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New York Times
11 Feb 2023

NextImg:What Don’t You Know About Homelessness?

When you live in a house, some essentials typically come with it: a bed to sleep in, a place to store your belongings, access to a bathroom, an address that can receive mail, a door that locks.

Yet more and more Americans are losing these things. After years of steady declines, homelessness is once again increasing in the United States. More people are having to live either in shelters or outside, expelled from housing by any of countless forces.

Last June, Headway published several articles about Houston’s success at reducing homelessness over the past decade. The articles prompted thousands of people, including hundreds who reported experiencing homelessness themselves, to write to us. They shared many stories and observations that we, in turn, wanted to share with you. So, over the past few months, two of our reporters, Susan Shain and Aidan Gardiner, conducted dozens of in-depth interviews with people who are experiencing, or have experienced, homelessness in the United States.

Immersing myself in these conversations left me with the sense that every city has a layer that’s visible only to its residents without housing. A similar feeling led Stephanie Fleischmann and Jeremy Howard Beck to title their opera about homelessness in Houston “Another City.” “Any city grappling with homelessness is actually two cities coexisting, like parallel universes, one laid atop the other,” they write in their creators’ statement. “It is the rare person who has the tools and resourcefulness to straddle the divide.” Even as homelessness becomes more common, most of it remains hidden by design. People experiencing homelessness often try to disguise their situation, while their housed neighbors often harangue city leaders to keep homelessness out of view. So what comes to define homelessness in the popular imagination are its most visible aspects, while the illuminating, lonely and often mystifying particulars of each person’s experience are hard to see.

For Matthew Kearney, the experience of homelessness unfolded in stages. In 2006, he lost his trucking job. For the next ten years, he worked odd jobs and lived in his van.


Abdul Kircher for The New York Times

“The biggest thing about living in a van is what we call ‘the knock.’ That’s when you’re sound asleep, and you hear something knocking on your window. You look up and there’s three or four police cars, lights on, and the cop is telling you, ...‘You gotta move.’”

“If the neighbors see the same van day after day, they’re going to call. So I had like five or six different sites and I would rotate among them.”

“I would often park within blocks of the beach here in San Diego. So my neighbors lived in $2 or $3 million homes and I’m on a curb in a van and I had a better view.”

“You want invisibility. You don’t want to be noticed.”

Whatever invisibility Mr. Kearney’s van life afforded him ended in the late 2010s, after he lost his mother and stepfather, sold his van and hit rock bottom. The fragile veneer of shelter and security that the van had provided him disappeared. Hellish, sleepless nights and days of being isolated yet having to live in public spaces eventually landed him in an E.R.

In the hospital, Mr. Kearney got psychiatric treatment. Antidepressants, he said, helped him achieve for the first time a sense of normalcy, of having something to contribute to society. Then one day at the local library, he heard a performance by a choir known as the Voices of Our City.


Abdul Kircher for The New York Times

“Voices is a group of homeless people. They were experiencing the same hardships and roadblocks that I was experiencing. And I was made to feel quite welcome.”

“The best way I can describe it is it’s like an instant family.”

“I remember strangers helping me with eye contact and a smile and saying, ‘Hey, it’s gonna get better, you can survive this.’ ...That was probably as important as getting food: just human contact.”

“When you know there’s kindness in the world, it helps.”

Mr. Kearney’s story is one of 30 that we’ve distilled from hours of interviews and that you can navigate in our online interactive. We strove to pull together a range of conversations that could begin to reflect the variety of experiences of homelessness in the United States — from people who first experienced homelessness as young children to people who lost their housing at an older age. Many of the people we talked with touched on similar themes. We compiled some of these responses under 12 frequently answered questions. They suggest how different these experiences are from one another, and how impossible it is to generalize about them.

The way that the United States estimates rates of homelessness — with groups of volunteers counting people who are unsheltered and in shelters on a few nights every January — ensures that official numbers reflect only the most extreme and visible aspects of the problem. The count of 582,462 people in the most recent report to Congress leaves out, for example, the person finding sanctuary for a few nights on a cousin’s couch. We know that more than a million people experience some form of homelessness every year. Many of them — 28 percent of those counted in 2022 — are part of families with at least one child under 18. While about a third are chronically homeless, having lived for more than 12 months with a disability and without housing, most manage to get back into housing within a few months. But as you’ll see in their stories, their experiences of homelessness and housing insecurity often continue to affect their lives years after their housing has stabilized.

After you explore the questions we asked and the stories we heard in response, we’d like you to share some of your own questions. Some of the details in these stories are wrenching and revealing, and some are befuddling. What are you most curious about? What do you struggle to understand?

There is plenty of ugliness in these stories. What beauty there is comes in glimpses of a shared world — bonding with strangers over dinner and anime, leading a Girl Scout troop, having a laugh at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, passing around a vodka jug with fellow veterans, finding the social worker who’s been around the block or enjoying an ocean sunset — moments when, even in the depths of isolation and deprivation, something essential is held in common.

Illustrations by Lauren Tamaki

The Headway initiative is funded through grants from the Ford Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF), with Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors serving as a fiscal sponsor. The Woodcock Foundation is a funder of Headway’s public square. Funders have no control over the selection, focus of stories or the editing process and do not review stories before publication. The Times retains full editorial control of the Headway initiative.

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