Being Proud Despite their Situation

Being homeless generally doesn’t evoke happy thoughts. Many who are homeless fall into patterns of depression and anxiety about their situation and have trouble seeing past their immediate situation. When asked “what are you most proud of?” the interviewees seemed a little shocked. All of them expressed pride in their families, children and grandchildren specifically, and many talked about being proud of finally being able to accept help, being housed and “that I am still alive.”[1] In light of the barriers and bad circumstances these veterans feel like they have faced, they still have things in their lives that they are proud of and things that are worth living for, showing that their homeless situation, while causing them stress and difficulties, does not impact their ability to remain positive.

 

Daily Life and Hopes for the Future

Interviewees are currently spending their days doing things they enjoy such as reading and writing. Many are working to find employment if they are not already employed, or plan on spending more time doing volunteer work. They all have set goals to one day own a home of their own and have a lifestyle that they are able to support without assistance. Many of them hope to rebuild past relationships with family or cultivate health romantic relationships in the future.

 

As the author of Happiness relates, “we could not be happy without setting ourselves goals…If our goals are too low, we get bored. If our goals are too high, we get frustrated.”[2] The participants in this project have all set goals that are realistic for their futures and are actively contributing to their future happiness by striving for these goals and moving out of homelessness.

 

As of November 11, 2015, the state of Virginia announced that it has functionally eliminated veteran homelessness, being the first state in the country to do so. According to the state, the functional end of veteran homelessness means that, “veteran homelessness is rare, brief, and non-recurring in [the] community.”[3] While many veterans are still homeless, and many will experience homelessness in the future, the service community in Virginia, and Richmond in particular has been able to come together to build a system where they “continue to house more veterans each month than the number who enter the homeless services system.”[4] Despite these claims about functionally eliminating veteran homelessness, many veterans still choose to remain homeless and out of reach. Additionally, functionally ending veteran homelessness only means that these veterans currently have a roof over their head, but it does not mean that they have secure and satisfactory home”[5] or that they will not become homeless again in the future. For many of the interviewees, homelessness is not as simple as finding a roof over their heads. It is a cycle that impacts all aspects of their lives. While the veterans who participated in this project are technically a part of the functional end of veteran homelessness, their aspirations for the future of exiting the transitional housing phase and owning their own homes, shows that ending homelessness goes much deeper than a physical roof of any kind. Many of the participants alluded to feelings of still being homeless despite being housed and not on the streets when they expressed the difficulties they face while living in transitional housing with others as being problems they would not have if they were in a home of their own.

 

The divide between those who are homeless and those who are not is both a physical division and a social division, as “homelessness is not purely an economic disadvantage but also a stigmatized social identity that is given meaning according to its conceptual distance from the norm,”[6] creating an us vs. them dichotomy and a social separation that is difficult to articulate and overcome. Many turn away and view the homeless as a distinctly different, and inherently lower status of person, forgetting that at the core, we are all just human. This us vs. them dichotomy pressures those struggling with homelessness to embody the stories they hear about their population.

Society doesn’t know how to treat homeless people with dignity. Homeless people, regardless… There’s a level of negativity that makes, that makes society look down on homeless people. Yeah, most of them, majority of them are dirty, they’re not well kept, or well groomed. And whenever you roll up on somebody and they’re not well groomed or they may have an odor, it seems to make people step back. That’s a normal reaction. But if you look behind all of that physical stuff, you still find a human being that has a heart, that bleeds, that cries, that has happy times, that has all the regular emotions that a normal person does.[7]

 

These oral histories, in addition to part and future oral histories, have the ability to help the participants in this project and others facing homelessness overcome the stigmas associated with the homeless.

 

The oral histories of these veterans show that the military proved to only be a temporary reprieve from disadvantaged personal conditions prior to entering the military and was not the cause of homelessness. While life seemed to improve upon exiting, interviewees were generally thrust back into the same or similar conditions that spurred them to join the service in the first place. These difficult circumstances, partnered with sudden life events created the homeless situation that they currently find themselves in. Oral histories prove to be a valuable tool in examining the issue of veteran homelessness. The themes expressed by the participants show that each of them share a similar experience of service and journey through homelessness that is not apparent to an outsider at first look. Their stories can provide valuable insight for service providers on how to best help veterans cope with homelessness and contribute a fresh perspective to civilian society on the state of veteran homelessness as oral histories are accessible to a wider audience and allow more people to directly engage with the stories. When problems of homelessness are presented in statistical and analytical fashions, the problem feels distant and peripheral. But when one hears the stories of someone going through a homelessness journey, the issues become real and hard to ignore or misinterpret. Through the Forgotten Fight Oral History Project, the voices of homeless veterans in Richmond VA, remind us that the struggles in the homeless community extend much more complex than the societal stereotypes. These stories and voices have the power to spur important societal and service oriented change in dealing with the homeless veteran community.

 

[1] Nettles, Don. Interviewed by Kelsey Glander. Richmond. Video. March 18, 2016.

[2] Layard, Richard. Happiness: Lessons From a New Science (New York: Penguin Press, 2005), 73.

[3] “Veterans.” Homeward.  http://homewardva.org/news/veterans (accessed April 14, 2016)

[4] “Veterans.”

[5] Rokach, “The Lonely and Homeless.”  37.

[6] Wasserman, At Home on the Street. 2.

[7] Lewis, Evette. Interviewed by Kelsey Glander. Video.  Richmond. March 17, 2016.