From what the interviewees related during their interviews, their fall into homelessness was not a result of mental illness or substance abuse. Their journey with homelessness began when they encountered circumstances beyond their control such as job loss, or a death, that caused them to ultimately lose their home or the home they were staying in. They report struggling with mental health issues or substance abuse issues after they began to struggle with homelessness or the instability of bouncing between residences.  The idea that veteran homelessness is a direct result of military service or mental illness is something that is compounded by societal stereotypes and assumptions made about military culture and homelessness.

When asked “how did you become homeless?” Evette answered “It was by accident.”[1] Like most others, she became homeless after a series of family and financial disasters. Evette, Harold and Richard all lost their homes after the death of a family member who they were living with at the time. Richard said, “I stayed there for a few weeks after that until everything got shut off because I couldn’t pay the bills…”[2] He stayed there as long as he could out of desperation and fear of being homeless.

Others lost their homes after losing their jobs and finding themselves in financial trouble and unable to keep up with mortgage payments or rent payments and then they couldn’t not find housing within their means. Carl Pollard remembered, “the economy was…somebody once called it a depressed area…”[3] when referring to his old neighborhood and the inability to find a job to support his household.

Brendan O’Flaherty discusses homelessness as bad luck in his book How to House the Homeless. He says, “risk matters because homelessness is a transient state for which onset cannot easily be predicted in advance…homelessness is a fairly unpredictable event in some people’s lives.”[4] O’Flaherty’s argument holds true with the participants in this project. None of them were able to predict that they would become homeless, or go through multiple bouts of homelessness over a course of time.

When asked the question, “what types of barriers do you feel like homeless veterans face?” participants responded with a variety of different examples of barriers, but at the root of each of these barriers was either a community made barrier or a self made barrier. They felt like stereotypes could be both community barriers and self-made barriers. Many discussed personal challenges they needed to overcome as being a barrier to their reintegration into society such as alcoholism, or not taking enough risks.

 There are many negative stereotypes associated with and assumed about the street homeless population in the United States. The overarching stereotype is that the homeless community is made up of men who are “lazy, morally bankrupt, and potentially dangerous…unmotivated and work-averse; uneducated and lacking in marketable skills and talents; likely to abuse alcohol or drugs; or mentally ill.”[5] Many of these stereotypes are so engrained in communities, that the homeless population has difficulty breaking free of these figurative chains to stop the cycle of homelessness and thus becoming a victim of these assumptions by their neighbors, service providers, potential employers, law enforcement, and city government. According to many of the interview subjects for this project, the stereotypes extended even further when considering homeless veterans as many were through to be crazy because of the reputation of the Armed Forces. On this subject, Don commented that everyone thought he was going to come out of the Marines as crazy man.

Because the Marine Corps has a reputation.  And once you go through the Marine Corps, if you are weak minded, yes, you are gonna come out crazy.  Because the Marines, the training that you go through, it’s a mind game.  It’s a mind game, but it’s also a survival game.  So, if you follow they mind game they way they want you to, they brainwash you, you come out crazy.  I’m a little bit stronger than that. When I first went in, got off the bus, at 3:30 in the morning, and this little guy is hollering and stuff, and I’m like, “What the hell I done got myself into?”  But, I did my 3 years.  I got an honorable discharge.  I got out.  And I’m not crazy. [6]

Wasserman tries to goes beyond the stereotypes, suggesting that the negative qualities associated with the homeless, especially substance abuse and mental disorder, are often a result of being homeless, but are not necessarily the initial cause of homelessness and thus do not define the homeless population, and they work to create a dialogue with and around the street homeless population to create change. When asked about these barriers and stereotypes, Wilbur said:

Homeless veterans. There’s the stigma where, oh you’re homeless, people look down on you.  Ok, you watch television and going into the service, Army, Air Force, Marines, Navy it doesn’t matter, it’s a great thing, but once you get out people look down on you if you’re homeless or they don’t look at you at all. Like you’re there and you’re not there.[7]

 

Wasserman and Clair spent four years working with the homeless population of Birmingham, Alabama to create an ethnographic study that they hoped would defy the conclusions and “generalized understandings”[8] of the current state of social sciences in the study of homelessness and dispel the stigma that most homeless feel like they face. Over the course of their study, they found that many outreach workers and service providers to the homeless, such as shelter operators, felt that generally all of the street homeless were “diseased in some way, whether it be mental illness, alcohol, or drugs, ”[9] thus reinforcing the stigma. If outreach workers and service providers apply these assumptions to the homeless population, it is hard for those not directly involved in servicing the homeless to think anything different of the homeless population in their communities.

