Homelessness is a Policy Choice and We Can Choose Differently

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Much of my adult life has been spent homeless or incarcerated. Now I help homeless people and returning citizens.

I’ve lived on the streets, been in Hollywood films, owned my own footwear service, rubbed elbows with a Saudi Prince, and even sung for Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago — while in and out of homelessness. I’ve also been to federal prison and battled substance abuse.

In some ways, I’ve lived an unusual life. But with 140 million Americans poor or low-income, there’s nothing unusual about growing up in a broken home, enduring homelessness, or ending up in the criminal justice system.

We all make our own choices. But I’ve learned that our social and political systems often make choices for us, too. And those are the choices we can change together.

My dad left when I was two, and my stepfather was abusive. My mom tried her best to shelter me. But in reality, our “broken home” was a reflection of the politically and economically neglected community we lived in.

As a teen, I was never sure what I would find at home. So I joined band, theater, track, football, martial arts — anything I could do to avoid dangers and make myself strong.

I was supposed to go to the University of Miami for football, but I also suffered from what we now call ADHD. In those days kids like me were just called hyperactive, drugged, and punished. So my grades fell and I went to Miami Dade College instead.

Eventually, I fell in with the wrong crowd, lured by the money that came with a life of drug dealing in Miami. When I got caught, I realized how much I’d betrayed the values my mother raised me with.

I used my time in federal prison to become more educated and started counseling my former inmates, who called me “Preacher.” The guards broke the rules and allowed a dozen inmates at a time into my cell to be led in prayer and teachings.

Armed with my faith in God and my values — and the concrete help of the critical housing voucher program — I was able to move from a shelter to a home of my own after I was released.

I now work with the National Coalition for the Homeless, helping other homeless people and citizens returning from incarceration. I’m even a “lived experience expert” with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, helping streamline programs to help people find stable housing.

Many people I work with have stories like mine — or yours.

Some have lost jobs — or had jobs that didn’t pay enough. Some had a baby and couldn’t afford child care. Some suffered domestic abuse. Many had health problems, injuries, or debt.

These things can happen to anyone. So when you see us on the street, look at us like fellow human beings. If you can spare them, gift cards for food, medicine, or supplies can make a huge difference for homeless people individually.

But collectively, we can also make different political choices that will help everyone keep a roof over our heads.

Nowhere in America are rents affordable on the minimum wage, so we should raise it to a living wage and invest in affordable housing, rental assistance, housing vouchers, and stronger unemployment insurance. Better access to affordable child care, mental health care, and health insurance would also keep more people in their homes.

President Biden’s Build Back Better plan would have provided all of this, but conservatives in Congress shelved it. But with enough pressure, we may be able to get housing needs back into a reconciliation bill Congress is now considering.

If we recognize our common humanity and fight for the rights of everyone, we can create a fairer society for all of us.

Don Gardner is an advocate with the National Coalition for the Homeless and a member of the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, D.C.