On the Fringes

Nathan Box
7 min readJun 10, 2022

As we debate approaches to solving the complex challenges of homelessness in American cities, what is often missing from the conversation is empathy. As the middle class continues to shrink, many of us are a single financial disaster from housing instability. This calamity can come as job loss, foreclosure, repossession, medical emergencies, or a thousand other ways a financial system such as ours can bleed you dry. Couple this reality with our poor approaches to mental health and substance use treatment, and you discover anyone of us could become homeless.

Walking out of a subway tunnel on a cold Chicago night, I stepped over a man lying on a vent blasting heat from the ground below. The temperature was approaching zero degrees outside. Tonight, this would serve as his only form of heat and relief. Walking through Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood, a woman with a disfigured face approached me. Desperately, I looked away from the face before me, ravaged by drugs, abuse, and a system that has ignored her. Walking Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles with a formerly homeless man, I was stunned by the sheer volume of people packed tightly together on the sidewalks of America’s second most populous metropolis. On countless corners to countless highway overpasses, I have read signs screaming for help or a moment of kindness as I averted my attention and made myself busy while waiting for the light to turn green.

In every single one of these instances, I have thought long and hard about what it would mean to be homeless. After working for three years in permanent supportive housing in Los Angeles, I became consumed by the thought of what it would mean to be chronically homeless in the wealthiest country in human history. This essay is an attempt to put myself in the shoes of someone else. If you are up for it, I implore you to attempt the same exercise.

For you to become homeless, what systems would need to fail you?

If I were to become homeless, I would assume several things did not go my way. I would assume I lost my job or found myself in an extended period of unemployment. After spending the first 11 months of the pandemic unemployed and frantically searching for a job, this thought is not inconceivable to me. My savings would be depleted, and I would max my credit cards out. Unable to pay rent, the owners of our apartment…