Homelessness is not a Choice

Photo of Erica Dixon, Ability1st Street Outreach Specialist

Have you noticed the growing news coverage of the homeless population in the Tallahassee area? Make no mistake, homelessness never left, perhaps it was easier to look the other way when there were not as many people visibly unsheltered on our streets. People were suffering before the stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic hit and brought with it job losses and mental health challenges.

As Street Outreach Coordinator for Ability1st, my colleagues and I work with people who must sleep in shelters, in camps and on the streets. I can confidently state, homelessness is not a choice. Nobody chooses to sleep at a bus stop or in the woods, and nobody wants to go without a shower.  

In my professional experience, there is a lot of trauma out there. When a person suffers trauma and it goes untreated, it can manifest itself as mental illness, addiction, or even have physical manifestations of that pain. A large percentage of our unsheltered population are living with a disability. And once you are living on the street, maintaining adequate healthcare becomes an almost unsurmountable challenge.

Our goal at Ability1st, and the objective given to us by the City of Tallahassee, is to find sustainable housing solutions for those we work with. It is not an easy task due to a many factors including, but not limited to: Social Security Disability Income does not cover living expenses; many people who lived on street no longer have birth certificates or social security cards; being homeless often leads to arrest and many landlords will not accept a tenant with a criminal record; and apartment applications often come with an unaffordable $25 application fee. I worked with a young man last week who was turned down for an apartment because he has no credit history. That was especially heart breaking. How does establish credit history with no shelter?

The pandemic brought additional challenges. Lobbies and fast-food restaurants are no longer allowing folks to stay warm during cold days or to use the phone.  Without access to a telephone, it is very difficult to stay in touch with social service and medical providers or keep appointments.

Ability1st is working with some amazing agencies including HOPE, which targets families and SSVF through the Big Bend Homeless Coalition who works with veterans. But for individuals who do not fit into those two categories who are experiencing homelessness in Tallahassee, there are just two of us Street Outreach Specialists at Ability1st. We are overwhelmed yet undaunted.

If I could change just one thing, it would be the perception of homeless people. Everyone deserves dignity and nobody deserves to die in the street.

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Ability1st, the Center for Independent Living of North Florida, is a community-based nonprofit organization that provides services to persons with varying disabilities. Ability1st serves Leon, Jefferson, Madison, Taylor, Gadsden, and Wakulla counties.