One Night in January

Counting the Cost of Homelessness

On Any Single Night

Photo © 2017 Jeb Johnson

This article was written by Rev. Jules Morrissey, a behavior health provider, who works with people experiencing homelessness in Johnson City, Tennessee. 

On any single night, over half a million people in the U.S. experience homelessness.

I started working with people who do not have homes a few years ago. Immediately I felt a sense of compassion for the great need among these individuals and the lack of resources available to help our fellow citizens.

The truth is that not any one factor tends to cause homelessness, and homelessness occurs from a complex set of factors that force people to choose between food, safety, shelter, and other basic needs.

Factors include poverty, eroding work opportunities, decline in public assistance, spiking housing costs, domestic violence, lacking health care, health issues, as well as experiencing extremely traumatic events. Despite the overwhelmingly austere events that can lead people to become homeless, still, individuals are often blamed for their own homeless status and financial difficulties.

Since working with people without homes, I have learned that my empathetic attitude towards these individuals seems to be an outlier rather than the norm. The term “homeless” is no longer just a word defined as “[a person] having no home or permanent place of residence,” but instead embodies a pejorative ‘way of being’ used to label and shame people without a place to live.

The term “homeless” is no longer just a word defined as “[a person] having no home or permanent place of residence,” but instead embodies a pejorative ‘way of being’ used to label and shame people without a place to live.

When we make assumptions about someone’s dress, look, or behavior it makes it more likely that the person will be singled out and socially excluded, along with labeled as strange or dangerous. This is what we call stigma. And treating someone differently from how we treat others because of stigma, whether consciously or subconsciously, is discrimination. In this way, people who experience homelessness often experience stigma and discrimination that can be worse than any illness, and can cause serious setbacks to a person’s treatment of and recovery from homelessness.

You might guess that I know all this only because of my training in clinical psychology, but it’s not just my professional training. My understanding of homelessness is experience-informed. I understand the stigma of homelessness because I am a former “homeless”.

For the first 12 years of my life, I grew up in an extremely abusive home. At 12 years old, I decided it would be better to run away than continue to experience the trauma at home. Little did I know that this decision would start the beginning of years of dealing with homelessness, substance abuse, mental health issues, and incarceration. I remained homeless until almost my 27th birthday when I was finally able to get “back on my feet.” I attribute my success to overcome homelessness as a team effort. I cannot say I would be alive today if not for the help of a few caring friends and dedicated health providers

I cannot say I would be alive today if not for the help of a few caring friends and dedicated health providers.

Jules Morrissey understands the stigma of homelessness from both sides of the bridge.

Now, I help others by offering the same empathic, positive regard that I feel helped me. I make sure I consider how my judgments and biased thoughts might affect how I treat others; because I know, firsthand, the struggle of homelessness, and the great need that so many people have in our country.

Only we can stretch out the hand of hope and inclusion in our society. We must act on the desire for change we would like to see in our country. In this way, consider your beliefs about “the homeless,” and how those beliefs might be making it harder for people without homes to get better.

Homelessness in the comics

For Better or For Worse  points out the public’s lack of awareness about  the growing American homelessness epidemic in its October 25, 2017 comic strip.  ©2017 Lynn Johnston

It’s not often homelessness makes into the comics. But in her October 25, 2017 comic strip For Better or For Worse, Lynn Johnston brings homelessness home, by showing how those experiencing homelessness remain out of sight, out of mind.

In the conversations we’ve had with people who live on the streets, there’s one common thread that seems to resonate with everyone: No one cares about us.  

In fact, for those millions of Americans experiencing homelessness, there are only two worlds—The HAVES and the HAVE NOTS—those who have housing and those who don’t.

In today’s America, temporary shelters have replaced affordable housing for thousands.  Homeless means hopeless in the wealthiest country in the world.

Housing Not Handcuffs: Ending the Criminalization of Homelessness

Housing Not Handcuffs is a special report provided by The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.

Ending the Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities
Homelessness remains a national crisis, as stagnated wages, rising rents, and a grossly insufficient social safety net have left millions of people homeless or at-risk. Although many people experiencing homelessness have literally no choice but to live outside and in public places, laws and enforcement practices punishing the presence of visibly homeless people in public space continue to grow.

Homeless people, like all people, must engage in activities such as sleeping or sitting down to survive. Yet, in communities across the nation, these harmless, unavoidable behaviors are punished as crimes or civil infractions. 

Download Housing Not Handcuffs  – the only national report of its kind – provides an overview of criminalization measures in effect across the country and looks at trends in the criminalization of homelessness, based on an analysis of the laws in 187 cities that the Law Center has tracked since 2006. We also analyze trends in local enforcement, describe federal opposition to criminalization, and offer constructive alternative policies to criminalization laws and practices, making recommendations to federal, state, and local governments on how to best address the problem of visible homelessness in a sensible, humane, and legal way. 

Another Chance.

