Homelessness has meant different things to me over the 48 years of my lifetime. I never looked at myself as a person experiencing homelessness when I was a 10 year old running away from home because I was attracted to the gang lifestyle.
I never looked at myself as a person experiencing homelessness when I was a young gang member sleeping on friends’ couches and spending the night in garages and at times even in laundry rooms because I could turn on a dryer to keep me warm through the night.
I never looked at myself as a person experiencing homelessness when I dragged my entire family from hotel to hotel when my drug addiction controlled my life and I couldn’t build a stable foundation for us.
The truth is that I was most definitely a person experiencing homelessness during all of those times in my life. Sleeping on the floor of my mother’s living room after experiencing incarceration wasn’t that far removed from homelessness either.
Like many others in our community, I always had preconceived notions and stereotypes built into my thinking about what a person experiencing homelessness looked like. People sleeping on sidewalks and encampments alongside the river bed have often been what comes to mind when I think of homelessness.
As my definition of homelessness has expanded over the years, my ideas around solutions and my perspective on what it means to really end homelessness have also expanded. There are many root causes to homelessness, and most of these causes rest within structures and systems that were founded on racist and elitist principles.
Lack of access to education, lack of access to living-wage jobs, lack of access to mental health services and other health services, mass incarceration, and systemic racism, are some examples of the systemic barriers that create homelessness.
How do you end homelessness? You provide people with homes.
I believe in housing first. Housing should be attached to supportive services for our marginalized and underserved communities.This means providing folks with resources that are tailored to their needs: mental health services, workforce development services, physical wellness, substance abuse services, life skills classes and access to higher education, just to name a few. Permanent supportive housing is one of the best approaches at addressing homelessness, because it provides people a foundation that they can build on.
How can we expect someone to hold down employment if they are not able to call a space their own at the end of their day? How can we expect someone to maintain their sobriety if they don’t even know where they’re going to sleep at night? How can we expect people to have a successful re-entry after experiencing incarceration if they do not have the stability of permanent housing?
I experienced many of these situations. I have also had the privilege of working with many people who have experienced homelessness. Housing is a human right. Homelessness is a social justice issue. Until we’re able to see that, we will not effectively solve the problem of homelessness.
Jose Osuna is a formerly incarcerated North Long Beach resident who spent almost a decade working at Homeboy Industries before working with organizations that help individuals impacted by the justice system. He is a member of the Post’s Community Editorial Board.