Cardboard Stories
July 23, 2014 3:41 PM   Subscribe

Rethink Homelessness asked a bunch of homeless people from Orlando to write down something about themselves that people who walk by them wouldn't otherwise know.
posted by gman (44 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
What a great exercise.
posted by jaguar at 3:55 PM on July 23, 2014

"I surrendered my kids to save them from homelessness"

This happens a lot more often than people know. My wife works for an adoption agency and they have handled cases like that. One story I recall involved a man who had three boys. He knew things were going downhill and didn't want to drag his boys down with him (mom had walked away years earlier and disappeared) Older children are hard to place, and a group of three is almost impossible to place as a unit. The agency pulled-out all the stops and found three couples willing to take one each of the boys and they agreed to, basically, blend the families and raise the boys so they knew each other and stayed as close as possible. The father was, of course, overjoyed.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:59 PM on July 23, 2014 [39 favorites]

The Rock Creek campus at PCC here in Portland had (has?) a similarly-themed installation; there were tents set up with life stories written on them. I remember them all being pretty heartbreaking.
posted by curious nu at 4:02 PM on July 23, 2014

Some of these make me wince.

"I have stage 2 lung cancer." That man needs free, abundant medical care.

"I have a degree in biology." Dollar says he's an addict. Also in need of free, abundant medical care.

On the other hand...

"I was on the Buffalo Bills practice squad." That means you just weren't a super-elite player, which could be for any number of reasons, including "you're injured (see medical care, above)" or "you're an addict (see above)" or "sorry, you're just not good enough." That's OK, neither am I.

But to get your cup of coffee in the NFL, you went to a college. Perhaps not a good one. But you went to one, nonetheless, for some period of time. And now you're on the street.

Well, that just makes me want to punch all of your teachers, all of your coaches and everyone else that gave you advice.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 4:24 PM on July 23, 2014 [14 favorites]

These were heartbreaking; so much is packed into a single statement.

Also, what Cool Papa Bell said about health care. Damn.
posted by kinnakeet at 4:31 PM on July 23, 2014

A) "I speak 4 languages" "I have a degree..." "I've built robots"

B) and, in between, epilepsy, born deaf, Huntington's, lung cancer...etc.
A) A lot of homeless services seem aimed at the lowest common denominator in terms of trying to help people get benefits or low level jobs. It seems lots of folks on the street have serious brains and educations and the like. I hope that is part of what this organization is rethinking.

B) Basically a good argument for the U.S. federal government to start actually providing universal health coverage. Sigh.

"I have a degree in biology." Dollar says he's an addict.

That kind of makes me wince.

I mean, he could also have a serious medical condition (a la Huntington's, cancer, etc). But lots of people on the street have a serious medical condition. So perhaps he thought it would be more surprising to list the degree?
posted by Michele in California at 4:36 PM on July 23, 2014 [6 favorites]

This is a great idea. Not only is it harder to ignore people when you know something about them, it actually invites passers-by to start a conversation. "Which four languages do you speak?" "What kind of robots did you build?" "How did you get from a baseball scholarship to here?" If all of these people could end up living on the streets one way or another, so could anyone.
posted by Rangi at 4:38 PM on July 23, 2014 [6 favorites]

So in less than 24 hours it's looking like I'm going to be homeless out here in the 100 degree Texas heat. What can I say - it's been a shitty year filled with setback after setback after setback and I'm completely out of resources.

I'll get back to y'all with my cardboard sign.
posted by item at 4:40 PM on July 23, 2014 [16 favorites]

Addiction is a thing, but so are mental health problems, more than a few of which can lead to various addictions as people try to self-medicate. Then of course once you have a serious mental health issue going, you're supposed to navigate a system to get disability and housing assistance that's been designed specifically to keep out the "undeserving" with layers and layers of hurdles. I don't know many people at the moment who are homeless, but I know probably a dozen people who would be for exactly this reason if they didn't have parents they could move in with. When the family safety net fails, suddenly you're on the street, and not all of us have parents we could live with in a pinch. Even if you can get yourself on Medicaid, Medicaid isn't going to put a roof over your head.
posted by Sequence at 4:42 PM on July 23, 2014 [7 favorites]


Please check your memail.
posted by Michele in California at 4:44 PM on July 23, 2014 [17 favorites]

Sometimes it helps to write the "right thing" on the cardboard. Remember Ted Williams, with the golden voice?

