Allow me to recount an all too familiar predicament you may have faced living in the United States.
I’ve seen plenty of homeless people. I often pass by them on the street. I’ve been told a few times in my life to be wary of those who claim to be homeless just to get out of working a real job. For a while, I maintained the stereotype that the homeless were lazy bums who exhausted their funds on alcohol and drugs. At some point, I was even advised to check out the shoes of the beggar. If they appear new and spotless, don’t waste your time or money because they could be loitering and panhandling to avoid working a real job.
I’ve been asked to spare some change countless times. When a homeless person crossed my path, I tended to divert eye contact to avoid an engagement of sorts. Most of the time, the person would anticipate a rejection that would inevitably come. “Not today, man.” “I’m sorry, no.”
I’ve wandered around neighborhoods with friends or peers who have argued that they would reconsider aiding the homeless if the individual asked for food rather than money, just to ensure the money was being used for something essential rather than drugs or alcohol. I’ve agreed with them.
I attended college in Providence, and was exposed to homelessness from my very first night. I was initially intimidated by any interactions with the homeless because I didn’t know what the proper return was. Overtime, I recognized familiar faces of the homeless in Providence and yet, my responses were routine and systematic. I did remain curious despite my numbness because I always wondered how these homeless people got to this point.
Was it drugs? Were they too trusting of the wrong people? In high school, could anyone have predicted they would live on the streets?
Sometimes, I’d pass by good Samaritans who would engage in conversations with these people. Some were even business professionals who addressed the person by name. I would watch in admiration. I could be that person who bridges the gap and truly acknowledges the homeless. I mean, I never intentionally mistreated anyone in my life, but why was I so dismissive of the homeless? I feel the most guilty in the unforgiving, bitter, frigid winters in New England. My late night walks back to my apartment would reveal the real survivors and even then, I never did anything.
It’s disgraceful to put into words my behavior towards the homeless but it’s the truth. Do you resonate with any of this? Admit it.
I’ve had to educate myself on the reality of homelessness in this country. It is unbelievable that one of the richest, most powerful nations in the world has not resolved their issues of the homeless. More than half a million people lack homes in America and let me tell you, the reasons stem deeper than just drug and alcohol abuse.
There are three types of homelessness: chronic, transitional, and episodic.
- Transitionally homeless individuals generally enter the shelter system for only one stay, and remain for a relatively short period of time.
- Chronic homeless individuals fit the common stereotype of the homeless despite making up a smaller portion of the population. They are traditionally older people who treat shelters more like long-term housing rather than an emergency arrangement (Homelessness in America).
- Episodic homeless are usually younger individuals who are constantly unemployed and suffer with medical, mental health, and substance abuse problems (Homelessness in America).
How do people become homeless?
The primary reason is inadequate or unavailable housing for lower-income communities. This can lead to eviction and the inevitable relocation to miserable, unstable housing situations.”Poor people are frequently unable to pay for housing, food, childcare, health care, and education. Difficult choices must be made when limited resources cover only some of these necessities. Often it is housing, which absorbs a high proportion of income that must be dropped” (Homelessness in America).
Getting a job doesn’t guarantee you immediate escape from homelessness. In fact, many homeless people do have jobs, but cannot afford to live where they work. Minimum wage standards can differ state to state, and full time employment at minimum wage isn’t plausible for rent, groceries, healthcare or a commute in most parts of the country.
The homeless cannot always compete for competitive work positions as their credibility is debunked without an address, and limited access to a shower and clean clothes. If you cannot afford to live in the area you reside or work, it can be difficult to just pick up and move. When placed in a position where you have to prioritize which basic essentials to purchase, you don’t exactly have a surplus to spend on a bus ticket.
Those suffering with the most serious forms of mental illness are more likely to be homeless than the general public. Without proper health care, ”a serious illness or disability can start a downward spiral into homelessness, beginning with a lost job, depletion of savings to pay for care, and eventual eviction’’ (Homelessness in America).
Some individuals are fleeing abusive living environments, too. This can force victims to choose between abusive relationships and homelessness.
Let’s analyze the stats.
One in three homeless people are under the age of 24. About 70% of the homeless population are individuals living on their own or with other adults. About 30% are adults in families with children (State of Homelessness: 2020 Edition).
About 60% of the entire homeless population in the U.S. are males. Among individuals, 70% are men or unaccompanied boys (State of Homelessness: 2020 Edition).
Let’s debunk a few misconceptions about the homeless.
Homelessness doesn’t only occur in major cities. Less than half of the homeless population in the U.S. live in cities. The rest are in smaller suburban or rural regions. About 30% of the homeless population live in scant living conditions, unfit for humans. However, homelessness doesn’t necessarily mean living on the streets or in makeshift tents. Homeless people can pop in and out of shelters, couch surf or live in more unconventional living accommodations, such as cars.
Only about 20-40% of the homeless populations suffer from substance abuse issues. Many involve themselves with drugs or alcohol only after experiencing homelessness due to its easy access and consistent exposure to users and dealers. The substance abuse can be used as a coping mechanism to survive on the streets. Drugs and alcohol can be used to desensitize from reality or repress sleep protect themselves against theft, rape, assault, etc.
Not all homeless people are dangerous or violent. Homeless individuals are more likely to have a criminal record, but they can be frequently arrested or cited for loitering, panhandling, littering, etc. Criminal records of any kind can make it challenging for individuals to get a job.
Preventing and resolving homelessness is not quick fix. Nothing ever is.
This issue requires funding for victims of mental health issues, substance abuse and domestic abuse in underprivileged neighborhoods. It requires employment opportunities with livable wages. It involves affordable housing. It involves adequate public assistance through improved welfare programs nation-wide.
What can you do to invoke change?
- Firstly, treat the homeless with respect. They aren’t always what we profile them to be. Strike up a conversation, if comfortable.
- Advocate for state-funded programs to assist victims of abuse, addiction and mental illness, and revamped welfare programs.
- Refer to our listing above if you are considering donating to a local shelter, but conduct your own research to ensure you’re purchasing the most high demand items for your community.
Homelessness is one of those causes I believe everyone is the most common, observable, indisputable injustices there are. We can all recall an interaction we have had with a homeless person and yet, we treat them like invisible people. They are shadows in the depths of our mind. We empathize for the few moments we notice them crossing on the street, then we alienate them for their poor hygiene, ratty clothes, awkward disposition, desperation and desolation.
Let’s strive to be like the compassionate stranger who addresses a homeless person by name.
State of Homelessness: 2020 Edition. 20 May 2020, endhomelessness.org/homelessness-in-america/homelessness-statistics/state-of-homelessness-2020/.
Homelessness in America. nationalhomeless.org/about-homelessness/.