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Sue Lani Madsen: People become homeless when they ‘run out of relationships,’ not resources

UPDATED: Sat., Nov. 2, 2019

Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, will write opinion for the Spokesman-Review on an occasional basis. Photo taken Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, will write opinion for the Spokesman-Review on an occasional basis. Photo taken Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

There is no one path to living homeless and no single correct strategy for policy. Responses to homelessness will always be framed by personal experience.

This is ours: Helplessly watching a series of unfortunate choices and a cycle of mental illness.

Your experience is real, too, whether it is serving meals or feeling threatened, worrying about paying the rent or being burgled while at work, cleaning up property damage or listening compassionately.

Last spring, a man fell through holes in the mental healthcare system and onto the street. This winter at least we know where he is. This is an oddly comforting thought when you’ve lost someone to homelessness. A broken relationship meant not knowing, even though we had not stopped caring.

But now we know where he is, in the critical care unit in a hospital, on a ventilator with dialysis and life supporting medications. An attentive healthcare team is trying to figure out what’s gone wrong besides unmanaged diabetes in spite of good health insurance. He might have frozen to death on the street but for landing in rehab in September with a still healing partial foot amputation.

Living homeless is a high risk factor for hepatitis A. It triggered a life or death scene in an ER last weekend when his systems starting shutting down. Now there is hope. The bedside discussions have shifted from crisis intervention to intensive care, from a focus on the next 24 hours to making a plan for the next week.

Compassion and accountability are not mutually exclusive. No one wants people freezing to death on the street. Crisis response is as necessary as the emergency room but isn’t the end of the treatment.

Unfortunately, the campaign season has made it seem like the question is either/or instead of both/all/and. A narrative pitting the warming shelters operated by Catholic Charities against the transformational change programs offered by Adult & Teen Challenge and the Union Gospel Mission derails the conversation. All three programs bring accountability along with Christian compassion, but at different points in their programs.

Jonathan Mallahan sees the need for accountability in the housing he manages for Catholic Charities. “They come in with high needs, and we offer services to help them come into community.”

If risky behaviors continue and disrupt other tenants, accepting services is mandatory. Over 18 months, Mallahan reported 18 evictions out of 200 tenants placed after long-term homelessness.

He’s hoping to gather better data on what’s working and what’s not working, what helps people be successful in incrementally improving their lives.

Mallahan complimented Union Gospel Mission as an amazing organization doing good work. Barbara Comito on the staff at UGM sees the House of Charity and similar “low-barrier” shelters providing a necessary crisis role, part of a continuum of care. “But if we put all our resources in crisis response, we’ll never get people unstuck,” said Comito. She’s part of a newly launched group seeking to discuss that continuum.

Like Mallahan, Comito also sees the need for better data. She worked on the team for the point-in-time count of Spokane’s homeless population last January. According to Comito, if you ask people why they are homeless they’ll give answers like lost a job or lost a lease, but ask later in the conversation if they are living with addiction and the answer is yes.

Speakers at Spokane’s World Homeless Day Summit last month focused on the most consistent cause of homelessness as the loss of relationship, including disengagement from ordinary society. Poor people with family ties and support systems, even addicts who manage to maintain relationships, do not become homeless.

John Repsold, senior pastor of Mosaic Fellowship in downtown Spokane, told the audience, “People don’t run out of resources, they run out of relationships.”

Comito is part of new group called Empower Spokane seeking to develop a better understanding of homelessness. “So much is unknown. Saying we’re all just one paycheck away from homelessness is not helpful,” said Comito. It denies the reality that people with healthy relationships don’t become homeless.

Mallahan said his least favorite phrase is “People are just choosing to be homeless.” Someone may say it’s a choice when you ask them, but it’s a defensive response, rationalizing to preserve dignity. People who have been hurt trying to fit in don’t want to risk getting hurt again.

We don’t know how our story will end. But at least we know where he is. And we have another chance to rebuild a relationship.

Editor’s note: The spelling of Jonathan Mallahan’s name has been corrected throughout.