Being a homeless advocate is rough. At times, it is a battle.
This first battle front is the one waged against our cultural stigma that deems homelessness to be a personal failing. The second front for these altruistic volunteers is a test of will against the homeless themselves.
The Homeless Count, mentioned in Kathleen Merryman’s Jan 29 column, is a prime example of the latter. Many people for various reasons, including pride or mistrust of government, refuse to be counted.
The challenge is further daunting because homeless people are a dynamic group. Because of the cyclical nature of both the job market and drug and alcohol dependency, some names and faces change on a daily basis. Some are simply stuck in a downward spiral of mental health problems.
I have met hundreds of homeless people in my job as a police officer, including one man who ambushed me in an alley. He leaped out of his hiding place behind a dumpster, jumped on my back and the fight was on. His particular form of crazy was a result of a lack of medication for his severe case of schizophrenia, but it still was a violent assault. I met him on the street a week later when his medication was current. He was rational and extremely apologetic.
The stereotype of homeless people is often inaccurate. While some camps can be dissheveled and putrid, the majority of the homeless are usually as clean and organized as the average person. What we forget is that many of these people have one particular issue that somehow prevents them from fitting into our social system. They are like characters from a Shakespearen tragedy whose tragic flaw prevents them from living full and rich lives.
The homeless need advocates to speak for them, which is why some volunteers have switched their census-taking hours to the middle of the night (2AM to 6AM). This makes it easier for them to locate their clients at home, whether home is a car, a curbside or a tent under the freeway. Despite their collective silence, their countless stories deserve to be told.
The Homeless Count gives them a significant chance to be heard.