Can't Read or Write

We live in a world full of computers, smart phones and countless signs that beckon our approval and need our attention every minute of every day.....

Imagine living in that world, but not being able to read or comprehend what you need to know.
Imagine not being able to read or comprehend instructions, texts or emails.
Imagine not being able to read or comprehend job applications, housing contracts or the countless forms we need to fill out to help us move forward.

There are many people experiencing homelessness who are highly educated, freakishly intelligent, or just have a good ability in being able to read and comprehend whatever is before them. Yet there's another side, a large number of individuals suffer with a crippling reality in today's world; they just can't read, write or comprehend what they see before them! 

By noticing this debilitating disability, I am often weighed down by the shame and agony people feel. I have to assist people read and fill out the simplest forms, and I see how this struggle makes small hurdles enormous. Being unable to read and write makes someone incredibly vulnerable in today's day and age.

Imagine just trying to get your Birth Certificate. Imagine not being able to navigate the Internet to work out how to get it. Imagine not being to read the form. Imagine not being able to fill it out. Imagine not being able to read the directions to the Cook County Clerk to finally get it. Imagine how embarrassed you'd feel having to ask for help to accomplish a task that should be quick and simple.

Even though I witness these realities every day, it shocks me that this issue is often ignored and forgotten among homeless providers. The Housing First model rightly tries to find those who are most vulnerable and get them into housing as soon as possible. It focusses on mental illness, substance abuse, physical disabilities and chronic health problems, but it often ignores those who struggle with a low IQ, are intellectually challenged or have a learning disability.

There are countless reasons adults struggle to read or write, but I do not believe it has to do with laziness. My son, Cyrus, has been diagnosed with dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia and ADHD, resulting in laboring through books, awful spelling and poor results in standardized testing. I tell you this, because Cyrus is smart, artistic and has an extraordinary ability of putting together difficult puzzles. His brain works differently, so he therefore struggles to navigate through our westernized system!

Because of our privilege and Beth's tenacity, Cyrus got the assistance he needed. Reading, spelling and filling out forms will never come easy for him, (other things do and will), but he now has the tools to survive in a world that isn't friendly to those with dyslexia. 

When I have someone in front of me who can't read, write or comprehend, I always think of Cyrus! I'm fully aware that if he didn't have the schooling, resources and opportunities he had, things could have been completely different for him! With his diagnosis, I realize that if he lived in a different location, had endless drama, limited money and a life fill of tragedy, his story would be completely different. Cyrus wouldn't have been someone who couldn't read any word, but he could have been a guy who lived without reading books or fully comprehending signs, forms or instructions. Cyrus, through tutoring and learning various tools, now enjoys slowly reading books like "The Lord of the Rings", something which wouldn't have been possible without the loving help he received and continues to receive.

Being unable to read or write is crippling! It is devastating! It is embarrassing, people facing this often hide their shame and that is why people don't want to reveal their secret. Very few people openly admit to this disability and become very good in hiding their struggles and that is why case-managers need to be alert, attentive and sensitive to this possibility. Noticing illiteracy in people and acting compassionately creates new opportunities and shows them we care and love them.

I could tell many stories of people experiencing homelessness, whose biggest obstacle to successfully moving forward is not being able to read and write. Unfortunately, people end up focusing on other vices, often ignoring or not noticing this one, not knowing that if they don't help in this area, important forms will never be filled out and movement doesn't happen! Even though it's awkward to read things out loud to adults and then help them fill out their forms, it needs to happen, for their sake!

Sidney, (not his real name), had been homeless for decades. When people tried to help him, they focussed on his obvious alcoholism, forgetting his complete inability to write anything except his name. Therefore, he lived all his adult life in Chicago, with no ID, no income, no food stamps, no benefits and no place to call home. He wanted these things, but he was stuck!

Sidney grew up in poverty, his parents died young and ended up homeless as a young teenager. Even if he'd had a stable, supportive background, reading would have been very difficult for Sidney, as he seems developmentally delayed. Even with all odds stacked against him, Sidney knows how to hustle and survive. He had his friends and his church, but he needed one more thing: to get off the streets and into his own crib.

When people started noticing this, reading for him and filling out the forms, good things happened. He was taken to get his ID, his Social Security card, his Birth Certificate and to housing appointments. Without the help he received, this 50 year old man wouldn't have been able to navigate this city, the internet or the forms placed in his hands.

Today, Sidney doesn't live in alleys, under bridges or in abandoned buildings, he lives in his own apartment, thankful that he survived well over thirty winters in this city which isn't friendly to those who can't read or write.  
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