish Goodall, former director of The Hope Center.

According to a 2016 Marketplace Economic Anxiety Index report, the same percentage of Americans who were experiencing heightened levels of anxiety about the economy and their personal financial well-being during the Great Recession remains the same today, roughly about one-third of the population.

I feel that this persistence of anxiety is due in large part to the fact that for the last 40 years the American ‘Safety Net’ has been so strained and tattered by contentious political ideological battles about its purpose, and even necessity, that it is now frayed so badly that it is a net in name only.

Adding to the dilemma facing someone confronting the possibility of becoming homeless is that charitable religious groups that in the past offered assistance to the needy without asking for anything in return, now in many instances have been replaced by a growing number of Evangelical faith-based groups that subtly, and not so subtly, demand recognition and allegiance to ‘a power greater than oneself that will save you from your plight if only you will let it’. If you are a non-religious person in a vulnerable condition, this can be both a confusing and seductive proposition. I address the dilemma in my book this way: “… in part, I am writing this book for people who, like me, try to find tools – secular and spiritual -- for getting through trying times in their lives without creating another crisis of belief or dependency within them that they will inevitably have to deal with and unburden themselves from at a later date. When you are struggling, your goal is to lighten your load, not add to it.”

Because the social services system in America is so convoluted and varies not only from state to state but even counties within states, there is no way for someone who has successfully faced homelessness to offer a blueprint or guidebook to someone else dealing with this terrifying new norm in American life. But what I can offer is a personal story about how I faced the universal aspects of this experience -- trauma, denial, doubt, fear, resiliency and recovery – as well as a few practical tips culled from my experience.
  • Realize that you are not the only one having this experience. Take umbrage in the fact that this is a structural social and economic problem, not the result of personal shortcomings.
  • Don’t isolate from fear of embarrassment, and also be selective about who you share your circumstances with. There remains a stigma in our culture around people going through difficult economic circumstances. As I wrote in an article for the Center for American Progress: “When you experience acute financial distress our society looks at you and says, aloud or not, ‘What did you do wrong?’ and/or ‘What’s wrong with you?’” Don’t buy into the generalizations. Your experience is unique and you won’t be able to resolve your situation until you can express it that way and demand to be treated accordingly. Maintaining a daily journal helps.
  • Go to your local Social Services Office well in advance of possibly becoming homeless so you can learn what you have to do to qualify for basic services such as emergency housing, food assistance and medical care.
  • Do not rely solely on Social Services. They are a large bureaucracy and you are just one client. Don’t expect more than just getting basic survival services from them.
  • Reach out into your community and find groups that offer more personalized supportive services to people going through difficult times financially and personally. Recognize that this is a very difficult experience you are living through, and that you are going to need help from people familiar with your experience. Many people, like me, who successfully went through this experience voluntarily offer free advice to others in similar circumstances.
  • Hold your head up and smile. This is not the same homelessness problem that previous generations of Americans experienced. The demographics are broader and the reasons for it more complex. Much of the personal financial crises that people are having today is circumstantial – the result of a loss of jobs and retirement savings, home foreclosures, catastrophic illnesses and, as in my case, caring for elderly parents. My story, probably like yours, is not about hitting rock bottom and making some ‘miraculous’ rebound. It’s about surviving in a new economy — including facing homelessness -- without hitting rock bottom.