There were a few other stories about cardboard signs:
""Homelessness is the white noise of the community," Hope tells Co.Design. "We live in a world that is so saturated by design and branding that these homemade begging signs just get drowned out." [...] Can well-executed design change the lives of the homeless?
A new project in Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts, is trying to find out. A collaboration between artist Kenji Nakayama and Christopher Hope, the Signs for the Homeless project exchanges handwritten panhandling signs for colorfully illustrated, eye-catching recreations that aim to give the homeless a power that most of us take for granted: The power to be noticed."

"I looked at him and thought: I wish there was something funny written on that sign. So I made him a new one. [...] My eventual goal was not to change the homeless problem. It’s to change the minds of people with homes. It’s to get those people – the commuters – to look at a homeless person and to understand that that’s not just a fixture at the side of the road; it’s an individual that has needs, wants and everything else. I wanted to help them make some money. And I think it’s influenced some people to give more money."
posted by travelwithcats at 4:45 PM on July 23, 2014 [4 favorites]

item: :( I know that the r/homeless subreddit has been helpful to some people facing homelessness and might be able to hook you up with resources you haven't considered yet.
posted by zachlipton at 4:45 PM on July 23, 2014 [4 favorites]

I did criminal defense for a year or so out of law school, and at some point I had a client: homeless, mentally ill, arrested for trespassing at a restaurant that he had gotten banned from for causing a disturbance before and then went back (and caused another disturbance). All pretty typical, unfortunately, for that line of work. I sat down with him at the jail, getting some basic background biographical information, and he says he's got a law degree. If I'm honest, I didn't really believe him at first. Some googling revealed, however, that yep, he had been a lawyer working for clients with mental health issues until his own got the better of him. It was heartbreaking.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 4:53 PM on July 23, 2014 [42 favorites]

People in the US never believe the stories of people who are down on their luck. We only trust success, even if its ill-gotten.
posted by saulgoodman at 5:20 PM on July 23, 2014 [31 favorites]

The next question that needs to be asked of these folks is, what do you need to get you off the street?
posted by KokuRyu at 5:27 PM on July 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

That's an easy one. They need housing. Houses will get them off the street.
posted by Mayhembob at 5:33 PM on July 23, 2014 [9 favorites]

A large number of the homeless are veterans, though none show up here, and many unable to hold jobs etc because of PTSD or addiction problems...As a vet, this saddens me.
posted by Postroad at 5:42 PM on July 23, 2014 [3 favorites]

Of course, there's also those like me who've been diagnosed with PTSD yet have never set foot on a battlefield that wasn't mostly made up of plastic GI Joe toys.
posted by item at 5:51 PM on July 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

That's an easy one. They need housing. Houses will get them off the street.

I wish it were that simple. For some, perhaps it is. But, for most homeless individuals, the root cause of their homelessness is one or more intractable personal problems. A very high percentage suffer either medical or mental health issues. In some cases, the result of sticking a mentally ill homeless person in housing is that they burn it down or otherwise make it uninhabitable in short order.

Though I will suggest that making more affordable housing more generally available can help reduce the incidence of homelessness. I have written about that before on MeFi. I can dig it up if people really want the long version of my opinion on that.
posted by Michele in California at 5:54 PM on July 23, 2014 [5 favorites]

That's an easy one. They need housing. Houses will get them off the street.

The website has a few actual stories (no one story can be told in 10 words or less on a scrap of cardboard... but it's a start!) that indicate how complex some problems are.

There's one guy who has a job working the night shift at a pizza place or something. However, he can't even get into a shelter because the shelter where he is has a curfew.

There's another fellow who actually has a family back in Philly or someplace, but is presumably estranged. He has a bunch of health issues that prevent him from holding down a job. One of his health problems is cirrhosis of the liver, which could be caused (I think) by untreated hepatitis, but also can be caused by alcoholism, a disease and mental health condition which, if he has it, likely led to him being on the street in the first place, and which will prevent him from getting housing.

