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What if These People Chose to Be Homeless?

Updated on May 19, 2016
Starbucks on the corner of the Capitol Square.
Starbucks on the corner of the Capitol Square.

She’s standing there on the corner in front of Starbucks. She’s obviously drunk, or hung-over. There is something wrong with her eye. She's rubbing it quite a lot. Maybe she is not trying to cry. Crying just may help her case as she picks and chooses passerby to stop and ask for money. I have seen this lady before. She’s been homeless for quite sometime.

During my last stay in the Salvation Army she was there. Rank of liquor, her breath was easily smelt from feet away. She wouldn’t bathe there. She wouldn’t even make her own pallet to sleep on.

“I don’t need all that shit.” She remarked to me, voice heavily laden with pride and malice at my audacity to still treat myself like a diva.

It wasn’t easy to ignore her. She is loud, obnoxious, and mean when she is sober and frustrated from not having a drink. Or maybe she had had a few drinks, not enough to be drunk, but enough to be persistent in her criticisms and verbal abuse.

She is not alone with her character among the homeless. Just the other day I succumbed to an argument at the County Building where I sleep. It was appalling to me that the woman was so belligerent that she begged the responding officers to be put in jail.

My compassion for these people runs thin.

The building that used to house the post office in my hometown.
The building that used to house the post office in my hometown.

Looking Back At Homelessness

When I was a girl I held fast to my mother’s hand as we crossed a busy street to reach the post office in my hometown. There, nestled soundly asleep on a landing of the many steps of the white concrete building, was a dirty old man with white hair.

“Mommy I want to give him money.” I stated, reaching into the pocket of my corduroy skirt for the dollar I had brought for a soda and snack.

“He has plenty of money, baby. He chooses to live this way.” My mother gently explained.

“Why?” Was the question I asked then, and I ask the same question today.

Reasons for homelessness are complex. Poverty, addictions, mental illness, threat of violence and poor physical health often contribute to a person’s inability to maintain housing. …Reasons given for seeking emergency shelter vary by sub-population:

The preceding excerpt is from a PDF found on the City of Madison webpage. The city displays data in its 2012 Annual Report on Homeless Served in Dane County from as early as 1997. General consensus as to why they are homeless from each sub-population is characteristically similar; “low or no income,” “violence or threat of violence,” and “conflicts with family or peers.”

Families make up the majority of the homeless population at forty-two percent. Homeless men come in at forty percent. The single women population is small but the gap in helpful services is greatly felt. I am certain that if I had children I would receive better help.

The woman on the corner has given up her charge. She sits on the bench with a homeless man. She is too old to have children. There is a smattering of women who are not at the childbearing age that sleep next to the Capitol. These women have mental illnesses and problems with addiction. The two women I have mentioned in this story seem to rely on the sexual weakness of homeless men. Their company changes from day to day, or month to month.

These men are crass and brag about their prowess. Their character is the same as the women I mentioned. It seems they are proud of their homeless state as well. Too busy placing blame on others, they languish around the Capitol expecting favor from the ignorant, but well meaning passerby.

The amount of people that need help and are actually receiving it makes for a very discouraging topic. The figure of single women who reported mental health issues at forty-three percent is very depressing to me. Fear clutches at my heart when I think of the women wandering the streets whose mental illnesses are more disparaging than mine.

Terror grips my soul when I even fathom to consider the twenty-three percent of single men who deal with mental illness on the streets. With the experiences I have had with addiction, the twenty-four percent of single men who have admitted to having drug and alcohol problems are enough to render me paralyzed in fear.

Living so closely amongst these people is the scariest thing I have ever had to do in my life. The packed gymnasium at the Salvation Army in the wintertime afforded a glimpse into the everyday struggle of the mentally ill single woman staying in a shelter. Having medication or a lack thereof propagates the mentally ill single woman’s agony at interacting with other women around them, and cleaning up after themselves.

How is she to feel about the mistreatment of the intolerant women around her? It seems it doesn’t matter where I stay in this homeless experience. Either in a shelter or on the street I am going to encounter people who are hurting badly from their situation.

I encountered a quote recently that says, “hurt people, hurt people.” I don’t know whom it’s from but I know it to be true. Although I feel sorry for the homeless population in Madison, it is becoming ever clear that there are people who have chosen this life, whether consciously or inadvertently.

She totters off with a pair of homeless men and I wonder to myself, “what if they choose to be homeless?” It’s not about race when one is homeless, although the people in our society would scream that it is. It’s not even about sexual orientation. It is of my opinion that labels placed on these people regardless of their race, class, or sex pinion the person to a station in life that they either chose to accept or fight with for the rest of their life. Like them, I have chosen to fight. It is my wish to make my fight more productive and positive than theirs, and more than I have been, to avoid the consequences of these behaviors that I see around me.


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    • Say Yes To Life profile image

      Yoleen Lucas 

      3 years ago from Big Island of Hawaii

      The San Francisco Bay Area is a hotbed for homelessness, because it is so expensive. I remember when I lived in Silicon Valley, there was a homeless man in our church. He had a college Associates degree, and did yard maintenance work, and even some electrical wiring, but he couldn't earn enough to pay rent. The minister set up a room for him to live in the church. He would watch TV there all day, then go sleep in the park at night! We never could figure him out...

    • ThompsonD profile imageAUTHOR

      Deirdre Adele Thompson 

      4 years ago from Danville, IL

      Thanks so much! I think I heard about that debate, because I still try to read Champaign's paper, yet I agree with your opinion. It would behove most homeless people to have a chance at getting the help they need so that they can change.This article unfortunately pertains to those who have received help and treatment but chose to live the same.

      I hope to have that book out real soon! I wish you the best as well with your health. :D

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      Apparently I'm not human, because I couldn't find any letters in the first captcha or whatever you call it... Anyway, I know exactly what guy you're talking about who supposedly chose to be homeless. There was a big debate about him in the paper a year or two ago, and I found people's opinions very interesting. Weird, but interesting. Apparently his family was rich, and he did more or less choose to be on the streets, but he made that choice only because he was severely mentally ill and not properly medicated. Someone in his family finally cared enough to get him off the streets and into treatment, with the goal of integrating him back into family life and a job and all the things he used to have. To me that sounded great, but to a lot of local people who were used to seeing him in that neighborhood, it was abuse. People kept writing letters to the editor saying that he was a free spirit, he was happy, he liked being homeless, it was wrong that they were forcing him to change. I tried to be open-minded, but I kept thinking that those people did NOT understand mental illness. If the guy gets back in his right mind and wants to go back to being homeless, that's his right, but he deserves to make that decision while properly medicated and in a safe place. I haven't heard any updates on him recently, but he hasn't returned to his usual haunts, so for now I'm going to assume he's happier and healthier. I think his family did the right thing.

      D, I'm thinking about you every day. Stay safe, and I look forward to reading your bestselling book about homelessness!


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