PO Box 542
Milton-Freewater, OR 97862
Because it feels like everybody in Walla Walla has been sharing their thoughts on our homeless situation and because I’m an oversharer with a big mouth, here are mine.
I struggle with this whole assertion that homelessness is a choice. Let’s say though that it is. What set of circumstances would compel somebody to choose homelessness? Obviously mental illness and alcohol/drug addiction are big factors, escaping an abusive environment, disability, PTSD, escaping the pain and emotion in their own heads, aging out of foster care, loss of jobs, etc. Now, how do we judge which are excusable, which are chosen and which are worthy of our empathy?
Are we just targeting the lazy? Because even then, many “invisible” mental illnesses can look like laziness on the outside. I personally know that depression and anxiety can be debilitating. I’ve suffered with both and I’d guess most people I meet, have no clue. I grew up in a structured, loving, middle class home with two parents. Now I live a similar life with a strong support system and I know that I’m blessed beyond measure.
You know what though, some days I still can’t get out of bed and I look pretty lazy. I can’t imagine where I would be if I didn’t have that foundation and that support. If I had a more severe case of mental illness, where I was less stubborn or had other more authentic demons I was battling, maybe I would end up homeless. It would probably look an awful lot like choice. Maybe it would be.
Suicide prevention has been a huge topic in our community lately. I’ve seen so many people post about how we need to do something to help prevent it. About how we need to help our youth and community members: “if we had only known,” “if we had the resources, knowledge, and forethought to reach out.” Sadly, people are so willing to say that after the fact, rather than realize that often those same factors are present that contribute to homelessness.
“How tragic, I wish I could have helped” and in the next breath condemning those with the empathy and compassion who are willing to do something. I don’t know the answer. What message are we sending, when we say to please ask for help, and then we post all over social media that people need to help themselves?
Also, when we send foreign aid to countries in immediate need, I see some of the same people ask, “What about our own hungry and homeless? We need to help them first!,” and here we are saying even our own are unworthy. I don’t know if feeding someone who looks hungry might be enabling their next fix. I don’t know if a tent and blanket to keep them warm at night is going to keep them from seeking their own four walls. What I do know, is that we are all human, and comparing our homeless citizens to ducks, dogs and stains on our society isn’t in anyway aiding any sort of solution.
I also know, that I will never know the depth of their circumstances, and I can’t venture to guess without really knowing them, how they ended up where they are. I don’t know if their choice to be homeless stemmed from their choice to be an addict; or if that choice to be an addict started with the choice to try meth; or if that choice to try meth started as a choice to take that first drink. And, I don’t know if that first drink was to drown out the pain of something bigger?
Maybe the “choice” of homelessness is better than the situation they left. Maybe it’s chosen over suicide. Maybe their situation is a lot harder to pull themselves out of, from the ones we find ourselves in. Are we always successful fixing our own shit? Maybe sometimes just existing is our victory.
Don’t ever regret or be shamed out of offering a helping hand up. Some might be in the right place to accept it, others might have debilitating factors that are keeping them from taking it, but they (we) are all worthy of kindness and respect. We all should be able to at least offer that. That’s not enabling, it’s simple kindness.
If you don’t see or feel gratitude, try considering that it wasn’t a wasted effort. You’re asking for a rational response when most factors leading to homelessness are anything but rational. Maybe, someday, our homeless situation will improve. I hope.
Kelli Kontos is a resident of the Walla Walla Valley and contributing guest opinion columnist.