I am proud to say that my hometown, Victoria British Columbia, has been AFAIK very innovative and compassionate in regards to "dealing with" homelessness.

We're at the end of the line - you can't really go much further south or west in Canada without drowning, so people migrate here. The streets are much, much safer than Vancouver's DTES.

Essentially, a larger number of Canada's "homeless population" (I use quotes because it's a dehumanizing term) end up in Victoria.

On top of that, while the region is home to about 400,000 people, and is one of the most affluent communities in Canada (comparing median per capita and household income to COL, including housing cost), the region is also a Balkanized mix of 13 different municipalities.

Most of the homeless folks in the Victoria region congregate in the City of Victoria, because that's where the services are, from shelters to medical care to places to sleep at night. The other municipalities, notably Saanich, a wealthy and populous suburb, do not really "pay their fair share."

Anyway, one of the innovations here in Victoria is the concept of "wet shelter beds." Limited in number, these beds provide people living addictions and "using" a place to stay, where they might be turned away in other scenarios.

There is also an effort to build a lot more shelter beds, and also create a continuum of housing, moving people off the street into safe, stable housing.

Most of these folks are hardcore homeless, people with "dual-diagnosis", living with both mental health conditions and substance abuse.

At the end of the day, however, there are not enough shelter beds, so people camp out in parks from dusk to dawn - permitted to do so by the Supreme Court. The park a block away from where I am banging on the keyboard is one such place. There has been a guy sleeping in a tent in the same spot each night; each morning he has to put away his tent and do whatever he does during the day.

It may be unwise to stay in the same spot each night; on my 5AM walk this morning, I noticed a timed park sprinkler was directed right at his tent. On the whole, though, city staff and bylaw enforcement folks, and the cops, are *relatively* enlightened.

It's a tough balancing act, because some of these folks trash the parks with garbage and stolen property.

But everyone knows they have no place else to go, really. The solution is building more housing, but that takes time. And the provincial government does deserve some credit for its housing strategy, such as it is. The federal government, however, is fundamentally unenlightened.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:14 PM on July 23, 2014 [8 favorites]

Hang in there, item
posted by batfish at 6:57 PM on July 23, 2014 [8 favorites]

I just learned this week that one of my wife's recently divorced friends' husbands basically turned their house into a flop house for local homeless guys in our (slightly more rural and traditionally working middle class) suburban neighborhood. I think people would be horrorstruck if they knew just how pervasive and wide-ranging a problem homelessness is becoming in the US. This particular guy's divorce was exacerbated by alcoholism I'm told, and most of the other men living with him now are heavy drinkers, too. But really, it's just crazy to think it's reached the point where even suburbs have these hidden populations of economically disenfranchised people now.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:05 PM on July 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

please check your MeMail again, item.
posted by porn in the woods at 7:38 PM on July 23, 2014 [3 favorites]

One of my early jobs out of college was working as a secretary for a firm that did a lot of social and educational research. The amount of "dual diagnosis" (mental health + addition) issues among the homeless was staggering. Thanks to the beloved Saint Reagan for casting folks out into the street.

I'm pretty sure if we wanted to, we could feed, clothe, and house everyone. Then I wonder what it says about us as a species that we choose not to.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 8:07 PM on July 23, 2014 [6 favorites]

Michele in California: "I wish it were that simple. For some, perhaps it is. But, for most homeless individuals, the root cause of their homelessness is one or more intractable personal problems. A very high percentage suffer either medical or mental health issues. In some cases, the result of sticking a mentally ill homeless person in housing is that they burn it down or otherwise make it uninhabitable in short order."

There's a lot of solid data supporting the effectiveness of the Housing First model.
posted by desuetude at 8:14 PM on July 23, 2014 [8 favorites]

I'm pretty sure if we wanted to, we could feed, clothe, and house everyone. Then I wonder what it says about us as a species that we choose not to.

