Unhoused Neighbor Spotlight: Bill

Last summer TRP sat down for a Q&A with one of our unhoused neighbors: Bill. We hope his story helps build your awareness of the many circumstances that can lead to homelessness.

TRP -- Unhoused Neighbor Spotlight: Bill
*Not really Bill. We’ve used a photo from Pexels to protect Bill’s identity.

TRP: I’d love to hear your story Bill. Where are you from originally?

Bill: I’m from Nebraska and my birth family are from Michigan.

TRP: How did you end up in California?

Bill: After college, a friend and I got jobs at Chevron in 1991. The company moved us out here to California — the Bay Area. But, I ended up in apartment management…The Bay Area is so expensive it was nice to have the perk of a free apartment for years.

TRP: Where did you go to school? 

Bill: I have a degree in Communication with an emphasis in broadcasting and a minor in music, from Colorado State University. I also attended a Lutheran College for a while in Nebraska. 

TRP: Tell me more about your work.

Bill: I ended up managing large apartment complexes — 400 units and over. But I was not happy with my job and I wound up moving to San Jose with a new company. They then transferred me to Portland, Seattle, Phoenix…I even lived in Orange County for a while too. All that traveling went on for about 7 years. I remember doing some work with the Chamber of Commerce in San Francisco and seeing the homeless problem back then. And San Franciso is really harsh on discriminating against anyone. I learned that if you shake one person’s hand, you shake everyone’s hand. And you don’t ask questions…you don’t ask, “Are you gay are you straight?” I was able to find apartments for a few people who were homeless.

TRP: You eventually made your way to the Long Beach area. Tell me about what happened there.

Bill: My job was getting to be too much in 2008. Lots of layoffs and I was on call 24-7 (for minor things like a mouse being there) and the environment changed. It was very competitive and cutthroat. A woman I was working with even went to a mental health hospital for a week [due to the stress]. It’s the side of corporate America that is difficult and can throw someone into a whirl. Meetings started at 6:30 a.m. and I was on call all the time, dealing with 9 million dollar budgets until midnight. 

TRP: Were you getting paid well?

Bill: I was getting paid really well. A bonus for me was $20,000 for the year. It was a 6 figure income. I was living really well. I had a great apartment for 11 years. I had a home office that I could write off. I got paid mileage. But I had to drive all the way to San Diego for emergencies. I managed all of Orange County and managed the entire Bay Area. 

TRP: Tell me more about your time in Long Beach.

Bill: I lived in an apartment somewhat close to the riverbed and ended up going to the bars with friends. It became a hangout where I met people who were living on the riverbed. Got to know some of the people really well. A friend and I even spent all of Christmas together. And, like in any circle, once you know one person, you know more and more of their friends. 

I went from managing 400,000 [units] to sleeping in my car. It didn’t happen overnight though. 

TRP: So the people that you met during this time…were they all people living on the riverbed or experiencing homelessness?

Bill: I didn’t understand what homelessness really was. Because it doesn’t come with a face like, ‘these are a certain type of people,’ some of my friends had physical problems, some had mental illness or drug problems, and with some — the drugs had gotten the best of them and they had given up on life. One gal that I knew was able to start receiving social security because she was 63 and still wanted to live on the riverbed and not even get paid. The concept changes. 

TRP: You’ve mentioned a nursing home before. How did you end up there?

Bill: I had eight broken ribs, four vertebrae fractured and that was from a friend beating me up during a drug rage. Shortly after, I had fallen and was hit by a car. And I broke my shoulder and fractured my hip. Then a girl who knew I wasn’t in love with her knocked my teeth out. 

TRP: You’re still living in a nice apartment at this point? 

Bill: Yes, a very nice one. Each person who caused this [becoming homeless] for me was either on drugs or abusing alcohol. And I was drinking too. Drugs weren’t what I was doing. But I knew that was the issue. But I still cared for the people. Even the one who put me in a nursing facility, I forgave him because it was out of character because of the drugs and the alcohol. Drugs can bring people out of character. 

