Here’s Another Homelessness Lesson

Homelessness happens in many ways. Here’s a textbook lesson in how to not make it worse, and maybe really help.

Yes. This is a person who is homeless. But this isn’t the only manifestation. Photo by Diane Nilan

OK, here I go again. Today’s lesson on homelessness is aimed at well-intentioned do-gooders who can’t understand why people end up being homeless. I’m going to delve into specifics going on right now, but for those who want a little more general grist for the mill, here’s my list from my book, Crossing the Line: Taking Steps to end Homelessness.

Right now, on the edge of the little town of Milton, FL, a small trailer park is under siege. It doesn’t appear that heartless developers are clamoring after the land to build a casino. No, this appears to be the case of a nasty sewer leak, a financially strained property owner, financially (and otherwise) beleaguered renters (and a couple of mobile home owners) who are being forced out for reasons beyond their doing.

Hard-scrabble trailer parks are ubiquitious. Photo by Diane Nilan

With gallant efforts from some of the tenants, including a heartfelt plea from Melissa Nason (go to 1:25 on the video) at a recent county commissioners’ meeting, augmented by plenty of media coverage, the United Way of Santa Rosa County stepped forward to offer help.

“These people are in dire straights,” Thompson said. “We’re going to take care of these people. The ones who want to be taken care of, we want to assist.” (Pensacola News Journal, 7/19/18)

Yes, things are dire. The dozen households have been without water for 2 weeks. The health department shut it off, citing a health hazard from the leaking septic system. The park’s owner/operator, according to reports, had not been able to get the system fixed. She has since fallen ill and is now out of state in an assisted care facility according to reports.

Those left in the park were promised help.

2 trailers are owned and need to be moved to other lots. Neither owner has the financial wherewithal to do that — an estimated $5–7,000 each. The renters are cash-strapped, many with blemishes on their financial records — eviction, bankruptcies, etc. — and/or blemishes on their personal records — past criminal convictions, court cases, etc. — that make them less desirable as potential tenants. Some have too many kids (often defined as more than 2), or their family configurations defy typical renter guidelines. And the area suffers from the same malady afflicting almost every area of the country — rents too damn high and too few affordable places to rent.

The help.

It appears that the initial offer may have been premature.

Offering a lifepreserver to a drowning person, with certain expectations, like “swim over to this spot and I’ll hand it to you,” might be a tad unreasonable. “Go get a lease and we’ll maybe pay the first month’s rent and/or security deposit,” is unreasonable to beleaguered renters.

Financial reality. They need both first month’s rent and security deposit. And help with utilities. They’re struggling to survive day-by-day, with extra expenses like driving to find drinking water, driving to take showers, driving to look at apartments; application fees to be considered to rent a place; disposable plates and utensils because they can’t wash dishes; prepared foods because cooking is difficult when you don’t have water, and so on.

Back-to-school time adds to the financial (and other) stress. Kids need supplies, clothing, haircuts, etc. If they’re moving, they need to work things out with the schools. (If they double up with others or stay in a motel, campground, vehicle, etc., the kids are entitled to stay in their previous school or get into the school near where they’re staying. MORE INFO)

The clock has run out on these families. Photo by Diane Nilan

Timing. When the families learned of the offer of help — which, according to the news stories, sounded pretty wholehearted — I’d be sure they packed up their stuff and were ready for rescue. Two weeks later, I’d guess they’re sinking into the depressed reality that they’re screwed. And with each passing day they pretty well are. Things don’t get better in these situations as you wait for help that might not be coming.

Talk is, well, cheap.

They can’t say this, but I can. And I’m not trying to be mean or judgmental. If you’re offering help to people in desperate need, you better follow through. Here’s a few suggestions that still might help:

  • Have a plan, or at least get one before you talk to the press. When people hear what you’re going to do, they expect you to do it, especially those needing the help. They don’t need disappointment on top of their trauma. (Too late for this now, so Plan B needs to be a public plea for donations on behalf of these families and a concerted effort to get the donations to work ASAP.)
  • Be organized. Those needing your help are in chaos-inducing crisis. They need a benevolent dictator to come in and move things forward, ideally with those you’re helping. But remember, they’re in crisis. A bigger one than most of us can imagine. They might be dysfunctional, immobilized, or beyond depressed.
  • Be realistic. People are not necessarily helpless, but they’re in a deep hole. If it’s a 20' hole, don’t offer them a 10' ladder (e.g. a rent payment when the deposit and utilities are also a need). Have that benevolent dictator (aka “navigator” in social work parlance) work with the decision-makers of each household to see what obstacles and strengths they have. Then help them use what they have to move forward.
  • Be impatient. These moves needed to happen 2 weeks ago. If something is holding up progress, figure out how to remove the obstacle. Think of this as happening to your family.
  • Be a cheerleader. These families need to know they’re not the scourge of the earth or failures because this is happening. The community needs to know this, too. Until this crisis broke open, they were all managing, albeit some on very thin ice. They want to get their lives back. They need encouragement to go along with the financial help.
She lost her fight against homelessness. Photo by Diane Nilan

When you see a person on the streets that appears to be homeless, know they didn’t get their overnight. They’ve been beat down by a constant barrage of disappointment, hardships, obstacles, and judgements in addition to poverty, income problems, family crises, health issues, and more. Often their mental health difficulties emanate from the culmination of a lot of hard times. Not saying those in this trailer park will end up wandering the streets, but why push it by letting their situation fester?

Knowing of good people in the Milton community, I’m hopeful that this rescue can happen (relatively) quickly. It will take work and money. But all will be better for (eventually) doing this rescue the right way.



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Diane Nilan

Diane Nilan


Founder/pres. HEAR US Inc., gives voice & visibility to homeless families & youth, ran shelters, advocate, filmmaker, author, 17 yrs. on US backroads.