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Look closely to see who lacks shelter 

Far more people in this county than may be evident have no place to sleep.

People who lack homes are everywhere in this county and their numbers are soaring. As I left a Wal-Mart parking lot recently, a man stood with a sign and a picture of his deceased wife, asking for money to “cremate his beloved.” My gut twisted and I gave him a few dollars.

Yet, in the back of my mind, a voice taunted me: “What if he never had a wife? What if he spends the money on liquor?” Regardless of my internal dialogue, I wanted to help him—someone who by all outward appearances had no home. And, albeit on a small scale, I help our county’s homeless, many of whom are not so obvious, in other ways.

 As a mental health therapist who works hand-in-hand with clients who have no residence, I see their struggle up close. Their histories are diverse and the immediate reasons why they are homeless vary. But I strongly believe those details are not the true origins of their plight: I believe our entire population has lost its direction—or maybe its job.

According to the ALPHA project based in San Diego County, the rate of homelessness among families and children has nearly doubled in the past decade. What can be done to help? I’m asked that weekly and from my perspective, the answer is not linear or simple.

Many families who are now homeless in our community lived comfortably in local homes little more than a year ago, but foreclosure and/or bankruptcy have catapulted them into the streets or if they are lucky, the few available public shelters. I see the devastation that results when stable living arrangements are gone; and that fate could next befall someone as close as a neighbor next door, or closer.

The Stewart B. McKinney Act—42 U.S.C. § 11301, et seq. (1994)—considers someone homeless who, “lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate night-time residence and ... has a primary night time residency that is: (A) a supervised publicly or privately operated shelter designed to provide temporary living accommodations ... (B) an institution that provides a temporary residence for individuals intended to be institutionalized, or (C) a public or private place not designed for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings.”

 To be clear, under the McKinney Act, someone who would be considered homeless would not be living in the care of relatives (such as a college graduate who can’t find a job in this economy). And the definition would not yet apply to members of a family impoverished by medical bills for a sick child who face eviction, nor to a recent veteran suffering from PTSD who’s unable to pay
the rent.

 In rural communities, it’s especially difficult to identify what homelessness “looks like” because there’s no adequate evaluation “tool” and because some people lose and gain shelter temporarily. The public shelters in SLO County do a commendable job accommodating clients who can actually obtain a bed. But for many, many more people, there is no bed. Moreover, beyond the chronic, increasing shortage of beds, there aren’t nearly enough services. And a great many of the people in desperate need are women, children, and whole families: they don’t fit a stereotype.

I should mention the homeless individuals who are inclined to stay homeless. A friend who’s worked with homeless people for more than 20 years once told me, “It’s not the transient individuals seeking help who need the help. It’s the ones who run away when you’re trying to offer them support who scare me.” In many ways, he’s correct. The reality is many of our homeless population are mentally ill; diagnosed with multiple co-morbid issues that influence their aggression or anger. Many of them have antisocial behaviors and prefer to be left alone. It’s not as simple as walking up to a homeless person on the street and asking them if they need a meal or handout. Safety is critical. In my field, getting to know the person is first, providing supportive services is second.

 My plea for our county is to evaluate our homeless issues from a variety of perspectives. No one agency is responsible for a solution and certainly, our government systems are incapable of providing the services that are urgently needed unless they get adequate funding. In the past, several churches provided a warm bed, a hot meal, and a sack lunch. Though some still do, there is much less of such help offered. Is the replacement that’s been proposed for both the Prado Day Center and Maxine Lewis shelter the answer? It would include 200 beds (many more are needed) but what about services for mental health, drug treatment, and job training?

 I will persevere to distinguish the person beneath the homeless label, the person who could be an aunt, a mother, a friend, a homeless college student, or an unemployed schoolteacher. What I seek to know is whether SLO County as a community has the empathy and drive to pull together improved services to our homeless neighbors at a time of unprecedented need, despite fiscal adversity. Or would most of us rather ignore the sign holders, the beggars by the movie theater? What’s the answer?

Denise Braun is a mental health therapist and  college professor in San Luis Obispo. She works with the county’s homeless populations. Contact her via the editor at

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