By Jim Bell, CEO, Siloam Mission

** This column first appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press **

There are many assumptions about men and women facing homelessness. Perhaps the most common one is that they are too lazy to work.

But what if I told you being homeless is actually a lot of work?

Let me explain.

There are many factors why someone ends up homeless. Every story is unique. But for many, the main cause is usually a combination of trauma, mental illness, disability and addiction.

That’s where the hard work begins.

It can take a lifetime for someone to work through complex trauma. Profound neglect, abuse, sexual assault and mistreatment can damage a person’s ability to function.

Learning to cope with it all takes immense commitment, resolve and often years of therapy.

Mental illness can be just as devastating — if not more. The most common types we see at Siloam Mission are depression, bipolar disorders and schizophrenia.

Neuroleptic medications, often prescribed for schizophrenic illnesses, can make people drowsy.

It’s hard work to go about your day when you’re constantly feeling lethargic.

If you’ve ever known what it’s like to feel that way, or know someone in your life who struggles with their mental health, you’ll know how crippling it can be. It’s a daunting task to get up every morning and face your inner battles.

And for those with a physical or cognitive disability, even the most menial of tasks can often take more effort than most of us realize.

Living on the streets takes a toll. People experiencing homelessness are often out and about for long periods of time, sometimes in ill-fitting shoes and worn-out socks. Foot disorders and back pain are common.

Chronic diseases and disorders, like hypertension and diabetes, are also common.

Most of us take a sick day when we’re not feeling well enough to go to work. But you can’t take a day off from being homeless.

And it doesn’t stop there.

To get the help they need, people experiencing homelessness, mental illness, physical and cognitive disabilities, and addictions have to navigate a complex system of government and social service agencies.

This is further complicated by the fact that many people who come to our doors don’t have proper ID. We spend a lot of time helping people regain their paperwork.

People need proper ID in order to access the services they need.

It is not uncommon for someone to have to deal with upwards of 10 different offices to access help. Multiple services are sometimes required; such as welfare to disability to rent assist to healthcare to mental health services, and others.

It’s no wonder so many people who end up at our door are exhausted after trying to navigate these systems.

You can see how exiting homelessness can be close to a full-time job, just to figure it all out.

Add to the complexity that the experience of homelessness itself already wears on a person’s physical and mental health.

So here’s the truth: overwhelmingly, people who experience homelessness are not lazy.

What looks like a lack of motivation is often burnout from feeling like they will never find the help they need.

What looks like apathy is often someone who is stuck in their trauma. Who doesn’t know what the next step forward is. Who feels like they have tried and failed, and is afraid to fail again.

What looks like a simple solution to most of us is often a far more arduous task than any of us realize.

And what looks like a network of resources designed to help the most vulnerable is sometimes a complicated web, which — albeit with the best of intentions — often keeps those who need help from actually getting it.

Being homeless is hard work.