Voices of Homelessness: The Untold Stories of America

“I am not a homeless person,” Mary said. “Now, that’s where they’ve read me all wrong. They know I’m here. They know I exist, but they just look past me as if I’m not even worth seeing. I know they know how to smile. I see them on the streets smiling at each other, at these strangers, but not at me.” 

I may not have a home, but I am not homeless. I am a human just like them.

Mary
Photography by Varshini Odayar 
Poster captured in downtown Cincinnati

I met Mary, an individual experiencing homelessness, when I was walking down Vine Street in Cincinnati. Every two weeks since I was nine years old, my family and I would visit ShelterHouse, formerly known as the Drop Inn Center, a public shelter near downtown Cincinnati which provides housing, healthcare services, and career support for people experiencing homelessness. I would cook and serve meals, heartened by their smiles, hearing glimpses of their stories. For years, as I walked back from the shelter, I passed by individuals like Mary, experiencing homelessness, inadvertently contributing to their social isolation. But during one of my visits, I decided to stop and talk to Mary. I asked her about her day, and her story slowly unraveled. Mary was a teacher. She was a model. She is a survivor of domestic violence. 

“Look at my injuries. He did this to me. But look at me. I’m still here,” Mary said. 

Mary battled depression for years, causing her to struggle financially, as she was evicted from her home. 

“This can happen to anyone,”  she said.

Photography by Varshini Odayar 
Mary, a woman experiencing homelessness in downtown Cincinnati, tells her story about getting evicted from her own home as she holds a heartfelt sign.

Like Mary, there are more than half a million individuals in the United States who do not have a home. People are forced on the streets due to eviction and subjected to the cruel ignorance of onlookers. Villanized at the hands of mainstream media, they are portrayed as lazy, poverty-stricken individuals with ragged clothes. The media continues to perpetuate these stereotypes through its failure to explore the root of the problem: how homelessness affects individuals rather than societies and cities at large. 

First introduced in the 1870s, the word homeless was relatively harmless, simply used to describe people wandering around the country in search of jobs. The word served to critique the aimless nature of these individuals who prioritized travel over domestic responsibilities. The original definition was further motivated by the construction of national railroads and industrialization, allowing for individuals to travel across the country. During World War II, the word homeless took on another meaning entirely as it described individuals living in small, crowded hotels and single room occupancy hotels (SROs). Yet today, the word homeless includes neither of the two aforementioned definitions. With gentrification and the rapid rise of unemployment rates, the definition has taken a rather different form. Today, the public perception of homelessness is marred with stigma and negative portrayals from the media. To be homeless has become a derogatory label, but the negative connotations surrounding this word have made life more difficult for homeless populations in ways that research has not measured. 

In an effort to better understand the true impacts of this word, several activists have moved the discussion forwards, suggesting why the world homeless, although seemingly harmless, welds a destructive power. Dr. Mark Mussman, The Director of the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition, describes that “when we label people as homeless, we are in fact, erasing their faces completely. Rather, we must move towards the language of “people experiencing homelessness.” Dr. Mussman works with these individuals daily, providing career resources and empowering individuals to use their passions to achieve economic success. That day, Mark’s words came to life when I photographed Mary, walking down Vine Street, carrying a heart-felt sign about eviction. 

Homelessness does not define me, but it pains me that the only thing you see written on my face is homeless, black and white just like that.

Mary

It is important to evaluate the many factors which can lead someone to homelessness. It was Mary’s experience with domestic violence and her battles against depression which caused her to feel stuck in an endless cycle of isolation with no mental support or helplines. A lack of support systems eventually caused her to be evicted. 

As she spoke, Mary explained her battles against depression, and how she felt stuck in an endless cycle. 

Her mental health suffered due to domestic violence and the lack of resources and support. Mary’s case illustrates that mental health and illness is attached with social stigma. This social stigma is further amplified when combined with the stigma surrounding homelessness in the eyes of the public. Reports from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that nearly 20 to 25% of the homeless population in the United States suffers from mental illnesses. Often, homelessness leads to social isolation and thus takes a toll on one’s mental health. During a pandemic, this social isolation only increases as individuals are forced to socially distance, and shelters are forced to take fewer people due to social distancing guidelines. 

Through an analysis of current support systems in place for people experiencing homelessness in the United States, Social Security as well as other public shelters and respite care centers are the primary sources of support for individuals experiencing homelessness. However, these shelters are overcrowded and lack an environment conducive for recovery from mental illness as volunteers are typically not trained or well-equipped to support individuals with mental health needs. Since the current systems fail to support the physical and mental well-being of the homeless, we must focus on prioritizing programs which place emphasis on mental health support. For instance, The Housing First Program offers permanent housing without any predetermined conditions of obtaining treatment for mental health or substance abuse issues. Through prioritization of such programs, more attention can be placed towards building advanced systems of support. Permanent supportive housing, systems which offer combined housing and extensive services, can also be advanced. These systems are beneficial because they do not perform screenings which would otherwise penalize those with criminal records or substance abuse issues. 

As I walked further along Vine Street that day, I spoke with another man experiencing homelessness. He explained how he lived in a car for several months, providing much needed shelter during Cincinnati’s harsh winters. Yet, he eventually sold his car, his only possession and source of shelter, in order to afford food and water. He explained that he had been denied housing time and time again due to strict predetermined conditions. If permanent housing programs such as the Housing First Model were prioritized, he would be placed in a more stable housing situation. 

Photography by Varshini Odayar 
A man experiencing homelessness in Cincinnati shares his struggle to find housing, living in his car instead for many years. He shares his wishes to be seen by the onlookers of Cincinnati.

Considering the benefits of such programs, what is perhaps even more interesting is that providing housing for individuals experiencing homelessess costs significantly less than the cost that social services would otherwise endure. Thus, it is beneficial for both parties to institute reforms which provide direct services and housing to those experiencing homelessness. In New York City, the Justice-Involved Supportive Housing Program helps individuals secure housing and build systems of community support systems, including resources for health support. Following implementation, they found that the program would save nearly $16,000 in annual costs for emergency care, public shelters, jails, and other forms of public assistance per the individual. Another program – San Francisco’s Direct Access to Housing Program – provides permanent housing for individuals experiencing homelessness with mental health needs, have also reported findings that their program helped in reducing emergency department visits by nearly 58%. These programs reveal that addressing homelessness at its root will save money in the long-run. 

It is important to consider that advancement and improvement of aforementioned programs take time and effort. While we collectively work towards a better America, we can individually work towards being more empathetic humans. We must start by listening to those who are constantly silenced by the media, those who are unjustly vilified, and those who are fighting to have their voices heard. Rather than passing by individuals experiencing homelessness, we can take the time to listen to and amplify their voices. 

I will never forget the time when he opened up to me, expressing his feelings:  

“Just two minutes. That is all the time it takes for you to get to know me, for you to ask me how I am. I deserve to be talked to. I deserve to be treated the same.”

In order to create a just world for those experiencing homelessness, we must first listen to their stories. These are only a few of the stories that are waiting to be heard, seen, and understood. 

Before I left that day, Mary said to me: “I have told you my story. Now, go tell our city.” 

Edited By Ria Parikh and Akila Muthukumar.

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