Barriers and experiences with ‘the system’

Often interviewees discussed how they struggled with receiving help from ‘the system.’ Whether it was the V.A. or other organizations offering assistance, ‘the system’ proved to be difficult to navigate and unnecessarily complicated. People struggled with finding accessible services and when they did access them, many felt looked down upon and shamed by seeking help for their current situation. When asked about barriers to care, Evette said:

“you know, every time I go in for help, everyone’s looking down on me – that becomes depressing after a while. And it makes you feel like nobody really cares or gives a damn. Therefore, you get stuck and you’re in a situation and you learn how to live it.”[1]


This sentiment “reflects a breakdown of societal supports and society’s capacity to care for its most vulnerable and needy. This breakdown results in substantial, and potentially preventable, health disparities and health inequities between homeless people and their age-matched housed counterparts.”[2] Because of previously negative encounters with service organizations, some participants avoided seeking help as they did not want to go through the hassle of dealing with ‘the system’ or the let down of being promised help and then not finding results. Cordell, who is currently living at Liberation Family Services, reported his experience with the local V.A. on trying to get a housing voucher so he could move out of transitional housing:

Well, okay supposedly I’m in the HUD-VASH program. And what that means is that they help you by getting you a voucher, and you know, because I’m on a fixed income. Well, seeing that I’m one of the people that do what you’re supposed to do, you know, like, I see – I have a mental health worker, I take medication, you know, yada, yada, yada, yada. The way this program is set up, I’m like one of the success stories, as far as following the program. You know what I mean. But to the people at the VA, that’s an excuse for them to say, “Okay, well you know what to do. You’re able to take care of yourself so we’re not going to give you a voucher.” You know like, they had me on an emotional roller coaster for about two months because they gave me one, they took it back, they gave me another one, they took it back. They gave me another one, you know? Just the different things that they do and, “We’re going to help you do this, and we’re going to help you do that.” They haven’t helped me do anything.[3]


For Cordell, this experience seemed to be quite trying and complicated as he could not figure out what he needed to do to successfully retain the housing voucher. This encounter has made him hesitant to deal with ‘the system’ in the future.


But interviewees also discussed being their own barrier to getting off the streets or getting into permanent housing. When asked about barriers, Calvin said:

The only barrier I got is me stopping myself. Ain’t nothing gone stop me, that’s just the way I am. If you tell me no, another door open down the street. That’s how I feel. I think the only barrier is yourself.[4]


He opted not to expand much on this topic, but by speaking to other homeless veterans, it became clear what he meant. Self-made barriers seem to be the mental block one uses to protect themselves from let down and potential failure. Later in his interview, Calvin talked about taking risks and liking a challenge. Breaking free from the cycle of homelessness involves a certain level of risk taking by placing your trust in someone else to give you a hand up and get you to a place where you can take care of yourself and have your needs covered.  Evette articulates these mental barriers and blocks that many homeless use for self-preservation, especially in respects to working with service organizations when she says:

There are walls that becomes built at different levels of homelessness, there are walls. Some people built walls because of their past family life and then they attach it to society as a whole. And then some people built up walls like me. My wall came when it came time to go inside. Ms. Desiree had found me a place where I could go inside but me going inside would have meant that I wouldn’t have been able to move into my own place, but then it would’ve took longer. Rather me stay outside, which was the shorter thing. Which to them, kept me at the top of their emergency list. Like, we have versus me being inside which would have dropped me down the list two other people. But then you have a kind of resilience when you live outside and you’re homeless. So I think the barriers come from the community and then there are also self-made barriers.[5]


Don voiced his frustration with the system when we talked about trying to receive services and barriers for homeless veterans when he said:

A lot of let down from the VA.  They advertise they’re there for their veterans.  They’re not.  Just going through the system, and dealing with them, I don’t feel they’re there for the veterans because everything that, if we go to them for something we need, they send us to sources outside.  “Well, go see these people.  Go to these people”, instead of saying, “Well, we have these people in place, and we can do this and this…”  It’s not like that.  It’s a lot of letdown.


On a similar cord as Evette, Don’s comments interact with other discourses about let down and disappointment from places that are supposed to be helpful. It was common for people to mention or allude to avoiding situations where they could face a let down as a loss of hope would negatively impact their ability to survive on the streets or in their current situation. Evette remembers:

Like I was telling Ms. Desiree when I was homeless, “Don’t promise me anything. Let me go through the steps first without promising, oh here’s your keys, you know? And like it’s a carrot in front of a rabbit, like, don’t do that.[6]


Evette, like many others, did not want to enter a situation in which they would be potentially let down. Once she had found a sense of safety and stability living under the bridge, she was worried about taking a risk and losing the one sense of security that she had.


[1] Lewis, Evette. Interviewed by Kelsey Glander. Video. March 15, 2016.

[2] O’Toole, Thomas and Erin E. Johnson and Stephan Redihan and Matthew Borgia et. al. “Needing Primary Care But Not Getting It: The Role of Trust, Stigma and Organizational Obstacles reported by Homeless Veterans.” Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved 26, no. 3 (2015): 1019-1031. (accessed April 13, 2016).

[3] Tolar, Cordell. Interviewed by Kelsey Glander. Video. Richmond. March 17, 2016.

[4] Golf, Calvin. Interviewed by Kelsey Glander. Richmond. Video. March 17, 2016.

[5] Lewis, Evette. Interviewed by Kelsey Glander. Richmond. Video. March 15, 2016.

[6] Lewis, Evette. Interviewed by Kelsey Glander. Video. Richmond. March 16, 2016