His sad, tired eyes stared into the distance. A shadow of shame cast over his face as he averted his gaze downwards and began speaking. “My family and I have been here in the shelter for the last few weeks…it’s been hard. Especially for the kids. They just don’t understand,” his voice caught and he paused, giving us an apologetic smile. “But we are so grateful for everything. As soon as we are back on our feet we are going to give back, to do whatever we can to make sure other families don’t have to go through this.”
I met this man, let’s call him John, and his family last December when I was at the family shelter with a coworker enrolling children in one of our Christmas events. Working in my current capacity I oftentimes have the opportunity to converse with homeless folks and on a daily basis I have my own underlying stereotypes and assumptions challenged by the very normalness, the likeness, the humanity that I encounter. People just like me. Please do not get me wrong, I also frequently encounter people suffering from severe mental illness and substance abuse, people who in every way embody every negative image you can conjure of the homeless. But they are not always the norm, especially when it comes to families.
John works full-time. At the University of Nevada. He does not abuse substances or engage in illegal activity. His family was forced to leave their home after his wife’s hours got cut and they were unable to make the rent. And now his family is homeless. And with this homelessness comes a plethora of trials and tribulations that someone who is stably housed would never have to face. His children are at higher risk to experience health problems, violence, and failure to thrive in their education. His family is also at higher risk of being separated, of losing the one thing that has allowed them to keep their sanity and their hope–each other.
So how do we keep a family like John’s out of the system? Away from the mental, physical, and emotional turmoil that run rampant in this kind of lifestyle? Away from the cyclical struggle that is homelessness, that makes it harder and harder to leave the shelter once you have walked through its doors?
The answer is diversion. Diversion literally means “the act of changing the direction of something.” Diversion is also the strengths based approach that prevents homelessness for people seeking shelter by helping them identify immediate alternate housing arrangements and, if necessary, connecting them with services and financial assistance to help them return to permanent housing. This could look like many different things: flexible funding that could subsidize a month’s rent while John’s wife searched for new employment, the identification, communication, and negotiation with friends or extended family to allow John’s family to reside with them until a stable alternative can be found, or a variety of other creative, client-centered troubleshooting options.
The one component that any of these options require, that diversion requires, is the knowledge and understanding of the client, of the person, of John. It is the recognition that as humans we all have strengths and weaknesses and that in order to succeed we need to turn to the things that we do well, the things that we have going for us, our wealth. Diversion recognizes the resiliency of families, of people. It comes to fruition when caseworkers and social service providers create a safe space, engage and listen to the client, and organically and creatively begin to problem solve together.
It is a change in mindset from our stereotypes, biases, and from the deeply ingrained judgements that we hold against the homeless. Our assumption that their circumstances are the result of their weaknesses, failures, and bad decisions. It is a restoration of dignity and power to those who have been stripped of everything they have.
So let’s, as regular people, engage in diversion. Before we fall into the vicious cycle of stereotyping, judging, and assuming, let’s change direction and change our perspective. Let’s engage with the homeless, listen to their stories, see their strengths and talents, and ultimately begin to work together.