But I had to leave the skilled nursing facility a month early because five people moved into my apartment when I was gone for three months. 

How did that happen?

A friend copied my key while she pretended to take care of me. Then she moved in. I couldn’t get her out, under the threat of being beaten up. So there’s a whole other realm of this life; people who say they have friends of friends who will beat you up.

So you have five people living in your apartment while you’re in a nursing facility?

Bill: Yeah. And I’m physically disabled for the rest of my life…

After that, I had been evicted because the landlord didn’t like these people coming and going. I was gone, but paying the rent. I wound up losing three apartments over their behavior. The third was because I was waiting for Covid relief. I owed from March until October. I had another apartment right before Covid and while I was waiting for Covid relief to come through, I was evicted again because I couldn’t pay rent. I even said [to the landlord] “Hey, if I pay you 25%  when I get my relief, will you still evict me?” And they said they would. My dad was helping me with rent at that time because of my injuries. I told my dad to stop paying. I decided I wanted out of the place. The fear got me. 

TRP: What happened then?

Bill: If you looked at me you wouldn’t think that I was homeless but I was living in a van, and then my car. I never had to live on the streets, fortunately…I was grateful to find the Multi-Service Center they gave me a list of shelters…Eventually I called a local shelter and got checked in on March 28th 2022.

TRP: Has your experience made you less trusting? 

Bill: Yes, it has. I also learned about the people who stuck by me, who are my true friends and there are only two or three people left that I was close with. The truth came out. 

TRP: What are the things you want for your life now?

Bill: Not knowing is some fun. I want to keep my head and not panic. Live the way I want to live. I came from a family that worked really hard for what they got and their efforts have shown and they have beautiful homes, some are happy and some are not. Money doesn’t make you happy. But it does make me happy to do what I want to do. I just want to be happy and stay in touch with family and friends…and not ever get caught up. 

People I say I allowed it, but I was taken advantage of. I didn’t believe people would steal from their friends. I trusted people. 

TRP: There’s a lot of talk about affordable housing. Is that something that you want or hope for? 

Bill: Well, I’ve been approved for Section 8 so I know how it goes. And I’m very grateful because I was approved quickly because of my medical conditions. But I had also applied for social security and disability so no matter what the first year on section 8 is still 40% of your income. Your income – not the apartment – so they’ll pay whatever the difference is… Almost normal rent is what I have to pay with section 8 — that’s not good enough. I’m thinking of leaving California. 

TRP: How much would you maybe have to pay? 

Bill: $1141 a month, even with Section 8. But I’m not discounting what it does for other people. If you only have an SSI income of $400 per month they’re going to pay 40% of $400 but mine is higher so it’s going to be 40% of that. And I can’t get a roommate unless I’m married. Or I had children and I don’t have either of those. It’s a good program but it’s not easy. 

I can get a 2-bedroom for the same price if I had nursing care, but they’d have to live with me 24/7. 

TRP: How much do you get per month from social security? 

Bill: $2700 a month and a deduction of $170 for medicare and a minimal fee for something else. With Section 8, $1141 would come out of that. 

TRP: So you could have a place but there are a lot of stipulations around it? So you’re just figuring out what you want to do?

Bill: The pay from SSI and disability will go further in Nebraska. And I have three cats…right now they’re in my old place and the neighbors are spoiling them. An organization called Pets for the Homeless is paying for my flea medication and things like that. 

Some people won’t want to change. You have to be in for curfew, and most of the homeless’s lifestyle is nightlife. And by the riverbed at night it’s really pretty and stuff. They’d have to give it up. 

TRP: You know that our mission is to open a day center hopefully. What would be most helpful to have during the day?

