Homeless people are the ones who have long term camps beside streams in the summer; they are modern day wanderers who constantly look for a meal, comfort or someone who cares. They are victims of circumstances and bad choices of either their own making or someone else.
As a society, we know what the homeless need. We tell them. We develop plans and implement rules in a carefully choreographed game that never ends. We preach, teach, and struggle to understand why the homeless won’t play by our rules.
The problem is that we really don’t want to play. We set up complicated rules. We ask the homeless for ID, their last addresses, jobs skills and phone numbers. Then, we give them cast off clothing, a hot meal and shower and wonder why no one will hire them when they’re cleaned up. Only a fortunate few break free from homelessness.
Bob and Paula (names changed to protect privacy) are two people who came to our nonprofit agency in search of help. They were referred to us by a local pastor who wasn’t sure what else to do with them.
Cautiously, they told us their story. They said that both of them had held jobs and that they enjoyed working. Their jobs were lost when the factory shut down. Then, a fire broke out in their apartment building. What furniture they owned was damaged by smoke and the sprinkler system, one of their dogs died (presumably from smoke inhalation). After unemployment was exhausted they had no place to go and nothing to stay in town for.
They were told that jobs were more available in the south and created a plan. They would use the last of their severance money to get to the first town where they could find jobs and rebuild their lives.
The problem was that they misjudged the cost of being homeless. If you have a vehicle or belongings, being homeless is more expensive than people think. Another complication was their dog.
Staying in a homeless shelter with a dog is impossible. It is easy for us to say “rehome the dog” but harder to actually do. Paula broke down sobbing at the thought of losing Mutsy. The dog was her comforter and last connection to her former life. Without her, Paula was lost.
For me, if they took the dog to the pound and would separate I could refer them to a shelter. They could sleep in different beds on different floors in different areas of the building. They would have showers and an evening meal. They wouldn’t have each other. They would probably never know what happened to Musty but these are the rules.
I wasn’t surprised when they asked if they could sleep on my office couch. I was surprised when I said yes. For the next few months they kept the ministry center neat, hauled off trash and worked odd jobs for shower or laundry money.
No income means no health insurance and both Bob and Paula had health needs. They were excited to be accepted for the free health clinic. A week before their appointment Bob got good news. A company found his online application and offered him a job.
Then Paula began to feel woozy. Her arm went numb and she had trouble talking. Bob did what he could for her but that wasn’t much. Paramedics took her to the hospital. Her blood sugar was over 600 and dangerously high. A few days later Paula came back to our couch with a free meter, prescriptions she couldn’t fill and the appointment for the clinic for Thursday.
A check on the meter revealed that Bob’s blood sugar level was almost as high as Paula’s. Both were concerned but Bob had good news. The phone interview went well. His new job was permanent full time restaurant work with health care benefits to kick in 90 days after employment. They would be leaving the following Wednesday to begin their new life. Bob’s position would start early Friday morning. Both were ecstatic.
On Thursday, they were early to the free clinic. They were both eager to see the doctor. Because of tests during Paula’s hospitalization she was given samples of part of her diabetic medication. A test confirmed that Bob’s blood sugar had reached new levels. He was a new patient to the free clinic so testing would have to be done to determine what type of medication he would need. Paula was given a week’s worth of samples. Both of them were to come back the following week on Thursday afternoon.
Bob explained about the job and that they couldn’t come back the following Thursday. He might lose his new job if he didn’t leave on Wednesday. Sorry. They were told. If they wanted health care they would have to come back on Thursday. There was no way to get them in sooner.
For Bob and Paula the choice between health care and job was very real. A job meant stability and 90 days before seeing a doctor. Health care meant that Bob would be more likely to keep the job. It was a tough decision with no easy answers.
In the end, they chose what was right for them. Bob took the job and they relocated. It was many months before they would see a doctor. In the process of waiting, Paula was again hospitalized and nearly died. No one should have to choose between health care or employment.
Despite the high cost, both Bob and Paula feel that they made the right decision. Paula is now working in a retail store where she is now in management. There are long term consequences for having been without healthcare for so long. They still struggle financially and medically but as of this writing they remain homeless no longer.