This is my thing, because I really don't have a problem with the idea of buying things you don't need, of people living lives that aren't "simple", whatever. The 2013 US GDP per capita was $53,143. That's per capita. Per every adult and child in the United States. It does not take $53k a person to feed, clothe, and house people. We have an economy that's producing more than enough to guarantee a minimum safe standard of living even to the lazy, much less those who are disabled or temporarily out of work, and yet we don't, not because we'd have to give up luxuries forever to do so but because a few people would have to have slightly fewer.
posted by Sequence at 8:22 PM on July 23, 2014 [8 favorites]

Housing First is an approach to ending homelessness that centers on providing people experiencing homelessness with housing as quickly as possible – and then providing services as needed. This approach has the benefit of being consistent with what most people experiencing homelessness want and seek help to achieve.

Housing First programs share critical elements:

* A focus on helping individuals and families access and sustain permanent rental housing as quickly as possible without time limits;
* A variety of services delivered to promote housing stability and individual well-being on an as-needed basis; and
* A standard lease agreement to housing – as opposed to mandated therapy or services compliance.
It's worth noting that living in a shelter is still considered homelessness by most metrics; adding shelters doesn't help solve homelessness.
posted by jaguar at 8:45 PM on July 23, 2014 [4 favorites]

A just society would not remedy homelessness with "better signs."
posted by The White Hat at 8:48 PM on July 23, 2014 [7 favorites]

Thank you for this post. It's no surprise, of course, that people from various walks of life, as it were, end up homeless in the U.S. It's a cold-hearted and brutal society in many ways; those who fall prey to wrong-headed public policy must display a level of virtue above and beyond that of the public at large in order to garner a basic level of empathy. Anti homeless-oriented laws have proliferated in recent years; police (and citizen) brutality against that population has increased greatly. People in the U.S. have lost the thread of humanity and compassion, or that is my impression. This can't bode well for any society.
posted by metagnathous at 8:48 PM on July 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

I recall reading an article (likely from mefi) that presented data indicating that the thing that most strongly correlated with higher rates of homelessness was high rents in minimally acceptable dwellings. The higher the cost of the worst reasonable place to live, the higher the rate of homelessness.

I can't find the article, and I probably would have a hard time assessing its empirical claims because they align so neatly with my politics. Nonetheless, it is worth bringing up the possibility that the chief cause of homelessness might not be complex intractable problems like mental health or addiction, and might just be the overlooked-because-it's-so-obvious simple stark fact that reasonable housing is too expensive. The data that Housing First advocates present, data that show that providing people with housing is an effective way to treat the comorbidities that go along with homelessness — comorbidities like mental illness, alcoholism, and addiction — dovetails neatly with the idea that we're all increasingly homeless simply because homes are increasingly expensive.

tl;dr: maybe homelessness tends to cause mental illness, rather than the other way around.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 8:54 PM on July 23, 2014 [5 favorites]

Housing first seems to working well in Utah from what I've read.
posted by xarnop at 8:57 PM on July 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

tl;dr: maybe homelessness tends to cause mental illness, rather than the other way around.

Even if it doesn't cause it, it certainly exacerbates it. It's hard to store medications, it's hard to take medications on time, it's hard to get to doctors' appointments, and it's very very very hard to learn and implement healthy behavioral and cognitive coping skills to help reduce psychiatric symptoms when you're in a stressful and potentially dangerous situation 24 hours a day.

I work for an intensive outpatient program for people with severe mental illness, and getting and keeping clients appropriately housed is a major component of keeping them psychologically healthy.
posted by jaguar at 9:03 PM on July 23, 2014 [5 favorites]

This makes me sad for a lot of reasons, not least of which is the guy who has been living in the nearest bus stop for nearly two weeks at this point. I suspect he had some stories like these before, but he seems very mentally ill now. I have no idea how to help him or who to call, and I suspect there just may not be any resources available on an on-call basis. There's a lot of wealth in this area, and so very, very little affordable housing. (Or medicine, or water, or...) this seems like an interesting project and I hope if leads to good things, but no one should have to live in a bus stop, whether they have a good story or not.
posted by jetlagaddict at 9:26 PM on July 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Some evidence that housing homeless people with mental illness is a good idea:

