The leading cause of homelessness in America

Graphic by Bruna Costa

What is the leading cause of homelessness in America? 

Professional homelessness. That is why people are homeless in America. It’s easy to find a job here. It’s easy to get yourself a gig making $15 an hour at McDonald’s. As long as you have all your identity documents in order. As long as you are able-bodied and mentally healthy. As long as you have transportation. A place to wash your clothes. As long as you have all of that, it’s easy to find a job. A job is a no-brainer. A job that will pay you enough to get by, maybe, is easy to find. 

A professional home is a different story. A professional home is a place of work that makes it possible for you to feel safe, included, wanted and appreciated for who you are. In a digital world, resumes are fired off in thousands of directions and there are countless opportunities. But there’s no real opportunity to figure out which ones will fit you before you’ve put the work in to get one of them. It’s easier than ever to find yourself professionally homeless. 

For someone like me, it’s especially easy. I’m skilled. I have a degree in neurobiology. Tons of working experience. Lots of professional capabilities. A job is easy. Any job would have me. Especially if I don’t advertise how overqualified I am right up front. Especially if I don’t advertise my past. 

I’m also female. I’m genderqueer. My body is not as able as it used to be, and while I can still get around, every day gets harder. I get stiffer and more sore. I was an emergency medical technician in my 20s. It took a toll. I grew up in poverty. I am opinionated and like the ability to express my opinions freely. I feel safest in a workplace that accepts me. I haven’t found one of those yet, though. Not one that loves me all the way. Not one that respects me. My lived experience. The things it has taught me. 

I’ve made decisions in the past that would cause some employers to judge me. I’ve done sex work. I’ve been an activist in ways not every employer wants to associate themselves with. I won’t sanitize my social media for the sake of an employer not judging the fact I’ve had a social life and it’s sometimes not always “professional looking” and I’ve held a leadership position in an alternative lifestyle community not everyone approves of. 

If it’s that hard for me, with all my qualifications, skills and abilities, how hard is it for someone who has no college education? How hard is it for someone without the writing skills to craft something like this? My struggle is mostly with having an identity not everyone respects. Most people respect my skills. My vocabulary. My intellect. It’s just my identity they don’t care for. 

I’ve had a few places to work where I mostly felt I was at home. I was a part of the family. I kept some pieces of my identity to myself, but I was open about most of my life. I like being able to be myself at work as much as I like being able to be myself at home — but employers judge who I am, rather than what I can do.

People who end up homeless are some of the best people. I’d wager that anyone could rob or lie their way under a roof if they were willing to compromise their integrity. If someone is lying on the streets, it’s because they’ve probably chosen to be true to themselves in a society that makes that an endlessly difficult choice. Instead of looking at the homeless with condemnation, I wish people would look upon them with admiration. It takes guts to choose that over any number of other far less honest options. It takes courage to say “I will sleep on the streets before I sleep under another roof where I’m not wanted, treasured, cherished, supported and loved as myself.”

The homeless population is a population people will feed. It’s a population people will pity. It’s a population people will direct toward this do-little social services resource or that one. It’s a population people will judge. 

It’s not a population many people want to help. It’s not a population many people want to invest in. 

I found myself homeless in D.C. almost a year and a half ago. I’ve since gotten some help. Things are getting better in a lot of ways. I am better and healthier. I am more whole and less angry than I was then. I arrived in D.C. after a lot of bouncing around between cities. A few different shelters. Trying to get work opportunities that might make a difference. I haven’t been able to find a professional home but I’m working on building my own for myself. That’s one another person can’t take away from me because they disagree with who I am. 

Still, I see my siblings suffering. I see a society that will invest in crypto coins and fancy pieces of artwork. I see a society that buys themselves big fancy houses and mansions. I see a society that eats at Michelin-star restaurants. I see a society that lives in $3,500 a month condos. I see a society that buys sports cars, $10,000 watches and business sharks who will invest in someone’s wacky invention — but I do not see a society investing in the people who need it most. 

I’ve invested a lot in myself. I was lucky. I had something that passed for a home when I was very young. I knew what it was to be loved. Complimented. Told I was capable. I had friends along the way who took that and fueled it with more of the same after my family stopped. I am lucky because I have the strength, drive, perseverance, sense of self and belonging in this world to keep going, even when the going got so tough I was about ready to give up entirely. 

I got that from my family at one point. Before I became less than what they considered the perfect child. Before I became something they didn’t know how to love and understand anymore. Before they became something I didn’t know how to love and understand anymore, too, because that knife cuts both ways. I had it, and having had it once, I will always be searching for it again. 

But that search is always easier with a roof over your head. That search is always easier with at least enough money in your pocket to go somewhere and meet someone. That search is always easier when you have what you need to get through today and a few tomorrows too. 

That search is easier when you already feel loved in the first place. Because you know that you changed doesn’t mean you should be loved any less. 

The trouble with a lot of people without homes is that they never knew what a loving home was. Not even a little. I’ve talked to enough of my siblings while living among them in the shelter systems, and I’ve heard what kinds of families they had. Mine isn’t close to being the worst. I know I’m a difficult person for a lot of people to love. Most of them? They aren’t. I am different from a lot of homeless people only because I’ve known love, and because I’ve invested in myself and been invested in by others — if I weren’t on such a strange path, my life would be more stable — but I’ve got strengths many of my siblings without safe shelter haven’t even been offered an opportunity to cultivate.

All of them could be like me, I believe, if someone came into their lives and poured on the kind of love they’re not getting from anyone else. The unconditional kindness. The kind parents are supposed to give their children…that’s the kind of love we need to be giving people without homes. Their lack of shelter is not the issue. Their lack of self-love isn’t either — if they didn’t love themselves enough to leave whatever toxic situation left them on the streets, they wouldn’t be there. 

We don’t just need houses or a job. We need someone invested in helping us find a professional environment where we feel so at home we never want to leave, or helping us to create one of those environments for ourselves. We need someone willing to invest in us as people. We need someone willing to help us get whatever education we need to do better for themselves. We don’t need more blankets or food — well, we do, but we need more than that — we need choices and opportunities. We need shelters that aren’t abusive and dehumanizing. We need people who are willing to invest in our humanity and the only parts of us we will always have no matter what else happens to us — the knowledge in our minds, the skills we have at their disposal, the confidence in ourselves to face a difficult task and whatever else we need to become as fully ourselves as possible. 

I do believe we can help everyone in this predicament. I do believe we can save them all. We just have to stop believing having more fancy things is more important than having more of our siblings alive and well and breaking bread with us and doing the work they most love to do in this world. 

Belle Ren is a writer who has experienced homelessness in D.C.

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