An article in the July 2017 Washington Post, reported people who support efforts to help those experiencing homelessness often advocate for policies that may make it more difficult for them to lift themselves out of poverty. A 2014 study mentioned in the article showed while voters have chosen to fund initiatives designed to help the population experiencing homelessness in recent years, they have also pushed for exclusionary policies to ban panhandling and sleeping in public. The study’s authors contend the public’s uneasiness about homelessness often stems from misconceptions about people experiencing homelessness and the challenges they face. These negative falsehoods have impacted the way the public views people experiencing homelessness, and by extension affects the amount of resources and assistance society is willing to extend to one of America’s most vulnerable groups.
In order to one day end the homelessness epidemic affecting so many families and negatively impacting so many lives, we need to recognize that many of the myths surrounding who, how and why people experience homelessness are untrue. Here are seven widely perpetuated myths about this population that should be banished.
Myth 1: People are homeless because they are lazy and unwilling to work hard.
The facts: Research conducted by the Urban Institute since the mid-1990s shows a different reality than the one expressed by people who hold this false belief. In 1996, a thorough nationwide survey from the institute showed nearly 45 percent of people experiencing homelessness were employed in the past month. The institute’s 2002 study showed the same results. The numbers were only 14 percent lower than those recorded in the general population, in spite of the fact that focusing on work when you have no home can pose extra challenges such as no access to a computer, a permanent address and a phone.
People experiencing homelessness do not have an easy life, and they must constantly be on the lookout for ways to take care of themselves. For those experiencing homelessness, much of the day’s energy is focused on taking care of the basic needs required to survive, such as finding food, shelter and ways to generate a source of income.
Myth 2: Many people who become homeless struggle with mental illness.
The facts: The rates of mental illness are higher among the population experiencing homelessness than they are among the general population. However, people affected by these conditions only account for about 25 percent of people experiencing homelessness. It’s important to note that those who live with mental illness are significantly more likely to become homeless, and homelessness can often exacerbate or even cause a mental health problem for those who endure it. Furthermore, the effects of mental illness can make it all but impossible for some people to work their way out of poverty to escape living on the streets.
Myth 3: People who are homeless are usually single, older individuals who are nothing like me.
The facts: People from all backgrounds of life can and do become homeless. The stigma surrounding homelessness and the people who struggle with it allows the general public to somehow consider those within the group to be “outsiders,” limiting feelings of compassion. While many believe they lack any similarities to those experiencing homelessness, the actual demographics and experiences of the population are incredibly diverse.
For many, the stereotypical idea of a person experiencing homelessness is an older, single male living on the streets. However, the population of people experiencing homelessness spans all demographics. According to data presented by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, about 33 percent of people experiencing homelessness today are younger than 25 years old. Nearly 40 percent of those experiencing homelessness belonged to a family. Adults and children within families account for more than one-third of the homeless population. In 2016, nearly 500,000 people in families spent time living in a transitional housing program or homeless shelters. The people who have these experiences span every race, religion, age group and demographic. There is no “typical” person experiencing homelessness, and the assumption is damaging to the fight to end homelessness.
Myth 4: Most people become homeless due to an alcohol or drug addiction.
The facts: While drug addiction and alcohol abuse may affect people experiencing homelessness, more often the addiction is a result of homelessness rather than the cause. According to the National Coalition to End Homelessness, the primary causes of homelessness, in descending order, are a lack of affordable housing, unemployment, poverty and low wages.
Along with the myth that people experiencing homelessness are substance abusers is the misconception that most people experiencing homelessness are dangerous or have a criminal history. This misconception tends to incite fear in the general population and encourages local residents to object to the expansion of charitable facilities or programs dedicated to helping the population experiencing homelessness. They believe the presence of these programs will draw dangerous people experiencing homeless to their geographical area.
Myth 5: The fight to end homelessness will be a long, expensive battle.
The facts: Homelessness is a problem for people in big cities and small towns in every state. Many people consider this crisis to be entrenched and believe nothing of substance can be done, or the actions necessary to correct the problem are too expensive for the US to bear; these beliefs are inaccurate.
The best way to end homelessness in the US is to gather support in key areas: access to affordable housing; access to life-stabilizing amenities such as mental health, medical care and employment services; access to prevention support services to prevent people from succumbing to poverty and homelessness in the first place, and greater social connectedness and inclusivity. While some argue that funding these services is too costly for the American people, research shows the cost of helping people to secure housing is actually less expensive than if they were to become homeless. Sufficient housing for those experiencing homelessness has been shown to reduce the annual cost of health care, emergency room visits, incarceration and other social programs.