Bill: Toilets and showers. The basics; laundry — even paid laundry. The basics so we can have clean clothes. Water, and something when you’re really out there on the streets. I walk around with something to moisten my throat during the day. You’re always wandering around waiting for a bus. Backpacks. Lockers for people where they can lock things up so they don’t get their stuff stolen. 

TRP: What’s your hope, Bill? 

Bill: You’re a part of the solution, and I am too because I work at a mission [shelter]. When the work is done, I’m still walking the streets. I do my work by being kind to people. I don’t have any enemies right now. I always try to practice what my grandpa taught me…do unto others what you would have done to yourself. 

TRP: If you could communicate one thing to someone who doesn’t understand how people end up homeless, what would that be?

Bill: The old cliche – walk a mile in my shoes…if you have them. 

TRP: Anything else you want people to know? 

Bill: Learn as much as you can from the people you’re helping…Just listen to what they need and know that some people are really angry, so smile at them in the morning. Just say hello and smile. Compassion, understanding other people — just do your best to be kind and never take for granted the fact that you have a job and they don’t. Don’t get a better-than-thou attitude and know that maybe anyone can get in this situation and be hopeful that they can get out of it.

To be a part of the work we’re doing, consider volunteering for our next Serve Day or Donate to help provide needed items or our building fund.

Half-Truths, Cop-Outs, and How We’re Quick to Judge Our Homeless Brothers and Sisters

Part II

by Brandy Wallner

person holding a cardboard poster
Photo by MART PRODUCTION on Pexels.com

Our first installment of Half-Truths, Cop-Outs, and Being Quick to Judge our Homeless Brothers and Sisters considered the significance of mental health on the issue of homelessness, as well as a more compassionate response to addiction. This final installment will discuss misconceptions like “laziness,” the idea that the unhoused just don’t want help, and laws that criminalize those without an address.

You wouldn’t be homeless if you worked a little harder

We’ve all heard someone ask different versions of the same question (or perhaps we’ve been the ones to ask it): “They look young and healthy – why doesn’t he or she just get a job? Why don’t they want to work?”

Sometimes the motive behind the question is legitimate. It does seem as if someone who looks strong and healthy should be able to get a job and get off the street — support themselves financially. But what often underlies the question is a belief that some people on the street “just don’t want to work” or are lazy.

While none of us know for sure what’s going on in someone else’s heart and mind, it’s wise to educate ourselves on the barriers that stand in the way of employment for the unhoused. Here are just a few of the factors that should be considered:

  • A criminal record
  • Lack of home address
  • Lack of identification (i.e. driver’s license, social security card)
  • Lack of reliable and affordable transportation

Each of these factors requires unpacking (which TRP will do in a future article) but when it comes to an unhoused individual securing employment, these are sobering realities. Even in the state of California, where a “Ban the Box” law has been in place since 2018 (the law prohibiting employers from discriminating based on criminal history), it remains a serious challenge for those looking for a second chance.

Then there’s the issue of identification. Housed individuals have places to store important documents that they need when applying for a job, college, a loan, or any other official application process. Still, we lose things all the time. Imagine not having a safe place to keep anything you’ll need for the future. And of course, the risk of being robbed of these things even if you did.

Again, each of the factors listed above requires a deeper dive. However, our aim here is to provide you with a cursory understanding of the things that may inhibit employment.

It’s often (almost always) not as simple as someone without a home, “just getting a job.”

Where our prejudice toward the unhoused can lead

Failing to understand all of the factors that make it hard for people whose lives are unlike are own, leads us to distance ourselves and enact laws that make things even more difficult for them. Often this is out of ignorance, but sometimes it’s out of privilege.

Either way, taking a hard look at our country’s laws gives us a better understanding of where the heart of our nation really is when it comes to serving “the least of these.”

According to the National Homelessness Law Center, since 2006, there have been “increases in the criminalization of homelessness in every measured category of prohibited conduct (emphasis is ours).”

What are those areas of prohibited conduct?