The service providers that Wasserman and Clair worked with did make a distinction between people who were generally homeless, bouncing from shelter to shelter, and the people who made the choice to live on the street and not utilize shelter services. They felt that those who made the decision to live on the street must be crazy not to utilize services. But when the researchers interviewed the homeless population on this question, they had a very different response as to why they did not engage many of the resources available. They felt that not only were the shelters dirty, but that they were also extremely unsafe as they did not know the people who they were sleeping next to, drugs were illicitly traded, and all inhabitants were in close proximity with the germs of the person next to them.[10] Along this same line, Evette recounted her shelter experiences in detail throughout her interview. When asked about the places she had stayed since becoming homeless she said:

If you walk up near the projects, you will find a little secret underpass where we used to live at. We had three large queen sized mattresses down there. There was a futon down there. There was a makeshift stove down there. We had a makeshift port-o-potty down there. So, when I got underneath of there, I didn’t find myself comfortable but at the time, the shelters were so over ran with mental health people. And with me taking the kind of medicines that I take, it was just totally unbearable. Like, I wasn’t able to sleep at nighttime because people would be up and moving around me and would make me scared. And then there was the level of theft that was going on. So if you laid your pocketbook down, it was guaranteed that when you came back, it was not there. So under the bridge was a relatively safe location for me.[11]

 

As seen in Evette’s comments, many people may choose to stay in a homeless situation to avoid the hassle and stress associated with the shelter system. Wasserman and Clair found that the stigma of substance abuse and mental illness is dominant because “those people are particularly visible. Their behavior draws attention, whereas the person who is homeless but does not exhibit these behaviors is more likely to go unnoticed,”[12] and therefore inferences and assumptions about the population as a whole are easy to make, and are “then continually confirmed by daily interactions.”[13]

Street homelessness is a “condition associated with increased daily hassles, decreased social support, decreased health status, and increased adverse life events,”[14] which can throw a person into depression, or amplify any previously minor symptoms, thus being “a natural result of the condition, not the cause of it.”[15] They also make the point that substance use by the street homeless population is much more likely to be overestimated and labeled as addiction than “a person of high socioeconomic status who ‘unwinds’ with a cocktail before dinner, wine with dinner, and a nightcap,”[16] showing that society is much more willing to place negative stereotypes on a marginalized group in society. For many the participants in this project who struggle with addiction or who have struggled with addiction in the past, substance abuse and alcoholism seemed to be the result of self-medicating to deal with personal troubles, including a fall into homelessness. Both Cordell and Richard were addicts early on in their lives, but had been sober for an extended period of time when they became homeless. Cordell talks specifically about how when he became homeless, it was very hard not to revert back to his old habits that he had worked so hard to put behind him. This shows that, like Wasserman and Clair suspected, substance abuse is not always the cause of homelessness, but is often an effect or a reversion back to a past condition.

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

[2] DeLoch, Richard. Interviewed by Kelsey Glander. Audio. March 17, 2016.

[3] Pollard, Carl. Interviewed by Kelsey Glander. Video. March 17, 2016

[4] O’Flaherty, Brendan. How to House the Homeless. (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2010). 143–82. JSTOR e-book. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7758/9781610447294.11.

 

[5] Buch, Kim, and Susan Harden. “The Impact of a Service-Learning Project on Student Awareness of Homelessness, Civic Attitudes, and Stereotypes toward the Homeless.” Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement 15, no. 3 (2011):

52.

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

[7] Evans, Wilbur. Interviewed by Kelsey Glander. Video. Richmond. March 18, 2016.

[8] Wasserman, Jason. At Home on the Street: People, Poverty, and a Hidden Culture of Homelessness. Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2010. Print. Ix.

[9] Wasserman. At Home on the Street, 60.

[10] Ibid., 61-63.

[11] Lewis, Evette. Interviewed by Kelsey Glander. Video. Richmond. March 16, 2015.

[12] Ibid., 72.

[13] Wasserman. At Home on the Street, 72.

[14] Wasserman. At Home on the Street, 72.

[15] Ibid., 72.

[16] Ibid., 73.