A lot of time, individuals that are sleeping outside and experience homelessness might not have the means to access services. Sometimes, they don't know that they [services] exist or they know the services exist, but not how to access them, or maybe they feel that some of their bridges have been burned in the past.”
Sometimes people discover jobs that bring them a sense of fulfillment or purpose, and Fue expressed why he remains passionate about supporting others. “My parents are war refugees of displaced populations. When they came to America there were a lot of Social Services, nonprofits, churches, and organizations that helped them out. It is part of my innate longing to do what other people have been able to provide for my family. I want to help individuals with high barriers. Sometimes it is the day-to-day things and other times there are more long term goals.”
A typical day for Fue revolves around providing hope, options, and resources to people in times of need. “I do a lot of documentation as well as collaborative meetings with other agencies. As part of our agency we do a lot of groundwork. We go out to provide blankets, hand warmers, and socks. We also start the conversation of the priority housing list, finding long term solutions like permanent housing, or temporary shelter. Shelter is not always an option that is taken, whether it be Salvation Army, the Warming Center, or New Horizons, it doesn’t work for everyone. I also have a lot of one-on-ones with individuals. Often there are no shows or people who just can’t get to the appointment. Communication can be difficult as these people generally do not have access to Wi-Fi or a cellphone. It is important to remember that someone’s homelessness is a day-to-day thing. It is hard to not have anywhere to go during the day or night without getting a citation. If people were able to understand that homelessness is not a decision, but a systemic problem, the calls that the police department gets would probably go down. People do not respect or understand homelessness; they need to understand that it is systemic.”
When we first started this project, we always asked, “Is homelessness systemic?” Fue provided us with an example of systemic homelessness in our local area. “One of the biggest systemic issues that is affecting La Crosse right now is citations. People that are sleeping outside and experiencing homelessness need a warm place to stay. These people are being cited for staying in warm public places, such as parking ramps. They do not have the means to pay for a citation. Citations will build up and eventually those being cited will have to sit in jail. The taxpayers pay for that, but we just keep doing it and it’s a huge cycle instead of realizing the economic impact and setting aside a budget. We do not have enough mental health resources, social workers, or service providers.”
In order to provide us with a clearer picture, Fue described a story of an individual who experienced homelessness after a difficult injury. “I was working with an individual that used to play football. He had a bad injury and had to have spinal surgery. He was put on medications, became addicted, and that’s when his homelessness started to spiral downwards. If he could have afforded better health care and was not given medications without any supplements to his recovery he might’ve had a better outcome.”
Unfortunately, systemic issues remain compounded by more than citations and health care. Housing remains one of the greatest issues riddling the La Crosse area. “Another huge issue in the La Crosse area is finding landlords that will rent to those experiencing homelessness. The landlords can deny you for any reason which can be really difficult, especially if you don't know why you got denied. There are few helpful landlords, but those spots get filled up really quickly. It can be even more difficult if the individual has evictions or a record. When someone does find a landlord that is willing to rent to them, especially someone with a lot of barriers, it is a great feeling. When they find a landlord, all the paperwork goes through, and they have success afterward, that has to be one of the best moments of this job.”
Fue offered an honest and telling message of how complex and deeply rooted homelessness lies in our innermost systems. “It is important to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. I am not the golden homeless outreach person that is going to solve everybody’s problems. That’s not my purpose. I need to look at the bigger picture and push what is already working. We need to stay focused and remember that the individual has the means to survive. We need to find a way to get to the root of the problem. There are a lot of different reasons someone is facing homelessness. If it is mental health, then we will find them resources. If it is finances, then we need to find them a job or a payee. You can’t do everything by yourself and you can’t do it all in one day. Work with the resources that are available.”
Artist’s Note: The systemic flaws run deep, Fue showed us that we need to work together as a disruption in this system, but not to go out on our own. Support the organizations that work, collaborate, and have the strength of a chain link in the face of oppression.