  • “Camping” in public
  • Sleeping in public
  • Sitting or lying down in public squares
  • Anti-panhandling
  • Pedestrians standing in roadways

In states like New Hampshire, it’s prohibited to seep in public. And in Tenessee, a state Pew Research called the 3rd most religious state in a 2017, it’s actually a felony to “erect or maintain a tent or furniture, store personal belongings, cook, or sleep on state property.”

Part I and II of this article were written with the goal of exposing our readers to the realities beneath the growing issue of unhoused individuals. The Restoration Project is on a mission to help those experiencing homelessness regain their identity, discover their purpose, and live empowered within their communities.

We hope you’ll join us in that!

Interested in serving with us? Contact us HERE and find out about our next Distribution Day.

P.S. For monthly updates from The Restoration Project, sign up for our newsletter, Restored. Just head to the bottom of the page and type in your contact info.

Half-Truths, Cop-Outs, and How We’re Quick to Judge Our Homeless Brothers and Sisters

Part I

by Brandy Wallner

When something is true some of the time that doesn’t make it true all of the time. And when we believe a negative trait to be true of all of a “type” of people what we really do is stereotype. We adopt a prejudice that discounts what we could be doing to help.

In this two-part blog series, The Restoration Project will discuss the half-truths, cop-outs, and judgments made about the unhoused community.

Mental illness is the main cause of homelessness

Let’s start with a biggee. This is a common belief about the unhoused. The reality is that the question of whether mental illness plays as big of a role as we think it does when it comes to homelessness here in California — is complex.

According to The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), “326,000 people experienced homelessness in the United States on a single night in 2021.” And a staggering 46% of those people are on the streets right here in California. Read that again — out of the entire nation’s homeless population, 46% are here in California. That’s, “about one-fifth of the entire homeless population in the United States (endhomelessness.org).

With such a large population of unhoused people living right here in California it begs the question, is it also true that California has the highest incidence of mental illness?

World Population Review Mental Health Statistics by State 2022 revealed that California didn’t even break the top 10 when it comes to states with the highest incidence of serious mental illness. States like Virginia, Texas, and Alaska were in the top three with California falling nearly two full percentage points below them.

So what gives?

While mental illness is indeed a factor in our brothers and sisters finding themselves on the streets it’s by no means the only factor or even the most significant when it comes to the homeless community in California. In fact, US World and News Report said in a 2021 article, that “severe mental illness made up for 25%” of our unhoused population.

That 25% is significant. That 25% deserves to be served in every possible way they can be. But that also means that 75% of the unhoused community is either undiagnosed or not struggling with a mental illness.

Could it be that having a mental illness leads the man or woman struggling with homelessness to “stand out”? Advocate and film director, Gio Ferraro calls these men and women “highlighters,” pointing to their tendency to stand out amongst everyone else living in the same tough situation.

It’s possible that our pointing to mental illness as the biggest factor leading to homelessness, makes the problem of homelessness, someone else’s problem — not ours.

They’re just going to use the money I give them to buy alcohol

Perhaps you’ve given a few dollars to someone struggling and watched as they walked into the nearest liquor store. Or maybe you’ve offered to buy someone on the street a meal in order to specifically avoid that situation.

It’s true that 38% of people struggling with homelessness are alcohol dependent and 26% are dependent on other drugs (addictioncenter.com). However, using this as a reason not to help someone financially can be yet another cop-out. 

We all have coping mechanisms. For some of us it’s food, for some it’s TV, and for some, it’s popping open a beer or pouring a glass of wine at the end of a long day. 

Imagine, if you will, how intensely stressful living on the streets would be. Without any of the creature comforts that we enjoy in our homes: no cozy sheets, no security, no heat, not knowing when (or how) your next meal is coming. No TV in which to zone out in front of. No job to feel purposeful during the day and not a lot of hope for one on the following day either. 

