Memphians experiencing homelessness tell me they want two things: dignity and a place of their own.
I have no apartments to share, but I hope my year-long series, No Shelter, has helped with that first request.
We at MLK50: Justice Through Journalism believe that the people being harmed by a system can be just as much of an expert on it as any academic conducting research. With this in mind, I spoke with more than a dozen Memphians experiencing homelessness this year and published seven of those interviews.
These people shared with me their pasts, their hopes, their joys and their frustrations.
I didn’t discover a silver bullet for addressing homelessness, but that wasn’t the point. The main goal was for me — and MLK50 readers — to get to know these neighbors better. The more we get to know them, the more likely we’ll be to respect them and join the battle against homelessness. Because that battle needs all of us.
“(Homelessness) should be an all-hands-on-deck kind of imperative,” said Peter Gathje, co-founder of the homelessness hospitality ministry Manna House.
Although my main objective was more relational than academic, these neighbors did teach me plenty about homelessness — lessons I’ll share here:
Lesson 1: Homelessness is tightly tied to relationships
In 2019, Marvina Grantham stopped feeling comfortable living with her parents. They weren’t supportive of her life as a transgender woman, and neither was anyone else in her family.
She lost her serving job and couldn’t afford a place of her own. So she showed up at a shelter.
There were multiple factors at play — there almost always are — but the broken relationships with her family were the primary reason she said she became homeless.
I heard similar stories from many I met.
For Mark Skomburg, a prison sentence and alcoholism have made it difficult to maintain housing. But his divorce also played a major role. Another man I met, who didn’t give me permission to use his name, also became homeless immediately after a divorce.
Prior to this series, I knew prison and alcoholism pushed many into homelessness. But I underestimated the relational aspect.
And, of course, once people are living outside, healthy relationships don’t get any easier to find.
“(People experiencing homelessness) are under that double bind of no community, no housing,” Gathje said. “It’s very tough to crawl out of that whirlpool of chaos … without someone reaching into the whirlpool and helping you get out … through housing and community.”
For this reason, the unhoused people I met who I’m least worried about are Barbara Noble and Jacqueline Batts. After watching the way these best friends care for each other, I’m confident they’ll be okay.
Lesson 2: Housing first
One of the key phrases in homelessness these days is “housing first.” It refers to a strategy of addressing homelessness by providing permanent housing before helping someone land a job or overcome an addiction.
A growing body of research shows this strategy is far more effective than its alternatives, which is why the federal government has adopted it.
The people I met this year both proved to me the importance of this approach and the importance of embracing it further.
To get a job and otherwise address his issues, Leland Wells told me he’d need to be able to concentrate, but that feels impossible without a roof over his head.
“Right now I’m stressed. I’m stressed. I mean, every day is stress. Stress, stress, stress,” he said. “If I was in a stable situation, I could gather my thoughts and make a plan to do something.”
This is exactly why the federal government has embraced housing first. But the fact that Wells wasn’t in housing is proof of the shortcomings of the government’s implementation.
I was repeatedly told that getting an apartment through a federally funded program requires a lot of concentration and paperwork — things that people such as Wells have a hard time providing.
The people experiencing homelessness I spoke with think the government worries far too much about regulating its homelessness programs and far too little about simply providing housing. Multiple people said they think the city should buy vacant buildings around town and open them up — renovated or unrenovated — for whoever wants to make a home in them.
To be sure, this solution would come with plenty of liability and livability issues, but it would be better than people living outside, according to these people.
Lesson 3: There’s no silver bullet
The unhoused people I spoke with this year came from all types of places and were struggling against innumerable challenges.
Homelessness isn’t just caused by addiction, broken relationships, mental health or the criminal justice system. It’s all of these things and more.
So there’s no single solution. We need to come up with many.
The difficulty of this problem doesn’t mean we’re allowed to ignore it. The fact remains that more than a thousand of our neighbors in Memphis — innately equal to the rest of us — are living through the extreme trauma of life without a home.
Lesson 4: Addiction is common but not all-encompassing
Many of the unhoused people I met spoke openly about ongoing battles with substance abuse.
Skomburg knew he needed to quit drinking. Grantham and another woman I spoke with, Sarah, knew their addictions were harming them.
Unfortunately, these common addictions cause many people to give up on helping their unhoused neighbors. It is, after all, frustrating to watch excessive substance use repeatedly worsen someone’s life.
But addiction cannot be the reason we stop fighting for these people for at least two reasons.
First, no addiction or mental illness can steal a person’s innate value. Throughout our conversation, Skomburg smiled wide and joked around; he seemed determined not to be defined by his circumstances. He’s lost a lot in this life, but he hasn’t lost his humanity.
Second, these addictions need not be final. Sloane Wilke, a woman I interviewed who experienced homelessness from 2013-2017, said she could hardly last a couple of hours without using heroin or alcohol back then. But that period ended — which she largely attributes to someone finally offering her housing without a sobriety requirement. With a stable place to stay, she was able to process her trauma, find a full-time job and take bubble baths.
Other than a place to stay, Sarah said she’d have a much easier time addressing her own addiction if homeless services weren’t so geographically concentrated. To get free food, clothes or showers, she knows it’s best to stay near Downtown or Midtown. But these areas with homeless services are also the areas where she says it’s easiest to find drugs.
Specifically, Sarah would love a soup kitchen in Bartlett or Cordova — where there’s far less temptation and she could be closer to her daughter.
I doubt these suburbs would love additional homeless services in their backyards. But, as research has shown huge benefits of deconcentrating low-income housing, it seems like Sarah might be onto something.
Lesson 5: One thing we can all do to help
When we launched this series, we decided to end the introduction with this line: “(These stories) are written with the belief that all people are created equal — whether or not they’re treated that way.”
It’s a belief that underpinned Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s commitment to nonviolence.
“Every man is somebody because he is a child of God. And so when we say ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ we’re really saying that human life is too sacred to be taken on the battlefields of the world,” King told Ebenezer Baptist Church 55 years ago.
Unfortunately, Memphians rarely treat their brothers and sisters experiencing homelessness as equal to them, I was told many, many times.
When Wilke was living outside, she says she felt “subhuman.”
“People sometimes would drive by and hurl a drink at you and yell, ‘Get a job!’ or ‘Go f— yourself!’” she said.
Tommie Lee Collins told me the hardest part about homelessness isn’t the winter weather or any other physical reality. It’s being treated “like dirt.”
The persistence of this message from people experiencing homelessness surprised me. I figured they’d be more focused on their own physical needs. But no, it’s respect they want from the rest of us. And — given all they’re going through — it seems the least we can provide.
Jacob Steimer is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at Jacob.Steimer@mlk50.com
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.