Posted: April 15, 2008 in Acceptance, Children, Homelessness, Housing, Mental Health, Self Esteem

We human beings are remarkable creatures. We have, for the most part, the ability to adapt to our circumstances and surroundings. Just as often we try adapting our surroundings to suit us. Considering how much damage we’ve done to the Earth trying to get it to fit our notions of what it should be, we still have quite a bit to learn about adaptation.

Actually, when you think about it, just the very fact that we are able to adapt is the prime reason that we still exist as a species. The laws of nature are such that any living organism that cannot adapt to its surroundings just becomes extinct. Of course there are quite a number of species that have become extinct because of our attempts to re-shape the Earth in our own image.  

While the ability to adapt is a good thing, there are times when a person may "over adapt" to a situation and then be unable to readapt to "normal" circumstances. This is true, especially when the circumstance that the person is adapting to is one which becomes prolonged. At that point, the person can become permanently acclimated to the situation – a sort of "point of no return."

During the time that I called the streets of San Luis Obispo home, I met a lot of other people who were also homeless. Some had become homeless recently. Some had been homeless for several months. Others had been homeless for years.

One gentleman I met had been homeless for nearly 14 years.

When he first became homeless he had had dreams of once again having a place of his own in which to live. As the days turned into weeks and he began to learn the basics of homelessness – where to find meals; where the shelter was at; how to apply for food stamps and so on.

As the weeks turned into months there were other adaptations he underwent. And, as the months became years, he had adapted to homelessness in such a way that he had become permanently accustomed to being homeless. He no longer looked beyond just trying to get a meal or a bed. He had simply ceased to think about ever trying to become a "housed" member of the community.

Another gentleman I met had also been homeless for over a decade.

When he had become homeless, he figured that it would only be a matter of weeks – or at the most a few months – and he’d be able to get off of the streets. In the meanwhile, it didn’t bother him to sleep in his vehicle. He came and went as he pleased. Went from city to city; moved from shelter to shelter.

In due time, he had the financial wherewithal to get housing and had even been approved for subsidized low income housing. But it was too late. He had been homeless for so long that he couldn’t motivate himself enough to go out and look for an apartment. By the time he began to think about looking for a place to live, his Section 8 voucher had expired. Although he could have applied for an extension, in his mind it was just "too much work" to contact the local Housing Authority office and ask for the extension.

Other homeless that I’d met had developed substance abuse problems they didn’t have prior to becoming homeless. In their attempts to adapt to the stresses of homeless, they had turned to alcohol and/or drugs to help them "take the edge off." They hadn’t intended to become addicted it just turned out that way.

There were even a few of the homeless I’d met who had been homeless for so long that they developed mental health issues. It was their mind’s way of adapting to homelessness.

I wonder how many of today’s homeless would be "chronic homeless" if there had been adequate programs to help them right from the get go? How many of those homeless who have addictions might not have additions if homeless support services had been provided with the funding necessary to provide more than just a meal and a bed?

With more and more families becoming homeless, there are more and more children who are being exposed and forced to endure the psychological trauma of homelessness.

Although children have a natural resiliency, I wonder what the long term effects of that trauma will be upon them once they become adults.

As adults, will they be able to adapt to the memories that they will surely carry with them throughout their lives? Or will those psychological scars prevent them from being able to function in society?

Many times we become products of our environment. Unfortunately we can also become "contaminated" by our surroundings.

Adaptability may be a good thing, particularly when it provides a way for us to improve ourselves. But it can be an albatross – especially when adapting isn’t ultimately in our best interest.


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