For the unhoused, there’s no substitute for a safety net

I have been houseless since November 2020. 

I traveled from the West Coast to Washington, D.C., back to the West Coast, down along the southern border, from San Diego, Calif., to Slab City, then New Mexico, where the fires broke out. Then east again, through Texas, Alabama, north through Indiana, and through nearby states until landing back here in D.C. I have spent time in all 50 states in the course of my life. However, I want to emphasize how much I have had to keep traveling since being displaced and houseless in November 2020. 

The main reason for this was fallout from the pandemic. What is pandemic fallout? Government collapse. Lack of services, due to severe cuts in funding and staff, under extreme lockdowns. I can remember being on the streets for a month, with no one else out there but other houseless individuals. City officials had no shelter to offer. We experienced encampment sweeps, where everything we had left was taken in the middle of extreme weather events. We were left to treat hypothermia, shock and frostbite for each other on our own. 

Extreme prejudice ruled. Passerby assume that if you were homeless, you are just a drug addict or some kind of undesirable, not worthy of help or even dignity. I and other families on the street had their children taken based on these assumptions, with no services for families that were near adequate to meet the need. I miss my children every day. I cried for months. I watched people, in despair, fall to drug addiction and alcoholism or otherwise just give up, or try to numb the pain. The collapse of government, more than anything else, is the biggest barrier to my efforts to pick myself up. Everything requires an ID, even when your ID has been stolen. I wasn’t always able to have a cellphone, which makes things even more difficult. 

I experienced repeated theft and progressive, continuous loss. I was due $20,000 in unemployment insurance I never got. I still have not received my 2020 tax return, despite having turned in all the necessary paperwork by mail, after they wouldn’t accept my electronic filing. I did everything asked of me. Pounded the doors of government electronically, by mail and by phone. I have had multiple jobs while being homeless. My savings were depleted. 

Who I was on the streets with? A wide demographic. The evicted. Elderly. Disabled. People with some of the worst, untreated medical conditions I’ve ever seen, whom hospitals repeatedly turned away. Whole families, fathers, mothers, young children. Domestic violence victims, men who had often been homeless for between seven and 11 years. We were pushed together by encampment sweeps and the pandemic. 

It was the housed community itself that dipped into its own pockets, during the majority of my being houseless, to feed us, give out gear and do what they could. 

I came to Washington, D.C. because it is the seat of the federal government. You are doing things here about homelessness and poverty I have seen nowhere else. However, it is a drop in the bucket compared to the actual need. Furthermore, it is always hard, always, to know what services there are and how to access them, or where. However, know this: We need a safety net for all. And we need your continued support, compassion and creativity. Thank you. 

Lori Smith is a vendor with Street Sense Media.

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We believe ending homelessness begins with listening to the stories of those who have experienced it.