What happens when you provide permanent supportive housing for chronically homeless men? You end homelessness. Since 1998, Manna House has been helping men get another chance to live fulfilling lives free of addictions they’ve had because life became unmanageable.

So far, more than 500 men have passed through the doors of Manna House, and for most of them, the experience has changed their lives.

Dying on the Streets of Nashville

Jeb Johnson films a segment in Nashville with homeless street activist, Howard Allen.

Jeb Johnson films a sequence in Nashville with homeless street activist, Howard Allen. (Photo: Stephen Newton

On a recent visit to Nashville, we were honored to meet Howard Allen, a homeless activist who works tirelessly to further help and services for those experiencing homelessness in the music city. Howard was our guide while we were in Nashville.  It was an honor to get to know him. His patience, intelligence, and never-ending optimism were an inspiration.

Howard stands near a wall posted with the names of homeless people who have dyed on the streets.

Howard stands near a wall posted with the names of homeless people who have died on the streets.

At left, Howard shows us a wall at Nashville’s Room In the Inn with the names of hundreds of people who have died homeless on the streets of Nashville. The organization  offers emergency services, transitional programs, and long-term solutions 365 days a year to help people rebuild their lives.

According to the Tennessean, Nashville’s homeless population increased by 5 percent in 2015, and Metro officials say they were unable to meet 15 percent of the overall demand for shelter. Those numbers are according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ 2015 Status Report on Hunger and Homelessness. The 33th annual report found that Nashville had 2,154 homeless people on an average night in 2015 — 470 on the streets, 1,124 in emergency shelters and 560 in transitional housing.

Long Day’s Journey: What we do to make films

Dr. Noam Chomsky is  a linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, historian, social critic, author, political activist and professor emeritus at MIT . (Photo: Stephen Newton)

Dr. Noam Chomsky is  a linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, historian, social critic, author, political activist and professor emeritus at MIT . (Photo: Stephen Newton)

After we read “Who rules the World,” by Noam Chomsky, and watched the film, “Requiem for the American Dream,” (available on Netflix and Amazon) which features Chomsky, we knew we had to include an interview with him in our documentary.

Thanks to the digital age we live in, we were able to send him an email requesting an interview.  Dr. Chomsky agreed to give us 30 minutes, and off we went to Cambridge, Massachusetts, by car—nearly 900 miles one way—two days there and two days back. The trip was worth it.

We had one question for Chomsky, “Why do we have a homeless problem in the wealthiest, most powerful country in the world?” He not only answered our question, we left feeling honored to have met such a brilliant, gracious and humble individual. The world is a better place with Dr. Chomsky in it.

Watch his film and read his book, or check him out on YouTube here.

“There’s a Better Way” is an innovative solution to panhandling that was started in 2015 under Albuquerque, New Mexico Mayor Richard J. Berry in partnership with St. Martin’s Hospitality Center.

Here’s how “There’s a Better Way” was implemented:

Phase I: Signs, Services & Donations

In June 2015, the City of Albuquerque posted 15 signs at various intersections were panhandlers were known to stand. The signs urged people in need of food or shelter to call the City’s 311 service.

The sign also lists the DONATEabq.org website for donations. Anyone who wants to help the needy can make donations through the website to support the community through the following efforts:

  • The Community Fund
  • Feed the Hungry
  • Shelter the Homeless
  • Support a Day’s Wages for Someone in Need of Work

Donations Collected now have the potential to have a Collective Impact.

For example, a driver could hand $5 out the window to a panhandler and help them purchase one meal – or they could donate $5 to Roadrunner Food Bank and feed 20 people.

Serving as the program’s fiscal agent, the United Way of Central New Mexico charges no administrative costs for the program.


Phase II: A Van

In September 2015, the City of Albuquerque found a van in the City’s motor pool, wrapped it in the “There’s a Better Way” graphics, and launched the “There’s a Better Way” van with St. Martin’s Hospitality Center.

With a initial budget of $50,000, the City’s Solid Waste Department is able to drive to areas frequented by panhandlers and offer them day labor, such as landscape beautification and garbage removal.

Pay for the work is $9 a hour.

After their work day is complete, passengers are transported back to St. Martin’s to be connected with emergency shelter to house them overnight as needed.

In fiscal year 2017, the City has budgeted $181,000 for the program’s continued success.

For the whole story please visit the City of Albuquerque web site.

Homeless in America

Graffitti artists tag a retaining wall beneath a bridge. Photo © 2016 Stephen Newton

Graffitti artists tag a retaining wall beneath a bridge. Photo © 2016 Stephen Newton

When you live on the streets, graffitti may be your own private art gallery, or a warning that you are trespassng on gang territory. Random violent attacks against the homeless happen frequently, and often go unreported.

“One Night in January: Counting the Cost of Homelessness,” explores  the escalating financial toll that homelessness takes on  communities, as well as its causes, and solutions to reduce, and eventually, end homelessness.  It is estimated that a single homeless individual may cost taxpayers from $35,000 to $150,000 annually.

In 2015, it was estimated that there were 564,708 homeless Americans.