Nowhere to Go; Thoughts on Homelessness by Michel McVicker

When I was 18, I came to Greenville with a guitar in hand and a back pack stuffed with a few changes of clothes, a walk-man and a box of memories that held pictures of a family that had been torn apart. I spent a few nights under a bridge behind the downtown BiLo on Main Street resting my head on my backpack and wrapping my body around my guitar. The guitar was gingerly removed during my slumber the second night and the romance of my transient lifestyle quickly began to fade. As winter neared I avoided the warm pockets of the town where the "homeless" people gathered.

They scared me and I certainly wasn't one of them. It wasn't until I got off the streets and went back to school to study social work that I accepted the fact that I too had been a homeless person. Homelessness is not a crime or a disease; it's an issue that impacts everyone. And there is no better time of year to give it a little thought than winter.

The profile of the homeless population has changed over the years. In the early to mid-20th century the homeless lived in parts of larger cities called "skid rows" made up mostly of transient white men renting or squatting in single occupancy rooms. As cities developed, these tenements were replaced with more elaborate dwellings for higher income residents. Reduced availability of affordable housing and reduced demand for unskilled labor put many people on the streets. Admissions to mental hospitals became more restrictive and many hospitals and asylums were closed. With weakened family supports, many mentally ill people were released with nowhere to go.

It wasn't until the 1980s that homelessness was addressed at the federal level. By then, the homeless population had started to look like the rest of America. Not only are men homeless, but so are women and children. The homeless are more racially diverse as well. They tend to be younger than in the past and most are unemployed. Many are addicted to substances. And about a quarter to one third have a serious mental illness. The proportion of the homeless who are mentally ill is on the rise. The US Department of Health and Human Services reports 100,000 to 200,000 people who are chronically homeless. Of these, over 60% have experienced mental health problems in their lifetimes.The roots of homelessness and how to address them are even more critical as our economy struggles. The housing crisis and the rise of unemployment as well as the reduction in funding to state mental health services are major factors contributing to the changing face of homelessness. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, South Carolina cut mental health funds by 39% over the past three years and plans to continue until funds are reduced by 50% of what they were in 2008. Reduced funding equals reduced capacity to provide for mental health needs and may increase the risk of homelessness for those who rely on public mental health services to maintain their independence.

Have you ever felt cold, or hungry, or rejected, or abandoned? Have you ever been so overwhelmed by obstacles that your goals seem unattainable? Have you ever looked around yourself in dismay and wondered "how did this happen?". Take time to take inventory of your life during this season and find room in your schedule to make a difference in someone else's life. It is crucial in a state that values family and community to assist each other during these difficult times. Those who donated gifts for families over the holidays, or volunteered time at a soup kitchen, or spent a few hours of every week answering the CRISISline hotline, all of you took a small step in tackling a huge problem. Every small step is progress. It is through small steps that we eventually learn to walk.

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