Generally speaking, our lives are far less stressful, yet each of us has ways that we cope with our day-to-day challenges. Because, relatively speaking, our lives are hard. But when we see a homeless person do the same — we judge them. We believe they should make better use of the money, buy themselves a meal, or better yet save the money. Ultimately our prejudgement (also known as prejudice) can cause us to withhold financial help altogether. 

Another factor to consider is that addiction is not always what led to someone being homeless. Sometimes the opposite is true. Often, homelessness leads to addiction. Again, a coping mechanism for trauma and extremely difficult living situations. 

In the following installments of this series, we’ll discuss misconceptions like laziness, criminalization, and “not wanting help.” 

Have some thoughts you’d like to share with The Restoration Project community? We’d love to hear them! Share in the comments.

P.S. For monthly updates from The Restoration Project, sign up for our newsletter, Restored. And to find out how you can volunteer with us, contact us HERE.

P.P.S. Join us on April 8th, for a showing of our friend Gio’s movie – Lennon. This movie does an amazing job of illuminating the point of view of someone dealing with homelessness. There will be dinner and a Q&A to follow

4 Simple Ways to Show Compassion for Your Homeless Neighbor

by Brandy Wallner

When faced with someone on the street who needs help we can be tempted to roll up our car window, look straight ahead and avoid eye contact. Our disengagement can appear heartless, but just as often they’re symptoms of insecurity. We may not be sure how to help. This is especially true as the extra change or $5 bill that used to sit in our console is replaced by digital currency.

Read on, as The Restoration Project shares several ways to show compassion even when our wallets are empty.

  1. Say hi.

A global pandemic has made the consequences of prolonged isolation very real. Multiple studies have shown that even just a few days of quarantine have left people with “confusion, fear, anger, grief, numbness, and anxiety-induced insomnia,” (Brooks et al., 2020). Comparing our relatively brief experience with quarantine to the reality that many homeless individuals have spent decades dealing with the symptoms of isolation, makes it easy to imagine the depth of invisibility that one might feel. A simple greeting can make someone feel human and worthy of being noticed.

2. Keep a hygiene kit in your car.

A commonly requested item from those living in shelters or tent communities is socks. They get dirty, wet, and ripped quickly when living on the streets and become uncomfortable or absolutely unbearable. Whether you live in a warm climate like Southern California or New York City, the nights get cold and even those of us who go to sleep each night in a comfortable bed, report being unable to sleep when our feet are cold. Keeping a small bag filled with necessities like socks, a bottle of water, wet wipes, toothpaste, and a toothbrush in your car can be a huge blessing.

3. Clean out your closet regularly.

On your next donation run to Goodwill, consider saving a few items for the trunk of your car. Sweaters, jackets, coats, and blankets help keep people warm. The next time you come across someone on the street, ask if they might be able to use one of the items. They may not take you up on the offer, but they’ll be extremely grateful that you asked. But please keep in mind that the homeless have already been stripped of many dignities, so don’t give them items that are ripped or stained. We wouldn’t wear those and we shouldn’t expect them to.

4. Ask if you can buy someone a meal.

My husband and I were recently challenged by a friend who works with the homeless community. In a conversation about offering food, she criticized the idea of offering leftovers to a person experiencing homelessness. She wondered why anyone would expect another person (a stranger) to eat something that their germs were all over. Her words should have been a no-brainer to me, but unfortunately, they weren’t. I’ve definitely offered my leftovers to a human being who didn’t know me from anyone! My challenge for all of us is not to do that. When you’re on your way to a restaurant and you run into someone who looks like they could benefit from a hot meal, ask if you might order them something of their own.

These four simple ways to show compassion don’t involve having cash at the ready. But they do involve noticing a fellow human and moving towards them — not away from them. We hope you’ll serve your neighbor in these ways and more.

Have some ways that you’ve shown compassion that aren’t discussed here? We’d love to hear about them! Share them in the comments.