We are 27 people, 5 women and 22 men, aged 35 to 73 who still are, or have been, “unhoused” in the San Luis Obispo area of California. We have volunteered to share our stories with each other in our local area and elsewhere with those who are making similar journeys. Our hopes and desires are that doing so will make us all stronger, more able to support ourselves, and to inform those who want to support us. Many of us spoke in the “we” voice because we did not want to be identified, but we still wanted to contribute.
This document has been assembled as part of a social action project to have our voices heard. Our hard-earned knowledge may not be evident to those who have not lived our lives. We hope our stories will invite agencies and policymakers to be aware we have much to contribute to local solutions for people in transition.
THE NAMES WE GAVE OUR LIVED-EXPERIENCE PRIOR TO SOME OF US BECOMING RE-HOUSED
- “Survival” was our most common description.
- “For me it was a ‘Self-defense Mentality.’ Sleeping with ‘one eye open’ was exhausting. It took the kindness out of many of us.”
- “Living Outside.” “Living on the Streets.” “Roofless.”
- “Fleeing violence” towards us and our children in our homes.
- “In Transition.” “In Between Housing.”
- “I hated the word homeless. I considered myself ‘Residentially Challenged’.”
- “Invisible”; “Feeling Dead Inside”; “I was just existing in suspended animation.”
- “A Hell Hole.”
- Some of us agreed the term “Homelessness” applied.
INDIVIDUAL CIRCUMSTANCES THAT CONTRIBUTED TO US EXPERIENCING HOMELESSNESS: ALMOST TOO MANY TO LIST, AND FAR BEYOND “BAD PEOPLE AND BAD CHOICES”
- For 3 of us, a parent died before we were 12 years old. Some of us lost our support when a surviving parent died. “I was told to leave home at age 18.” Another said, “I was in foster homes until age 18; then I had nowhere else to go.”
- Adults and partners were physically or sexually abusive. We were not believed. Some of us left home to escape being beaten, starved, or molested.
- An older brother/sister had died or suicided at home.
- Some of us developed serious mental challenges as preteens, teens, younger or older adults.
- Some of us developed serious alcohol and drug abuse starting as pre-teens or teens. Our alcohol or drug undermined our ability to keep a job. “I started huffing gasoline at age 13. I couldn’t stand feelings of being molested.”
- Some of us had been successful as adults, had learned trades, attended college, were married and owned homes. Serious mental challenges, divorces, or being terrorized/beaten/raped, or drug/alcohol use made it impossible to continue to work.
- “I had a life prior to alcohol. I was working and raising children.”
- Some of us were too traumatized to organize ourselves and plan after we fled our homes.
- Disabling physical conditions developed in adulthood, yet we were not “certified” as disabled.
- Two us couldn’t get hired again after getting arrested and going to jail or prison.
HOW WAS LIVING OUTSIDE/ON THE STREETS PREFERABLE TO BEING WHERE YOU HAD BEEN LIVING?
- It wasn’t preferable; it wasn’t our choice; we were told to get out.
- “I felt much safer outside than where I was 27 years ago.”
- “It was better for me: I was part of a family outside, with good and bad things, but better than before.”
- We sought freedom from being constantly demeaned, degraded, beaten, or raped at home.
- “I was afraid to live inside again with other people.”
- We survived by living by our wits.
WHAT ALTERNATIVE PLACES DID WE LIVE BEFORE WE WERE RE-HOUSED? MANY, NOT JUST ON SIDEWALKS.
- On friend’s couches; or camping in their backyards.
- We “camped rough” either alone or with others; lived in tents, slept in abandoned buildings.
- We were admitted again and again to shelters; hospitals for illnesses, detoxes, rehabs, acute mental health crisis stays, or long-term residential stays. Some of us spent time in jails or court-ordered treatment.
- Some of us had cars or vans to live in.
WHAT WERE SOME OF THE BARRIERS WE FACED TO BECOMING RE-HOUSED? ALMOST TOO MANY TO LIST
- “You just can’t get help when you need it. We needed a hand up, not a handout.”
- One of us lost his disability benefits. “I didn’t have a mailing address and didn’t get mail about needing another exam.”
- Our cellphones or our medications were repeatedly stolen while living outside.
