Love and Homelessness
Is love love? We like to think so. Love is love—it was a phrase I heard often, back when I lived in Minnesota, and Gender Justice (an advocacy organization I had co-founded) was working on a state-level campaign for marriage equality. On May 14, 2013, the day the Minnesota legislature finally passed a marriage-equality law, we danced for joy. In the capital city, the mayor decorated a bridge with rainbow flags, threw a huge party, and declared that “love is the law.”
The slogan love is love persuaded many people who weren’t sure at first about marriage equality. Through online videos and live testimony, Minnesotans got to meet all kinds of LGBTQ couples who embodied love. These couples didn’t just speak of their love for each other. They also spoke of the importance of having societal support and recognition for their relationships. There were practical reasons, the couples explained, but ultimately it was a matter of their dignity and humanity. Similar appeals to dignity and humanity can be found in Goodrich, the landmark marriage-equality case decided by Massachusetts’s top court in 2003.
It’s all history now, but I’ve been thinking about it this past year, as I sat with members of the Chaplains on the Way community on the retaining wall by McDonald’s, or six feet apart in the First Parish Waltham hall where we hold our new COVID-compliant breakfast program. I often find myself sitting with couples. There are couples who met recently and couples who have been together for years. These couples enjoy each other’s company. They hold hands. They share Egg McMuffins or toasted sesame bagels. They tease each other. Sometimes they bicker. They may break up and then get back together. Love is love, you might say.
But not when it comes to unhoused couples having societal support and recognition. It’s one of the many myths surrounding homelessness to think that “people without a home don’t date.” Our society consciously or unconsciously expects people experiencing homelessness to be alienated and alone. Indeed, society seems to think people experiencing homelessness should be alienated and alone. We seem to think that “the homeless should not be dating, having sex, or falling in love.”
As a result, “[f]alling in love without a roof over your head presents unique challenges, [but] is rarely researched or discussed. Couples are just overlooked.” Shelter policies reflect this. Most shelters are gendered as male or female, and even shelters that accept all genders don’t usually permit couples to room together. These policies can drive couples apart or force them to choose the streets over shelters, even in the midst of winter, so they can be with their significant other. “Every survey I’ve ever done—straight couples or gay couples or trans couples—they’re living outside because they can’t be together in a shelter,” said Bob Erlenbusch, head of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness.
When a couple experiencing homelessness wants to pursue treatment for substance use disorder, they face even more challenges. Several times this past year, I spoke to couples considering treatment. One hetero couple I spoke to has been together for four years. Last summer, both members wanted to go into detox (the first step of treatment), but neither had gone. When we talked privately, Molly [a pseudonym] told me, “I don’t want to leave him behind.” Tom [a pseudonym] said the same: “I’d go if we could go together.”
This is “an all-too-frequent predicament,” according to ethnographer Janie Simmons. Simmons describes attempting to negotiate entry into detoxification and treatment programs for couples experiencing homelessness and being told they could not be admitted, since these relationships are considered, by definition, “dangerous” and “exploitative.” She notes that negative stereotypes are commonplace: “Romantic partnerships between drug-using couples, when they are recognized at all, tend to be viewed as dysfunctional, unstable, [and] utilitarian.”
This, Simmons notes, is in contrast to other branches of therapy, where romantic relationships are “not only recognized but routinely are built into the therapeutic process both conceptually and in terms of available services (e.g., marriage counseling, couples therapy, family therapy).” Substance use disorder tends instead “to be seen and treated as an individual problem, as if drug users were not capable of having romantic relationships, and certainly not romantic relationships that are supportive and caring.”
Simmons tells the story of Juan and Daisy [both pseudonyms]:
At 9:30, Juan and Daisy arrived and told me, "We're ready." They asked me to find them a place where they could detox with methadone. I found out about a facility across the state and located an outreach worker who would take them there. Then I called. They wouldn't take both. I even tried to get it past them by saying I had one man and one woman who were interested in entering their program. They asked, "Are they a couple?" I had to say, "Yes, they've been together for 11 years." The admissions person said, "We can't take both. It's counter-therapeutic," or something like that. Daisy said to Juan, "O.K., you go."
The story of Glenn and Diana [both pseudonyms] is similar. Like most of the couples, Simmons explains, they had tried many treatment approaches as a couple: they had tried to manage on their own, they had entered programs while pretending not to be together, and they had entered separate programs. She shares how Glenn feels about the pervasive prohibition against couples in the treatment field:
I don't agree with it. We are out here together….They think it's unhealthy because of what statistics are saying about two people that were using can't get clean and stay together and be clean….Even Narcotics Anonymous rules, they say, "Don't get into anything serious for a year," or something like that. I don't dig that. Not with someone I've been out there with for five, six years. And then we both decide to get clean, and you gonna tell us not to be together….That's making a big decision that can wreck a major part of my life, or cause me to go back, you know.
Providers acknowledge that meeting a significant other has contributed to some people’s recovery, and some treatment programs do permit couples. But couple-friendly programs are not accessible unless the couple has money. As Simmons notes, “The lower rung of the severely underfunded two-tiered drug treatment system in the U.S. (a private system for those who can afford it, a narrow public system for those who cannot) does not provide even basic services to the intimate partners...of drug users. Indeed, in drug treatment, such relationships are often seen as a threat to recovery, as they have the potential to pull patients out of treatment and back onto the streets with a resumption of drug use.”
I was reminded of all this one morning recently, about a week before Valentine’s Day. I was sitting, once again, with Tom, but this time he was alone. His face was red from cold and also from crying. Tears glistened on his cheeks. Molly, his partner of four years, had been placed in a 30-day program by one of her relatives. Tom was not permitted to be with her, given program policies, and he was counting each day until the 30 days were up. He knew, of course, that she might want to continue in recovery after her 30-day program ends. “What if,” I asked him, “you could join her in recovery? Would you be interested in entering a program now, so that you could be together once you got out?” “Yes,” he said, “I would.” “But,” he emphasized: “I can’t do it.” What if Molly returned to Waltham, looking for him, while he was sequestered in a 30-day program (quite likely involuntarily, as a result of “being sectioned,” as this could be the only way he could find a no-cost treatment option): What would happen to Molly then? He would not be there to help and protect her. Tears leaked from the outer corners of his eyes as he said, “I just can’t do it.”
As a society, we like to think that we treat couples experiencing homelessness or struggling with substance use disorder as if their love has equal dignity, equal humanity, just like the queer couples whose love has finally been recognized nationwide. We like to think that we agree with Richard Rohr, the founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation, when he says (in theist terms), “Authentic love is of one piece....it is the same Source and the same Love that allows each of us to love ourself, others, and God at the same time.” We like to think that we act as if love is love. But do we? Not this Valentine’s Day.
Lauren Hepler, “Your shelter or mine? How homeless relationships blossom in unlikely places,” The Guardian, May 29, 2017.
“Homeless Couples: We Found Love in a Hopeless Place,” Fred Victor, February 20, 2020.
Janie Simmons, The interplay between interpersonal dynamics, treatment barriers, and larger social forces: an exploratory study of drug-using couples in Hartford, CT. Subst Abuse Treat Prev Policy 1, 12 (2006).
Janie Simmons and Merrill Singer, I love you ... and heroin: care and collusion among drug-using couples. Subst Abuse Treat Prev Policy 1, 7 (2006).
Sarah Hardey,“Drug Rehab Centers for Couples,” American Addiction Centers, February 8, 2021.
Richard Rohr, “How We Love,” Center for Action and Contemplation, June 16, 2019.