Updated: Apr 7
I have always known homelessness existed, but I never realized how close the issue was to me until my wife shared she had once been homeless. I didn't know what to say or do. It took a while to process everything.
Here's what I've learned: It doesn't make a difference what race, sex, age or social class you are born into, if you're living in America and you fall on hard times, there's a chance it could end up with you being homeless.
My Wife's Story
When Marla opened up and shared her story with me, it was heartbreaking.
The way she ended up being homeless and the things she went through before becoming homeless were devastating to hear. Her transparency was heartfelt and inspiring.
All I could think was, wow, how could someone endure such pain and agony from this - from no fault of their own but because of the circumstances life dealt them.
I will not tell my wife's story. It is her's to tell.
I will share that I jumped into her mission to end homelessness fully invested. The research I have been doing and the stories I hear from individuals who have/are facing similar circumstances and from my veteran friends who are homeless are very hard to hear.
The Causes of Homelessness
Through my experiences and research, I've learned that homelessness is not society's problem - but homelessness is the result of several societal issues.
Many things lead to homelessness:
· Domestic Violence
· Cost of Living
· Physical Illness
· Job loss
· Family tragedy
· Flaws in the criminal justice system
"Homelessness has a broad meaning," writes UK Psychologist Parashar P. Ramanuj in Bearing the Cost of the American Dream.
The term homelessness or unhoused could refer to people having to bounce from one relative's house to another, couch surf with friends, live in shelters or hotels, sleep in their car, or worst-case scenario live on the streets.
Homelessness does not apply only to adults but also to families, teens and young children.
Approximately 1.5 million children experience homelessness in America each year. The current economic recession and staggering numbers of housing foreclosures have caused the number of homeless families to increase dramatically. In the 1980s, families accounted for less than 1% of all homeless populations but by 2009, they had risen to 32% of the homeless population. (Ending child homelessness in America. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, pg 496–504. )
Veterans make up another community who has experienced homelessness in the United States. An estimated 37,000 veterans are living on the streets, in their cars, or at the mercy of a friend's couch. These are men and women who gave their all, watched their friends die, and believed that America would have a job for them when their time at war came to an end.
The American Dream
The homeless carry the stigma of "stranger." They are the daily reminders of our failures as a society.
In America, we believe that anyone can achieve success with the right amount of ambition and dedication. "This is the American dream," says Ramanuj. "It is a noble ideology, if only it were true..."
You can see this playing out in the city where I live, downtown Tampa. As the tourism traffic increases at various times of the year, the homeless are pushed from the downtown area, regardless of whether or not they work downtown.
The city does not want to see homeless community members out there because it could affect their tourism revenue.
When homeless community members are relocated, homelessness isn't suddenly solved. Instead, a greater gap of understanding is created. Those who have abundance are further removed from those who have none. Homelessness is not overcome; it is simply put out of sight.
The result of multiple problems in our society (aka homelessness) is relocated to suburbia or lower-income areas where service and entry level jobs are often less available. We see it now as more and more homeless are being pushed from downtown Tampa and are finding their way to Riverview and Brandon.
In the end, this is a short-term solution because those who are desperate for work will go to where the jobs are, and if the jobs are in downtown Tampa they will migrate back to the bus stops and parks where they knew how to find resources and who they could safely approach for help.
The Pandemic's Effect on Homelessness
This pandemic has been difficult for everyone, but for those who:
· were already living paycheck to paycheck
· who experienced the tragic death of their caregiver
· faced eviction
· were already homeless
· lacked health insurance
· aged out of the foster care system
COVID-19 did not lead them a step closer to the American dream; it lead to homelessness.
Unemployment, poverty, disability, and the uninsured increase during periods of economic downturns.
Did you know that The New York Times reported in 2012 that there were plans in place to end chronic and veteran homelessness - by 2015 - and to end homelessness among families and children - by 2020?
So why haven't we?
In the US, homelessness is a complex problem that can't be solved by a single solution. I'm a big believer in education being an essential part of the solution. The more people know about what's going on and how to help, the better our chances are of ending this crisis one day.
But understanding the reality of what is happening in our society isn't everything. Action is required.
Because there are so many problems that result in homelessness, a cookie-cutter one-size-fits-all solution is not possible. Personalized care plans are necessary to end the cycle of homelessness on our streets.
What The Bautista Project Does
My wife and I co-founded The Bautista Project to be part of the solution. Through this non-profit and the generous contributions of the community, we provide basic living essentials, educational resources, support groups, and other necessary resources to assist individuals experiencing chronic homelessness and those who are at risk of becoming homeless.
Through VetPoint100, I have the opportunity to mentor veterans who are a part of the homeless community in Tampa, Florida. As an Active-Duty Army Service Member, it is my duty and an honor to live out the principles of never leaving a comrade behind.
Each of the programs we offer is individualized to better assist those experiencing homelessness and help those on the verge of or at high risk of homelessness.
We regularly team up with other organizations, such as Feeding Tampa Bay and Grow My Giving, to distribute food to families who have been impacted by food insecurity and the instability created by the pandemic.
What else is required?
Seeing the individuals for who they are!
When we remove the homeless from the populated streets of downtown Tampa, thinking they don't belong there, believing that they serve no purpose to our communities and that their presence is a blight… we are mistaken.
For those who do not know these individual men and women personally, all they see is the "scary homeless man." The stigma of what "street people" look like or what "they" might do, outweighs the truth.
The truth is, there are certain areas downtown that are clean only because of the "scary homeless man" who lives there.
"Scary Joe" makes sure that his corner stays clean and that others do not patronize the men and women eating lunch outside their favorite restaurant.
At night when a shop forgets to lock up, he'll camp in front of the door and make sure no one enters. He picks up trash, keeps the drug dealers away, and can tell you when the last time was that the city sprayed for mosquitoes. The cops know him by name and look out for him. He knows his block, and the business owners - who are paying attention - see his value.
Joe isn't living the American Dream, and to be honest, has a very slim chance of getting off that street corner before an early death. But Joe is a valued community member by those who see him.
Unfortunately, there are just as many people who would gladly spit on him, and even some well-off individuals who have physically attacked and seriously injured him simply for being homeless.
That's the challenge. Getting people to see Joe for who he is - because they can't help but fall in love with him and understand his value once they do. Being seen, belonging to a group, being valued all play into breaking the cycle of homelessness.
Together We Can End Homelessness
We need to do better for this community.
We need to do better for Joe and the veterans.
I need to do better for my friends living on the streets, my fellow soldiers... and for my wife, who long ago made a promise that if she got off the streets, she would go back and help others do the same.
Will you join us?