photo of Jan Bidwell

By Jan Bidwell

The term “homeless” applies to a person if they have no livable place to stay, or a place that can be taken from them quickly. So if you are couch surfing, housed temporarily in a hotel, sleeping in your car, or living in a shelter, you are homeless. You are unsheltered if you are sleeping under a bridge, in a tent by the Grand River, in a covered doorway, or you don’t have anywhere to go tonight.

About 40% of our homeless have physical disabilities. 25% of our homeless have a severe mental illness. Children are by far the largest number of our homeless.

In Michigan, one in ten children are homeless. Children should be able to depend on adults for all their needs. We all need to understand what is happening for the homeless to really comprehend what is happening to homeless children.

Our most basic needs are those of safety and security. Having no stable home creates profound insecurity. Meals aren’t always or easily available. It is often too cold or too warm. There isn’t a sense of ever being “home”. But it isn’t only unsettling and uncomfortable, it is dangerous. Homeless people die at 10 times the rate of the housed. It is frightening, traumatic, and unsafe to be homeless.

Imagine getting a deep scratch. If you are housed, you would wash it, put antibiotic ointment on it, and cover it with a band-aid. It would heal relatively quickly. An unsheltered person doesn’t have a faucet available, has to wait to be in a place where they shower. They may not have first aid supplies available quickly, or at all.

What is an easily treatable small wound to you and me could become life threatening sepsis to the homeless. Imagine how difficult it is to manage a chronic condition.

When we talk about homelessness we have to talk about poverty. When we talk about poverty we need to understand its relationship to mental illness, disability, trauma, and homelessness. It is not a one-way relationship.

Before people lose their housing they are under incredibly difficult stress. They encounter unscalable obstacles in their lives before they lose their housing.

This happens much more often than those of us comfortably housed with decent incomes want to contemplate. It makes us uncomfortable if we really understand that “There but for the grace of God go I.” In truth, 59% of Americans are one paycheck away from poverty.

Consider the mother of 4 whose husband abandons her and she is unable to work two jobs to pay the rent.

Consider the children who may not be able to go to school, or function in a classroom if they can. They may not sleep through the night, continue friendships, have birthday celebrations, halloween, Christmas. They may not have enough to eat.

Consider the divorced senior citizen who is diagnosed with Parkinsons, and who has no children or family that can support him.

Consider the schizophrenic whose mental illness is not responsive to medication and whose baseline functioning is psychotic. This condition can render one unable to communicate clearly, to work, or be a responsive member of a community. The first schizophrenic episode most often occurs between ages 17 and 24.

Consider the new single mother who is suffering from postpartum depression and is unable to comply with treatment. She is responsible for her infant and is unable to work, possibly unable to care for her child.

Consider the Veteran who has suffered traumatic brain injury, has little short term memory, and has angry outbursts. S/he has found it difficult to get treatment when they cannot remember to make scheduled appointments.

Consider the unaccompanied child under 18 who is on their own and homeless. In 2021 there were 771 in Michigan.

Now imagine that all of the above described do not have adequate treatment, caseworkers, or funds. I have met people who fit in these categories, and these are not even close to all of the possibilities.

Mental illness and physical disabilities can create the conditions that render one homeless. Homelessness then makes these conditions worse. The trauma of the massive insecurity of homelessness has a great impact on mental function. A child’s brain is just forming the ability to perform certain functions.

The reality is that the majority of homeless people are not adult males, as is the stereotype. The majority are families.

Lansing ranked third in the rate of homelessness of all urban areas of Michigan. Lansing’s poverty rate is double that of the national poverty rate.

In August of 2021 there were 644 students in Lansing who were homeless. That is 9% of the impoverished students. However, homelessness is underreported. Also, children who are not yet school age, or who simply are not going to school, are not included in these numbers.

When people are staying with friends or staying in hotels, they often do not consider themselves homeless. Too often people are ashamed and will not admit they are homeless.

I wish we had solutions for those so vulnerable. There are very good people working very hard to serve this population here in Lansing. Every provider needs more funding, many will have volunteer opportunities.

I have in some way worked with people at the following agencies: City Rescue Mission, Advent House Ministries, Mid-Michigan PATH Team (unsheltered outreach), Homeless Angels, Holy Cross, Gateway Child and Family Charities (teen shelter), Loaves and Fishes Ministries. They all do amazing work.

What everyone can do is to look closely at our biases. Ask yourself who would choose a life that is so fraught with pain and uncertainty? It isn’t that some people just aren’t trying. It isn’t a simple problem. Look more closely and consider carefully what it is like for the homeless. I believe we all need to speak for these fellow citizens. Don’t underestimate the power of your words. Too few people speak for the least among us, especially the children.

Jan Bidwell is a licensed clinical Social Worker, an author, social activist, front line crisis responder, community activist, psychotherapist, and mediation teacher. She is currently in private practice, offers training in resilience and mindfulness, and continues to volunteer in Ingham County. For more information log on to janbidwell.com.