(Names have been changed to protect people’s privacy)
The Christmas season is brutal for people experiencing homelessness. The weather is colder; the days are literally darker. Depression is higher for everyone, but so much more for those who suffer in more tangible ways. On top of it all, there is so much talk of “home” at Christmas – songs like “No Place Like Home for the Holidays,” and “I’ll be Home for Christmas,” or people talking about returning “home” to visit family in their “home”-town. The isolation that comes with knowing this is a season for being “home”, and gathering with loved one, makes the month of December an agonizing time for people who don’t have homes, and who are often estranged or endured trauma by their families in the home they once had. Like the Savior born in a barn, the unhoused population is especially aware in this season that there is “no room” for them.
When people experience homelessness, it is more than just a loss or lack of housing. (Though we should never minimize the central role housing plays.) It is also a loss or lack of connection and community. Consider your own situation: if tomorrow you were unexpectedly evicted or displaced from your home, what would you do? Who would you call? Likely, you can think of a handful of friends who would take you in on some temporary basis. You might even have family who would take you in indefinitely. When someone experiences homelessness, it’s because they have experienced that same displacement, but also have no one left to offer them refuge.
This reality always colors my Christmas experience, even if it doesn’t fully dampen it. Working daily with people experiencing homelessness means I can offer a sense of community, warmth, and sometimes even a new home to people during this time. But this year, for all of us, has been especially dark; and as I approach Christmas this year, I have two people on my mind who won’t be making it home for the holidays – for reasons that highlight our personal and corporate failures in making “home” possible and attainable for the most in need.
The first time I met Mr. Emerson, I saw a lot more than I wanted to. I was walking into a congregate shelter that we were providing services at and I saw him, stumbling and milky-eyed, awkwardly hovering over a trash can right at the entrance of the facility. I took a closer look to figure out what was happening, only to see, plain-as-day, his member in his hands, urinating directly into an open trash-can. He was hammered, and in his stupor was trying to make it either to his bed or to a bathroom but found neither before the urge to pee caused him to make a public display of it. We helped him to his bed to sleep it off. I would come to discover over the next few years that he was the most severe alcoholic I’ve ever encountered, to the point of absolute dependency.
The first time I met Sophia, she wandered into the courtyard of our drop-in center with bags full of freshly cooked food. A short, 72-year-old Japanese woman with broken English, she had prepared the feast in her home kitchen and wanted to share it with our whole community. Over the next couple months, this generous spirit gave way to an anxious one as we learned more about her situation. She was living with her daughter in a small apartment nearby, but her daughter did not want to live with her anymore. Sophia was a hoarder, and her daughter didn’t have patience for that. Over the months, we tried to work with the daughter and Sophia to reconcile things, but we were not making progress. Sophia was probably going to get kicked out, and didn’t make enough on government assistance to get her own place.
Mr. Emerson wound up getting transferred to a new site we were operating under a directive called Project Roomkey. The state allocated funding for cities like Los Angeles to master-lease hotels that were empty because of COVID-19, and use the rooms to shelter individuals experiencing homelessness who were the most at-risk for the virus. Mr. Emerson, because of his age and underlying health conditions, qualified for a room. The facility, however, had a zero-tolerance policy for drinking on site under the funder’s policies, which would continue to be a struggle between him and the staff. Compromises were made, knowing of course that Mr. Emerson is an adult and can make his own decisions, but alcohol is not allowed on site. He could often be found sitting in his walker right off the property line, drinking the better part of a liquor bottle before stumbling onto the property. During a two-week stretch when the site was in Public Health lockdown because of a few positive COVID tests, the staff actually had to buy booze for Mr. Emerson. His body was so dependent on it that to go cold turkey for two weeks could actually kill him.
Sophia’s daughter finally kicked her out in October. There was no more discussion or bargaining. Sophia took what she could carry and got a hotel room. She had enough money for about a week. We were frustrated, not just with the daughter, but also with LA’s Homeless Prevention infrastructure, which is an absolute travesty. The program is designed so you can’t refer people until their eviction is imminent (less than a month away.) However, the program is so backed-up that it takes months for them to reach out. There was absolutely nothing we could do until she became literally “homeless,” and by that time the stakes become so much higher. For Sophia, the stakes would quickly become life and death.