- “There are no free bus passes, you have to have an income to buy one. How are we supposed to get around to agencies that are miles apart?”
- We were not able to keep ourselves stable enough to plan.
- We were not treated respectfully in shelters. Three women said they “Didn’t feel safe staying in shelters.”
- “You have to have government funding to contribute to housing costs. There’s no housing just for free.”
- Several of us have “Section 8” vouchers approved for housing: “I am waiting in a line that could take years for my turn.”
- A few of us refused to comply with the “system,” or be diagnosed with a mental illness to qualify for disability benefits.
- A few of us refused to be “classified” as homeless when seeking help.
- A few of us couldn’t follow our housing “contracts;” we wanted to take in others still on the street, and we were kicked out when we did.
- Some of us made bad choices about drugs, or new partners and wound up homeless again.
AGENCIES PUT UP VISIABLE AND INVISABLE BARRIERS TO BECOMING RE-HOUSED
- Agencies work 9-5, M-F. “We need help seven days a week and on holidays.”
- “Agencies should be clear from the start what is expected of us, how long will it take, and what are the milestones we must pass to become housed.”
- Agencies make choices about who should get housing first; old people who could die first, families with impaired men or women with children second, impaired single women and men last next, and able-bodied men and women last.
- “Agencies had power over us; we were not believed”. “We were not treated with respect by agency workers.”
- “During Covid you can’t just walk into an agency if you’re nearby.”
- We couldn’t stand telling our story over and over again and filling out form after form at every different agency.
- Many of us were unable to keep in touch with agencies; unable to charge cellphones, no mailing addresses, police kept busting up our camps, we had no stable location where we could be found.
HOW LONG WERE SOME OF US LIVING OUTSIDE, INCLUDING A FEW IN OUR CARS?
For a few of us, for 1 to 3 years. For many, 4.5 to 20 years. For some 25 to 37 years.
WHAT KEPT US GOING DURING HARD TIMES?
- “People showing us kindness, being able to shower once a week.”
- “For me, seeing people smile kept me going.”
- “Keeping as active and as healthy as possible”.
- By focusing on what we needed to do to survive each day.
- “I found church again. It encouraged me that life didn’t have to be like this.”
WHAT BECOMES POSSIBLE WHEN PEOPLE WHO ARE HOMELESS WORK WITH EACH OTHER?
- A few of us advocated for ourselves and other homeless people: “Some of them are lost. I’m a fighter. I’ve put people in touch with agencies that provide housing.”
- Being kind to others. “I pick up trash. I help protect the environment.”
AS WE SAID “NO’’ TO HOMELESSNESS, WHAT WERE WE SAYING “YES” TO? WHAT WERE OUR DESIRES?
- We wanted to stop being looked down on, having our bags checked when we went into stores, and called “drunks, bums or whores.”
- We wanted to stop having to deal with police or social workers.
- We wanted to be safe from other people’s bad/dangerous behavior.
- Some of us said, “We can’t do this anymore, we’re too old, too broken physically now.”
- “Having bathrooms that weren’t locked at night.”
- Being warm and dry; being able to shower. Being able to do our laundry.
- Being able to sleep, plan, keep appointments.
- Living clean and free of alcohol/drugs.
- “Keeping my medication from being stolen so I could take it.”
- “Having hope again.”
- “Maybe I just could have a van to live in.”
- “You can’t have a good life while living on the streets.”
THE CHALLENGES SOME OF US WE MET WHEN FIRST RE-HOUSED
- Some of us took several tries at housing before we became successful living inside again.
- Letting other homeless people move in with us broke our lease agreements and we were evicted.
- We felt badly about those still living outside. “I let someone in to shower a few times. Then I relapsed on drugs.”
- “Street life” had become part of us; we didn’t feel safe without our things in plastic totes or backpacks, “Just in case.”
- Our “street ways” made us “roommate challenged;” it was difficult to cooperate with others in group housing; some of us needed to be “retrained” how to do those things.
- Some of us felt trapped living within 4 walls; some of us needed time to get used to living back inside again.
- It took time for some of us to believe in hope, to get over feeling helpless and begin to plan for a future.
- “At first, I was just existing in an empty room. I had no interests.”
