True Stories

It Could Happen to Them

By | Jul 28, 2015

Photo by Alex Proimos

Years ago, when I first became the leader of a small homeless agency on the Westside of Los Angeles, I used to start my presentations to the community by saying, “It could happen to you.”

“It” was homelessness. And “you” was the average middle-class American who was just one paycheck away from becoming homeless.

Back then, most people entering homeless shelters were similar to you and me. Then they lost their jobs, struggled with substance abuse, or fled from domestic violence. They burned bridges with family and friends. Finally, there was nowhere left to go but a homeless shelter.

Back then, we were able to help them resolve their issues, find jobs, and get back into an apartment fairly quickly.

Today, homelessness is very different. Many of the people living on the streets are struggling with serious mental health issues and/or substance abuse. Helping them move back into permanent homes involves much more than just providing job training and a few words of encouragement.

A decade ago, the case managers at PATH were more like peer counselors. And, at the time, that was sufficient to help the people we served.

Today, we have more than 100 case managers with postgraduate degrees and/or experience in high-needs populations, mental health, and substance abuse counseling. This high level of support helps us meet the needs of the people we serve, many of whom are dealing with multiple barriers.

Although the needs of the people we serve have become more intensive, one thing hasn’t necessarily changed. Ironically, they often still come from middle-class America.

I often receive emails or phone calls from people that knew me years ago. But they are not contacting me just to reconnect.

They are calling because someone close—a brother, a daughter, a parishioner, a partner—is struggling with mental health issues or abusing some substance. The family has done everything in their power to love them, get them help, and support them. But now this family member or friend is about to become homeless or, sometimes, is already living on the streets.

Some of these callers I knew decades ago, and some of their families are very well off. After talking on the phone or responding to an email like this, I’m always a little shocked. Even I, who have seen so many people struggle with homelessness, am surprised that Jill, or Bill, or Jesse is homeless.

It reminds me of my presentations to the community decades ago. But today, I would start by saying, “It could happen to them – your family and friends.”

One Comment

  1. Mary Young
    Posted Jul 29, 2015 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    Joel It did happen to me!! I always said to my people it can happen to anybody! I went to the bridge for help and they turned me away! I worked at the Bridge from the first day it opened! There were some of the same people there and they were shocked to see me in line to go in! I said to them ,remember when I told you it could happen to anyone! I didn't make it inside the gate so I just left1