One source states that being chronically homeless cuts a person’s life expectancy by 35 years. Various factions have difficulty agreeing on statistics of this kind, and there are a number of good reasons. For starters, a huge number of people who currently experience homelessness will eventually graduate into the high-risk lifestyle of chronic homelessness, and they will certainly impact the bookkeeping.
The official federal definition of chronic homelessness can be found, among other places, on the website of the National Policy and Advocacy Council on Homelessness:
A ‘chronically homeless’ person is defined as ‘an unaccompanied homeless individual with a disabling condition who has either been continuously homeless for a year or more, or has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years.’
This group does not include children who are homeless with their own parents, and doesn’t include their parents either. No matter what age, the person has to fit the time requirements, and has to be willing to let the bureaucracy declare them disabled. From these facts alone, it’s easy to see that more people are chronically homeless than are included in the government numbers. And, regardless of the official definition, different people probably mean different things when they talk about chronic homelessness.
The point is, arguing over exact numbers is a waste of energy when lives are slipping away. People experiencing homelessness are dying all over the place. Once you start paying attention, it becomes apparent that this is a trend. All too often, these lonely deaths go unremarked. Most of the dispossessed are as invisible in death as they were in life. If the circumstances are unusual, they make the news.
Last week, Eileen Kelley reported from Cincinnati, Ohio, on the tragedy of a man accidentally burned alive in a lean-to (not even qualifying as a shack) that he has shared with several others. William Floyd was only 44. Kelley quotes the executive director of the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless, Josh Spring:
On any given night in Cincinnati between 1,200 and 1,500 people sleep in homeless shelters or transitional housing rooms, in their cars, in doorways and abandoned buildings.
About two weeks ago, Jessica Gottlieb wrote about the 39-year-old homeless man found dead near her children’s school in Los Angeles. She recounted the discussion she has had about it with her daughter and son.
A couple of weeks before that, Katherine Cummins wrote about a 44-year-old John Alexander, whose partly decomposed body was found in a field in Fulton, California. He too was a person experiencing homelessness.
Around the same time in Dallas, Texas, where between 600 and 1,000 of the chronically homeless dwell, Richard Antwine brought the city’s rush-hour traffic to a halt by hanging himself from a viaduct. Antwine was 49, with a long history of mental illness and a revolving-door lifestyle that took him from the street to treatment facilities to jail, over and over again.
At the time of Antwine’s death, journalist Kim Horner was already familiar with his particular situation because of her work last year on a series of reports on homelessness for the Dallas Morning News. Despite his disability, he was occasionally employed, but kept getting in trouble for minor infractions like staying out past the curfew when living in a halfway house. Horner gives an example of the type of problem Antwine, like so many others, would habitually encounter:
The article about Antwine detailed how he was sent to jail in March 2009 for missing a meeting with his parole officer. Antwine’s lawyer argued that her client had a good reason: Antwine was in Terrell State Hospital, a psychiatric facility, at the time.
On Thanksgiving Day, Kirk Mitchell of the Denver Post tells us, the outside temperature was below zero degrees when a homeless woman showed up at a fire station at around five o’clock in the morning. Suffering from severe hypothermia, she was taken by ambulance to the hospital. She didn’t die, but somebody else will, in Denver, this winter — you can bet on that.
At this year’s Homeless Memorial Service in Austin, Texas, the name of Edward Forrest Dutcher was the most recent addition to a long list of people experiencing homelessness, who have died in the city and Travis County in the past year. Dutch was, in the words of Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless, “just a regular person trying to survive” — another of the too-often obscure individuals of whom Richard says,
… [O]ur homeless friends: women, men and children who have lived and died in abject poverty on our streets. May you find peace.
Source: “Questions & Answers about the “Chronic Homelessness” Initiative,” NPACH.org
Source: “Homeless camp fire fatality ID’ed,” Cincinnati.com, 11/29/10
Source: “A Homeless Man Died at the Kid’s School Today,” JessicaGottlieb.com, 11/12/10
Source: “Homeless man identified, autopsy to be performed Monday,” The Fulton Sun, 11/05/10
Source: “Man’s suicide in Dallas renews calls for help for the homeless,” The Dallas Morning News, 11/22/10
Source: “Homeless woman nearly freezes to death,” Denver Post, 11/26/10
Image by Ed Yourdon, used under its Creative Commons license.