Want or Willing?

Written by Elisabeth Jordan


There is a common misperception that some people are homeless “because they want to be.” When people think this, it’s often because they’ve had a conversation with someone who is homeless in which that person has said, “I want to be out here. It’s my choice.”

It can be easy to accept this as fact because to most people who are not homeless, it’s hard to imagine ourselves in that position. And we have an even harder time imagining settling into homelessness if we ever, somehow, ended up in that place.

In our work on the streets over the past five years, what we have found is different: at the heart of it, people do not want to be homeless, even if they might say they do. People want to be off of the streets, have their own place, and sleep in their own bed. Most people want to hold a job, make their own money, and have the chance to support themselves. The nuance is this: a person might not yet be ready to take the steps necessary to leave their homelessness behind. They also may not have the support necessary to do so.

When a person becomes homeless, a lot has been lost: some combination of job, home, and support system can leave a person feeling helpless and lonely. On top of that, the myriad steps necessary to leave their current situation can encumber even the most eager person. And so many are left to navigate the system of homeless care alone. Though they may have the support of a shelter or a case manager, they are on their own for many pieces of the puzzle, from getting an ID to finding transportation, from dealing with health issues to sitting outside daily waiting for the shelter to open. And each person is without the comfort and stability of home: a refuge at the end of each long day. Home is often a place to recharge for another day, to set the mind straight and center on what needs to be accomplished. Often in these group shelter settings, getting good sleep is difficult, so you often add in interrupted sleep. There is also constant noise, and you are never alone. If the person stays outside, there are the elements to deal with day in and day out and the question of where each meal will come from.

It becomes easier to imagine why someone facing all of these obstacles might say they want to remain homeless. Depression and anxiety can accompany these situations and further exacerbate the pains of homelessness. 

In our work, we no longer hear people say, “I want to be homeless,” or if we do, we ask questions that draw out the obstacles that prevent someone from imagining a different life. This is one reason we are on the streets week in and week out: so that someone who has lost an imagination for a different life might come, over time, to understand they wouldn’t have to walk the path alone. Each person we care for gets a group of supportive people who continue to remind them that they are worthy, a beloved child of God, and that there is another way. Over time, we have learned that we are not just fighting the homelessness of the individual but the culture of homelessness into which some people have become embedded. For this we ask your prayers, that God would do for some of our friends who are not yet willing what we cannot do for them: give them a new heart, a heart that dares a little hope.