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What causes homelessness?

Holly Viers • Dec 30, 2018 at 12:00 PM

KINGSPORT — When it comes to determining the cause of homelessness, most people agree that a number of factors are at play.

Over the last few months, the Times News asked community leaders and homeless individuals for their thoughts on the matter. They cited drug use, mental health disorders, job loss or low wages, a dissolving family unit and mounting bills as five of the biggest factors.

Drug use

Local leaders agree that drug use is one of the leading causes of homelessness. As noted by the National Coalition for the Homeless, “Addictive disorders disrupt relationships with family and friends and often cause people to lose their jobs. For people who are already struggling to pay their bills, the onset or exacerbation of an addiction may cause them to lose their housing.”

Michael Gillis, executive director of Hunger First, noted that the relationship between drug use and homelessness isn’t always one-sided. In many cases, Gillis said, homelessness can either create a drug problem or worsen an existing one.

“When you have nowhere to go and nothing going for you, a lot of times … (that’s) where the cycle begins of drugs and alcohol,” Gillis said. “When you have nothing going for you and nowhere to turn, and you stay with people that use drugs or drink a lot or whatever, you just want to party your life away.”

Mental health disorders

Will Shewey, pastor of Shades of Grace United Methodist Church, said mental health issues are also a contributing factor, one he observes on a regular basis. Serious mental illnesses can disrupt a person’s ability to perform critical tasks, such as self-care and household management, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless.

Shewey recently recounted the story of a homeless woman in the back alleyway at Shades of Grace whom he had made several attempts to help.

“She’s entirely schizophrenic, and I go out to talk to her to give her food, and she’s totally oblivious to me,” Shewey said. “But she’s talking loudly and answering herself, and this is in the backdoor of our church.”

Job loss or low wages

Morris Baker, president and CEO of Goodwill Industries of Tenneva, said his focus is on providing employment opportunities for those in need. As pointed out by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, many homeless people want to work, but they face barriers including a lack of experience and other challenges to re-entering the workforce.

But providing employment opportunities is only part of the equation. Ensuring the jobs pay well enough to sustain a comfortable living is another matter that needs to be addressed, Baker said.

“If I’m making $8 an hour, you do the math on that. I can’t live on that,” Baker said. “But there are those that say there are jobs out there if you want to work … and I believe that there is power in work — I think that’s crucial –- but you step back and you ask, ‘Are the jobs out there?’ ”

Dissolving family unit

When a divorce occurs, one or both spouses can sometimes end up homeless, especially if a dependable source of income has been lost. HomeAid, a national nonprofit organization, points out that the cost of the divorce itself can also play a role.

Michele Wilder, homeless education coordinator for Kingsport City Schools, works with many single mothers and fathers, though she has noticed that one is more common than the other.

“I see a lot of families that there’s been a family breakup,” Wilder said, “and I’m not saying that there’s not usually a dad, but it is typically one single mother with children.”

Mounting bills

Another factor that often goes overlooked is monthly expenses. For a new renter or homeowner, startup fees for electricity and water add up quickly, not to mention high security deposits and down payments.

And if a person gets behind on bills, a downward spiral can easily occur. Alisa Emery, coordinator of the Family Resource Center for Kingsport City Schools, provided one example.

“I had a lady that never asked for help, and she really needed help with a utility bill. We had a harsh time (last) winter where it was arctic air here, and … sometimes places aren’t really insulated and things, so her bill had gone up,” Emery said. “So she went to one of these loan places and put her car up, and so she paid her power bill and kept it on, but now she’s lost her transportation because of the high interest rates. So it can be a snowball effect.”

Tomorrow: The possible solutions to homelessness

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