Released in April 2014, the National At Home/Chez Soi Final Report demonstrates that Housing First works to rapidly end homelessness for people experiencing mental illness, and can be effectively implemented in cities of different size and different cultural contexts. It also proves that Housing First is a sound investment, with every $10 invested in Housing First services resulting in an average savings of $9.60 for participants with high needs and $3.42 for participants with moderate needs.
posted by cotton dress sock at 10:25 PM on July 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Talking about people who are "mentally ill" is like talking about people who are "physically ill"; physical illness can mean the flu or terminal cancer or anything in between - mental illness can mean depression controllable with medication or full-blown psychosis. Both terms are too vague to make discussion feasible without more individual information.

I used to manage apartments which accepted some tenants through local mental health referral agencies and also plenty of borderline homeless folks. One lady lit a big bunch of candles in the middle of the hardwood floor and burned a nice hole in it; it wasn't too big of a deal because she could have used the couch instead of the floor. Another tenant, a man, had been shot in the face when he was young by a police officer; he had PTSD and would occasionally lose track of where he was and when it was and think the officer was in the room with him - I could calm him down with quiet, gentle talk and a cup of coffee, but he was clearly riding the razor's edge. And there were people who were just plain poor and battered down - so many different kinds of problems, so many stories, but there were no horrible or evil people in those apartments. One old man had been a DJ on a Chicago radio station most of his life - he had at least a thousand vinyl records and played them all day every day. When a young man came to look the place over and liked the adjacent apartment to the DJ, I told him about the continous music; no problem, he said, and from the moment he moved in he sang out loud all day to the music - and he was good, too. He died, though, from medical neglect, at the age of 38; he was too poor to treat so they sent him away and he died two days later of a virulent blood infection that couldn't be stopped. His body was cremated and his medical history closed - no one will ever pay for the sloppy care he was given and no one cares, except his mother, who will carry the hurt to her own grave.

Ah - so what? So this: Everyone has a story and everyone's is different. Some people who are "mentally ill" find the idea of being able to lock the door on their own apartment, take a bath and sleep in safety, a gift that brings their life back. Others are only present in this realm part of the time and when they're "away" their physical self can get up to all kinds of mischief; for those, housing isn't as urgent as medical supervision. The one thing they all need is compassion - someone to give them the dignity of listening to them.

Thank you for posting this - it's time homeless people and those on the edge of homelessness are given a second look - or at least, a first look - by those who never look.
posted by aryma at 12:28 AM on July 24, 2014 [28 favorites]

Who Are The Homeless?
posted by telstar at 5:26 AM on July 24, 2014

jetlagaddict, generally if you search for your county name plus "community mental health" or "mental health outreach," especially if you're in an urban area, you can find the government agency that might provide resources for people who are mentally ill and homeless.

In LA, for instance, it looks like the LA County Department of Mental Health does have a Field Capable Clinical Services team that does outreach and engagement, which are fancy words for "talking to people who might need services and seeing if they'll agree to engage." The contact info for that team is on the right-hand side of the page, down a bit.
posted by jaguar at 7:08 AM on July 24, 2014

In my daily routine I pass by a minimum of three people, standing on the medians of major thoroughfares, holding signs asking for money. Sometimes I'll give a bit of money, but most times I get a vaguely uncomfortably guilty feeling: My mood changes, there's no smiling or laughing allowed, just a stoic awkwardness. I try not to make eye contact, and just wait for the perceptible relief when they walk by me to the cars behind, or as the light turns green.

For me, these folks are an unwelcome reminder of the mortality of Security... financial, mental, and emotional. They're a walking snuff film of my ambitions and hopes, and an embodiment of the things that, as a father and husband, go bump in the night.

For me, the people with those signs are a concrete representation of the cracks in the system, and whether one has propelled themselves into and through the cracks (due to an addiction or similar) or has merely slipped through, there's a discomforting dread that our society, what with its structure, wealth, and checks and balances has utterly failed these individuals.

It's fear, plain and simple.

