Interrupting Isolation

by Colleen Sinsky

At JOIN we often talk about how homelessness is as much about “poverty of relationships” as it is about financial poverty. The experience of becoming homeless and then existing on the margins of society is incredibly alienating and dehumanizing.

Try this thought experiment: If you suddenly experienced some major destabilizing impact, or combination of events, how would you respond? Loss of income, major medical diagnosis, death of a spouse, large debt, foreclosure, etc. often contribute to a person or family becoming homeless. Now couple one or more of those events with complicating factors such as mental illness, criminal history, having grown up in the foster system, chemical addiction, history of abuse and trauma, lack of assets or ability to get credit, lack of education, disability… obviously the list of factors contributing to marginalization continues indefinitely.

So if your life experience includes one or more of those factors, it makes dealing with any destabilizing impact that much more difficult. We often see that the combined physical, financial and emotional stress of living in poverty is enough to push an individual or family from an apartment to the streets. Those who haven’t experienced poverty and are fortunate enough to have a network of support and resources might not be able to imagine themselves in this situation. I know that I personally can think of dozens of people- friends and family in my life who would be willing and able to help me if I called them after experiencing some kind of negative impact. But anywhere near that level of community support is non-existant for our folks who have grown up in generational poverty whose extended network, if it hasn’t already been burnt out on helping, is otherwise financially unable to help.

My point is that homelessness is often as much about isolation from community and loneliness as it is about economics. For those who are sleeping outside, life usually lacks the positive human connections that those of us “housed” individuals take for granted. Reality becomes a day to day routine of existing in survival mode, possibly self-medicating, rarely being validated or feeling loved, and feeling too jaded by life’s experience to be able to hope for a better future.

JOIN’s role in interrupting homelessness goes beyond a check for a deposit and first month’s rent. From the first time Outreach Workers meet people where they are sleeping, a strengths-based relationship is formed. We see homeless people as complicated individuals who have demonstrated incredible resiliency in surviving the hand that they have been dealt. We try to empower individuals by first demonstrating that they are worth being reached out to, and in doing so begin to destroy the isolating walls that homelessness and hopelessness have constructed around them.

Like all of my coworkers here, I am listed as the sole emergency contact for many of the people whom I work with at JOIN. When our folks are in the hospital or hospice, it’s not uncommon for us to be their only visitors. And when they pass away, we grieve and honor each of them by carrying their memory forward with us. This real and compassionate level of authentic human connection is as necessary as housing.