Two days before Thanksgiving, November 24, Sophia was standing in line outside our drop-in facility, waiting for us to open. She had gotten a hotel room again, but this time we were able to pay for it, having enrolled her in one of our housing programs. We could pay for the hotel for as long as it took before putting her in an apartment that offered rental support. Even though we hadn’t been able to catch her before falling into homelessness, we were lucky to scoop her up into this program shortly after. She was looking forward to searching for affordable apartments with our housing team.
About 10 minutes before we were set to open, a man we had never seen before walked up to our line and attacked Sophia without warning, striking her in the back of the head with a blunt instrument. After a tussle with the rest of the individuals in our line, Sophia was taken in an ambulance to the hospital, and the man was arrested. Senseless acts of violence like this are rare at our facility, but common on the streets. Sophia suffered fractures to her spine and spent days in intensive care, before being sent to a skilled nursing facility to recover under the watchful eye of care providers. It’s a miracle she was not killed, even more miraculous that there doesn’t appear to be any long-term damage.
The night before Thanksgiving, Mr. Emerson came to our Project Roomkey staff with a surprising request. He wanted to know if they could help him get in touch with his mother. He hadn’t spoken to her in over 25 years. After some internet magic and a few failed attempts, he dialed a number our staff had procured, and heard the familiar voice on the other end. His eyes welled up immediately and tears streamed down his face as he said, “Mama, it’s your baby.” They talked for nearly an hour. For years, his family had been calling hospitals, jails, even morgues looking for him. They made plans to visit from Sacramento as soon as possible, overjoyed at the reconnection. They even started talking about bringing him home.
Days later, after the initial joy wore off and more communication happened with our staff, it became clear that such a happy ending might not be possible. Of the multiple family members in Sacramento, none had the ability to take Mr. Emerson in permanently. None of his siblings were in any financial position to support anyone but themselves. His mother lived in a Section 8 apartment, which does not allow for additional tenants under penalty of eviction – and if you get evicted from a Section 8 apartment, you are ineligible for any housing assistance in California for a minimum of three years.
Even still, Mr. Emerson asked to go to Sacramento, saying he would “figure it out.” But neither our programs, nor our consciences, would allow us to send him on a bus to Sacramento just to end up on the streets – especially since we wouldn’t be there to help. His family still plans to visit him in LA soon, but after that, we don’t yet know what the future holds for them.
As Christmas approaches for both Sophia and Mr. Emerson, I am struck by the tragedy of “home” for each of them. Sophia was forced out of her home onto the streets by a family member who just couldn’t deal with her anymore, only to be viciously attacked by a stranger just blocks away from that former home. Mr. Emerson, after 25 years, found the courage to call “home” and make peace with those he had left behind, only for the cycles and systems of poverty to ultimately prevent a reunification. Sophia will spend Christmas in the nursing facility while our case manager continues to look for her future apartment. Mr. Emerson will spend it in Project Roomkey, wondering if his only hope for “home” will be an apartment in LA, or Sacramento, or if his unmanaged alcoholism will sabotage all of that.
These stories illustrate our failure, individually and collectively, to make “home” possible for our most needy. Yes, Sophia and Mr. Emerson are difficult. Her hoarding and his alcoholism are both treatable but formidable obstacles to their sustainability in any kind of housing situation. But we can’t just give up on people because they are difficult.
This Christmas, as we reflect on the coming of Emmanuel, God with us, who chose to dwell with us in houses, apartments, shelters, and tents – consider those for whom “home” means something very different, or perhaps who have no concept of the word at all anymore. Consider your own family and community, and who may be on the fringes – who are perhaps one conversation or slip-up away from exile, and what it might take to pull them back in. Consider if there are those who have already been exiled, where they might be, and if they are at all reachable. Consider the policies, systems, and laws that offer scraps to barely keep the poor alive, but never lift people out of poverty, condemning generation after to generation to despair.
Homelessness is, and will always be, a crisis of both housing and community, of the personal and political. At Christmas, as we celebrate the Son of God born homeless into a socio-political landscape of death and oppression, we would do well to hold the Sophias and Mr. Emersons of the world close to our hearts, and work together for a world where we can all be home for Christmas.