When thinking of the homeless, it's much easier to focus on the mentally ill and the addicted, not only because of their unfortunate sheer numbers and visibility... but also because the vast majority can't do anything about the former, and the latter "did it to themselves."

Given this, for Joe Public, it's comforting to assume that if one does not have a serious mental illness or an addiction, that this will somehow provide a solid defense against the possibility of needing to seek the basic necessities required by our modern world without access to any personal resources or means to gain them.

I have been homeless for a few short periods in my life, for a myriad of reasons: For love of a girl, out of defiance and stubbornness with a helping of bad luck, and most recently, an addiction.

The one thing that was made clear to me from those experiences is how precarious my grip is on the illusion of Security, of just how fucking EASY it is to find one of those cracks and end up on the other side: To spend night after night on the "F" train, being rocked to a restless slumber under glaring fluorescent lights, wondering what the fuck I'm doing there, and how I'm going to get the gum and grime off of my jeans so I don't "look homeless." Or much later, curled up under shrubbery alongside the road, hoping it doesn't rain, or trying to sneak into a construction zone for some shuteye, praying there's no cameras or alarms.

To this day, I still make mental notes of good places to sleep when I'm out and about. Those places that would provide shelter and relative privacy from the public eye and the police.

I never had to beg, thankfully, but I had to lean heavily on some good people for shelter and food to regain my footing.

Thankfully, for some, myself included, there is a way back. Fraught with chest-churning, ceaseless terror... for all intents and purposes, an emotional tightrope walk without a net, but a way back nevertheless...

I love looking at my newborn son. His impossibly shiny eyes, when they're focused on my face just pierce my soul. The soft tufts of hair, his clinging grip, and the wave of emotions I feel when I hold him.

Sometimes, though, I wonder what he'll look like in 20 years.

Then, I wonder if the terrifying genes of addiction are stewing in his DNA...

and I wonder if someday people will be sitting a light, holding their collective breaths until he shambles by.
posted by Debaser626 at 7:38 AM on July 24, 2014 [6 favorites]

This is fine, but, it's sad to me the only thing that can convince an American that a person's life is worth something is if, in a previous life, they achieved something by standard western benchmarks of success. Sure, they found a few people who went to college or played pro football, but what if the signs read "I was born with an IQ of 86 and was abused as a child" ... too bad?
posted by Halogenhat at 9:10 AM on July 24, 2014 [3 favorites]

That's an easy one. They need housing. Houses will get them off the street.

Nthing that it is so much more than that. If you're homeless, you need a home, not a house. That means somewhere that's near people who mean something to you, whether that's your friends, family or support group. You might need a phone, especially if your home is a little further away from them than you'd like it to be. You need ongoing support with substance and/or mental illness issues. And you need help to get back into "the system" because it is hard, and it's not hard because you deserve it to be hard, it's harder the more you need it to be easy.
posted by greenish at 9:22 AM on July 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Housing First
Housing First is an approach to ending homelessness that centers on providing people experiencing homelessness with housing as quickly as possible – and then providing services as needed. (emphasis added)

The Housing First model does not just provide housing and -- ta da! -- wash their hands of the person, as if just tossing them into a house is sufficient. They recognize what I said above: It isn't as simple as just sticking someone in a building (called "housing") and, hey, problem solved. Programs that fail to recognize the complex human needs behind homelessness tend to have a poor track record of success.

Obviously, the degree and kind of support needed varies by individual.

I will second greenish: Homeless people need a home. When people talk about housing for the homeless, rather than homes for the homeless, it always makes me think of the phrase warehousing.
posted by Michele in California at 9:28 AM on July 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Aryma, if ever anyone posted about on MetaFilter deserved notice, that poor young man you wrote of deserves so.

posted by BlueHorse at 11:10 AM on July 24, 2014

Debaser626, your discussion of the illusion of Security reminds me of this recent essay, We Are All Very Anxious.
posted by Rash at 11:52 AM on July 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

It happens every day, BlueHorse, everywhere, but you're right; his death should be significant - he deserves that.

And thank you for the dot. His name was Curtis, and Curtis would have liked the dot.
posted by aryma at 5:21 PM on July 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

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