SALT LAKE CITY — Homelessness results in tremendous loss, far beyond a home and physical belongings. Many of those experiencing homelessness have also lost their sense of purpose and self-worth.
“There are a number of factors that will lead to a family having to turn to emergency shelter, and some of those are acute incidents that lead to them needing to flee their premises,” Matt Minkevitch, executive director of The Road Home, told KSL.com.
“For the person experiencing that, it can have a profound impact,” he continued. “I think of children who lose their security blankets, favorite toys, or their favorite book. I think of photographs, and people who have lost photo albums.”
Community experts shared how combined losses may impose barriers in the way of someone overcoming their homelessness.
“People are constantly losing documentation,” said Dr. Michele Goldberg, medical director at Fourth Street Clinic. “People can’t get their license because they don’t have a birth certificate. They can’t get a job because they don’t have a Social Security card, and they don’t have a Social Security card because they don’t have their birth certificate.”
Identification may be lost in a variety of ways.
“It’s really a cumbersome process for homeless individuals to get the necessary documents to get an apartment and get back to work,” Goldberg said. “That process can take between weeks and months.”
In terms of material belongings, those who are homeless may find themselves with nothing. For adults, that may include basic things like a bed, or nostalgic things like photo albums and heirlooms. For children, that might mean their blanket, favorite toy, or items of comfort and stability that provide steadiness to a kid’s life.
“Those things reach down deep, and they inflict a particular type of pain,” Minkevitch said.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs dictates what order of importance different needs fall under. Before anything else can be addressed, people have the innate desire to obtain food, water, warmth and rest. From there, they seek security and safety. Only then will they begin to concern themselves with other basic necessities like medical care, friends and family, and mental health.
“For a lot of homeless patients those desires aren’t being met,” said Trish Williams, a nurse practitioner at the Fourth Street Clinic. “They are constantly in this mindset of trying to meet basic needs. Everything else just kind of goes by the wayside.”
As a result, both chronic and acute illnesses can become a major problem. A majority of Fourth Street Clinic’s patients include individuals suffering from high blood pressure, diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and mental illness. When obtaining basics like shelter, food, water, sleep or clothes become the No. 1 priority, caring for things like health becomes less of a concern. And logistics of health care may be tricky for those experiencing homelessness even if health is a primary concern.
“If you think about diabetes, for example, most people pick up medications for 30 days,” Goldberg explained. “If you’re giving medicine to a patient who receives insulin four or five times per day, they’re carrying around syringes for taking it five times per day. So that’s 150 syringes they have to carry around. If they are staying at a shelter or somewhere else that’s not secure, they have to carry that around with them. That’s just really cumbersome. It’s hard enough for people who go to work every day and have to carry around five.”
Dignity, self-worth and self-esteem
The trauma of becoming homeless can have catastrophic impacts on the sense of dignity and self-worth for homeless people. Minkevitch explained times in which he has seen this effect of homelessness hold individuals back.
Family and friends
“A lot of individuals don’t have that inner circle of intimate connections with other people, like family or a best friend or someone they can turn to,” Williams explained. “It creates this underlying element of instability in their life because they don’t have support.”
Children are most greatly affected by this deficiency in connections. Homeless kids have been shown to have more emotional and behavioral problems, higher risks of developing health issues, are more likely to be separated from their families and have a lower academic performance, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. One study published in the American Journal of Public Health showed that 78% of homeless children in Los Angeles County "suffered from depression, a behavioral problem or severe academic delay."
According to Minkevitch, homeless individuals are often estranged from family for a number of reasons. Those may include divorce, abusive situations or a death in the family. Additionally, there are parents who have been separated from their kids.
“There are moms who have had their children taken away,” Minkevitch said. "I can’t imagine how bad they feel about that. It can be the absolute right decision, and I’m not second-guessing the thoughtful professionals who made that judgment call. But that’s a sense of loss I would never wish on anyone.”
Despite homelessness remaining a problem for many individuals on the Wasatch Front, there is forward progression in improving the situation. Prominent community advocate Pamela Atkinson believes that Operation Rio Grande was a great start to a renewed homeless improvement effort.
“I’ve seen a lot of good come out of Operation Rio Grande in terms of people who had moved out of that area now coming back to get services they need,” Atkinson said. “There are also people I haven’t seen in a while, and I suspect they’ve gone out where the drug dealers still are.”
Operation Rio Grande came as an effort to clean up the downtown area and improve conditions for families and individuals experiencing homelessness.
For a lot of homeless patients [basic] desires aren’t being met,” said Trish Williams, a nurse practitioner at the Fourth Street Clinic. “They are constantly in this mindset of trying to meet basic needs. Everything else just kind of goes by the wayside.
“Rio Grande Street is now a safe area,” Atkinson explained. “There’s occasional drug abuse, but we usually text the police and they’re there pretty quickly.”
Part of the homeless reform initiative has been to close down The Road Home later this year and open three new homeless resource centers. Officials hope this will help distribute the homeless population away from the downtown area and offer more opportunities for help and resources.
“I think it’s when we collaborate with one another we’re going to see more good coming out of it,” Atkinson said. “We see people graduating from drug court. We see people who are getting the mental health treatment they need. We see people getting the opioid addiction treatment they need. We still need more beds and more affordable housing, but I love the fact that some people have been taken in by businesses and are getting job training. They then are getting jobs and are eligible for housing.”