When you're homeless, you carry everything you have with you. That makes it tough to sleep or go into a store, much less look for a job. It's one of the everyday realities of living homeless that most people don't consider.
"When you’re literally homeless, you’re like a 'turtle that carries everything on his back,' Michael Stoops, director of community organizing for the National Coalition for the Homeless, told CityLab. "Which can be problematic if you're walking long distances or trying to work. There's always the danger of things being lost, stolen or thrown away by police officers."
A few years ago, dozens of San Diego homeless people lost all of their belongings while they were attending a church service, and the city crushed their belongings in garbage trucks — including medications, family photos and clothes. The incident gave rise to an unusual solution — storage space for the homeless.
The city of San Diego opened a free check-in storage center in 2011, and in under a week, it was filled to capacity, according to the San Diego Reader.
The Transitional Storage Center — as it's called — offers 270 bins and has saved the city an estimated 30,000 pounds worth of "stuff" on the street. Running the facility costs the city just $1 per day per bin and employs one full-time attendant and security guard.
The storage center estimates that it has helped 100 people get jobs and get off the street so far. "The stress of worrying about what little bit I had left was a heavy burden (theft, weather, judgment)," said D. May, a former client of the center.
"The storage center gave me freedom from worry and the ability to go to the library and seek employment and seek suitable clothing for employment my job search has been successful. I will once again be a productive member of society."
Much of the stress of having nowhere to put your belongings is an emotional toll, Mark Horvath, a homeless activist who used to be homeless himself, told the Huffington Post. He said that the day he had to resort to living out of a shopping cart was a "low point of my life."
“I manhandled the cart over each curb for about a half a mile and I was exhausted,” Horvath wrote in a HuffPost blog. “It was very humiliating; people drove by laughing at me."
Seattle has now pledged to create 100 lockers for the homeless by the end of the year, and Los Angeles has provided 500 out of 600 bins offered by a nonprofit group called Central City East Association.
Of course, the ultimate goal is not to get the stuff off the street but to help the people themselves off the street. Storage can be a step to that, relieving homeless of the full-time job of guarding their belongings, says Heather Forbes, communications and resource development coordinator for First United Church.
"If you carry around your belongings every day, there are just so many things that are not available," Forbes told Citylab. "You can’t go into a grocery store, you can’t go into a publish washroom, you can’t go into a job interview. Can you imagine, if you brought all your belongings to a job interview? Things open up for you that wouldn’t be possible."