To some this is a lived experience, and to others just a tall tale. Many homeless people I have interacted with on the streets of West Coast cities—either unhoused and unsheltered—have had really painful experiences with the police, or experienced brutality from other people in the neighborhood. Some are not in shelters because they have a reason not to be, like being undocumented. For those living in fear of deportation, avoiding interaction feels like the way to stay unknown and unnoticed, pushing some to try to be nocturnal.
Many displaced people have left the place they used to call home and went to a different city just to try and survive without the fear of being arrested, or being marked by street gang leaders or even fellow unhoused folks. Many unhoused folks from Oakland, Portland, Los Angeles or San Diego have migrated to other cities seeking better prospects. In my experience, the majority have been arrested, beaten and—during that period of uncertainty—have lost their valuables, like passports, identification cards, phones and any other electronics, clothes and personal belongings they had. These folks are left with nothing. They remain lost, with no hope and no support, treated like suspects (especially those with color) and accused of imagined crimes by the rich and sent to prison.
Moving from one city to another can feel like moving from one country to another, especially in a country like the United States that has lots of job opportunities, inspiring all sorts of people to come here for a fresh start, for safety and asylum, or to visit their loved ones. But moving to the U.S. can mean ending up in the streets, dead or in prison. This is almost the same reason unhoused and unsheltered people move to other cities and end up in the streets with worse conditions than before. Many face hardships they never expected but, due to so many other circumstances, they prefer to stay rather than go back to the cities they migrated from, especially if they want to be unknown.
This is a nationwide issue that has affected most US cities and if it continues this way homelessness will only continue to increase. Some people or government agencies will not agree with me, but experience is the best medicine. It is nearly impossible for those on the streets to find employment when they lack supporting documentation or identification. How can you employ someone they cannot prove their identity? And people without documents are also afraid to apply for jobs; some who have tried end up being sent to jail, or fired when their status becomes known.
So what can the public do to help homeless folks, especially those without documentation? As you ponder over the answers, think of your personal impact on your unsheltered neighbor across the street, the one you send to prison, the one you denied employment, the one you just fired, the one you burned, whose identification documents you hid, the one you left behind as you moved to a different home, house or city, the one you sent to the streets due to your own choices. They have lost hope and are tired of being treated like suspects, thieves, murderers and drug dealers. The majority of arrests of homeless people are of those who don’t know anything, but were at the wrong place due to circumstance.
The fear of being apprehended without cause, has made some people adapt to the nature of life on the streets by becoming hardcore. This is survival of the fittest and so they grow hardened just to survive the reality of difficult life and conditions. But no matter how often you arrest them, refuse to help them, fight against them, torture them or require impossible conditions to help them, you will not reduce the number of people experiencing homelessness in the streets. Instead, the numbers of displaced people will keep on growing until you realize it is your responsibility to help us, to treat homeless people as human beings, as you would your own family member.
These folks need serious rehabilitation. Those you see sleeping in their cars, in tents, under bridges, in corridors and even in shelters have all suffered the same fate, exposed to difficult traumas. Some have experienced death, some have killed and some are into drugs, while others are the distributors. Others are very sick, or in a huge amount of debt. Some are immigrants while others are from here in the U.S. They all need help, be it big or small. Your positive contribution helps them survive one day at a time.
I have written this article so that it can reach the many who don’t know what it is like to go without food or medicine, or what it’s like to sleep on cold pavement. Kindly make it your purpose to help us.