SPECIAL SKILLS AND KNOWLEDGES WE USED TO BECOME SUCCESSFUL IN HOUSING
- Finding A Purpose. “It was important to find a sense of purpose; what I’m here to do.”
- Having hope for the future
- Staying busy, being productive.
- Some of us took up interests that we used to enjoy. Others found new interests.
- “I slowly came to understand how having a daily routine was helpful.”
- Learning how to use support from others. “Using help is a skill; two minds are better than one.”
- “I came alive when people said they had hope for me.”
- Learning respect goes both ways.
- “I learned to want to get better for myself, and not just do what I was told to do.”
- “I learned how to take care of myself, set boundaries with others, or closing my door and being alone for a while.”
- We learned life is a challenge; build a support team.
- Setting aside stories about “being a man” or “how a woman should be.”
- Learning from prior attempts at housing or while living in other facilities.
- Learning from our mistakes; not stopping needed medications.
- Learning patience and forbearance; willingness to follow rules; acceptance.
- Reconnecting with spirituality, Church, or God.
WHO HELPED US MAKE OUR WAY FORWARD AND BECAME PART OF OUR “TEAMS OF LIFE” (DENBOROUGH, 2OO8b).
- Grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins. Parents of childhood friends.
- Teachers, coaches. Former or current bosses.
- Roommates in housing. Friends who were ahead of us on the journey.
- Therapists. AA sponsors. Case managers. People who took a stand for us.
- Drop-in centers.
- Our churches; our faith in God or spirituality.
WHAT FAMILIAL OR CULTURAL HERITAGES CONTRIBUTED TO OUR SKILLS AND KNOWLEDGES?
- “History helps us have perspective, how we got here now, and where we are going.”
- Many of us said, “The people who supported us would be very proud of us if they were here today”
HOW THE SKILLS AND KNOWLEDGES WERE USEFUL FOR US OR OTHERS
- Some of us now volunteer to help others at shelters.
- Some of us have now become case managers or volunteers for others just starting their journeys back into housing.
- Some of us are writing about our journeys and hope to share them.
WHAT BECAME POSSIBLE FOR US WITH RE-HOUSING?
- Getting off drugs/alcohol. “I graduated from drug court.”
- We could make and keep commitments to ourselves and others.
- “I’m learning to cook using spices, garden, and grow plants.”
- Several of us learned how to make music and art.
- “I learned to use YouTube to find out how to do things.”
- “I decorated my own place with drapes and curtains.”
- “I can’t stand bare walls. The art on my walls is the window of my soul.”
- We could go to libraries, borrow books, music, and videos.
- Volunteering: “I now volunteer at shelters sometimes.”
- Some of us have continued our education, earned GEDs; earned certificates, and are thinking about college.
- Returning to work: Several of us now work part-time.
- Making communities.
- “I now help others. It’s been a profound learning experience.”
HOW DOES BEING RE-HOUSED HAVE US FEELING ABOUT OURSELVES NOW?
- “It was something I didn’t think I could do, but I did.”
- We’re treated better now; people don’t look down on us.
- “So much in my life is working.”
- What we do is bringing us joy.
- “I feel alive again.”
- “I’m authentic. I’m trustworthy. I’m kind. I’m generous.”
- “I have my own place.”
- “My medical conditions are improving.”
- Some of us are reconnecting with our children or are looking forward to doing so.
- We’re able to give back, pay off our fines and do our community service.
- “Life is a lot better now than ever.”
- Some of us feel more grateful now than ever for simple things; making a hot cup of coffee; taking a shower when we want to.
- We can have things again; watch our sports teams, listen to music.
- “Jake said, I don’t have much, but I contribute to homeless advocacy.”
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
This group document, privileging the voices of those who are unhoused and those preferring to be rehoused, was compiled by Michael Arcuri in 2021 in fulfillment of a master’s degree in Narrative Therapy in Community Work through the University of Melbourne and the Dulwich Centre of Australia.
It was co-created by 27 volunteers who have given their permission to duplicate and share any part of this document in the hopes that it will inform, inspire, and lead to successful local community action in your area.
Communications sent to Michael Arcuri will be shared with the co-creators of this document. We welcome any individual or group comments or feedback. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org