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Op-Ed: Working Toward Ending Stigma of Homelessness

Posted 10/27/20

Contact: Betsy Bethel-McFarland,

NOTE: This op-ed was published in the Sunday (Wheeling) News-Register on Oct. 24

By Nic Cochran

Youth Services System Inc. (YSS) is seeking input from the local homeless population with the goal of bringing some of them to the table alongside representatives from local nonprofits, government agencies and offices, law enforcement, churches and the public for a restorative justice event in 2021.

To lay the groundwork, Caryce McGurn, an AmeriCorps VISTA with YSS, asked a few nonprofits who work with the population for their input. Below are some of my answers, which I am sharing in hopes of reducing stigma and challenging us all to consider the hardships our neighbors experiencing homelessness face.

What are the main issues keeping people from obtaining permanent housing? Mental health issues, especially substance use disorder (SUD) and developmental/learning disabilities. These are typically manifestations of early childhood trauma. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) scores are well documented as one of the key predictors of chronic health problems and addiction.

Why do people experiencing homelessness return to the streets, even after they have found housing? Two important reasons: loneliness and neurological impairment. It is not uncommon to find many people in a newly-housed person’s apartment. For instance, a 60-plus-year-old man who recently found housing is letting five other people stay in his apartment. He doesn’t bat an eye but invited them in because he felt bad for them, due to a kind of “survivor’s guilt,” for which he could be evicted.

Secondly, neurological impairment can lead people back onto the streets. The body, in a sustained “fight-or-flight” mode, is altered by the increased presence of cortisol, a hormone released when we are stressed. On a cellular level, stress changes our DNA. On a neurological level, pathways that have been built over a time of extreme duress/trauma are resilient. It is hard to unlearn survival behaviors learned on the streets. Increased cortisol levels can further exacerbate mental illness, and people often return to old coping mechanisms.

What are we doing as a community that is keeping these folks from reaching their goals? The goal for many on the streets is essentially “pain management.” People need goals, but the obstacles seem insurmountable. You need an ID to obtain employment and many social services. To get an ID, you need a birth certificate, Social Security card, and proof of address, all of which have their own challenges for acquiring. It makes working toward goals feel like a futile effort. Frankly, it’s easier to be homeless than face continued rejection, and people end up accepting a state of worthlessness.

What is our community as a whole doing to create a lasting and stable solution for our neighbors on the street? Nothing. Increasing rents, lack of access to mental health facilities and treatment for SUD, and poor-paying jobs are all barriers. However, there are many great people in the area who work to build meaningful and lasting relationships with people experiencing homelessness, which is a good first step.

What are potential roadblocks you foresee as we progress in working to get our neighbors into permanent housing? The general public sees rewarding failure as an affront to our sense of justice. Much anger and criticism of people experiencing homelessness is rooted in this sense. However, when we begin to understand the nuances and complexities that lead a person into a state of homelessness, the neurological science behind trauma, and the systems that have failed individuals, we begin to see someone who has fallen into a cycle of survival-at-all-costs. 

The person who is homeless is not a failure, but is someone who has been failed by systems. There are mechanisms in place to help people, but the presence of homeless encampments — regardless of where they are located or moved — shows us how big the gaps are in those mechanisms.

Finally, almost all organizations fail to consider the complexities of their programs. The learning curve is very steep, and we must allow people to fail. If we expect perfection from people who have relied on survivalist coping mechanisms for most of their lives, we will continually be disappointed.

Are there steps you feel will be easy to accomplish? Nothing about this topic is easy. People want off the streets until they don’t. Again, the setbacks people face in attempting to gain stable housing are extremely demoralizing. Having said that, making barriers low and assistance high will encourage people to come in off the streets and in many cases, get clean, seek treatment and go on to become productive members of society.

Homelessness is a complex issue, with roots that run deeper than most of us realize. My perspective comes from many years of working with people on the streets, knowing their names, stories, idiosyncrasies, joys and pains. Before we begin to address this issue in our community, we must be unafraid to address the people. We must be willing to say “yes, yes, and yes again,” to people who have so often known only rejection and pain.

Nic Cochran has lived at the House of Hagar Catholic Worker in East Wheeling for five years and works seasonally at the YSS Winter Freeze Shelter. He is the assistant director of YSS Recovery Homes. He earned a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from Wheeling Jesuit University.