[Poverty & Hunger]

Understanding the Realities of Homelessness

By: Christine Kent

Whether we realize it or not, we all encounter homelessness more often than we realize: at our children’s schools, waiting for the bus, in line at our local convenience store. With over half a million people experiencing homelessness on any given night, we can’t possibly make blanket assumptions about who those people are or what has led them to such a difficult situation. So, If we want to help find real solutions to help those in need, the first step is to get educated on the facts. Here’s a reality check on some of the most commonly held misconceptions around homelessness and a few simple actions you can take to make a difference.  

Myth: Homeless people are mostly men in big cities.

Reality: According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 39 percent of homeless people are women. Thirty-three percent are families with children – and 21 percent are children. According to HUD data from 2017, about 51 percent of homeless people live in major cities, 35 percent live in more suburban areas and it’s estimated that about 14 percent of homeless people live in rural areas.

Myth: Homeless people are mentally unstable.

Reality: Substance abuse is a contributing factor to homelessness. In a study from the United States Conference of Mayors, 68 percent of cities said that substance abuse was the number-one reason for homelessness among single adults. However, it’s estimated that only about 30 percent of people experiencing chronic homelessness have a serious mental illness, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Myth: Homeless people don’t want to work.

Reality: More homeless people are working than you may think. The National Coalition for the Homeless estimates that between 40 percent and 60 percent of homeless people drift in and out of full-time or part time work; New York’s Department of Homeless Services reports that 34 percent of families living in the city’s homeless shelters include a working adult.

Myth: Homeless people prefer living on the street.

Reality: This is one of the most dangerous stereotypes about homelessness, according to Adam Murray, executive director of Los Angeles’s Inner City Law Center. Some people resist moving into short-term shelters because it may separate them from family members, lose their belongings, submit to religious proselytizing, or demoralizing rules. Most don’t want to sleep outdoors, he says. 

Murray also notes that people are often driven to homelessness not because of mental illness or addiction issues, but simply because of poverty. “People who are homeless most frequently identify the loss of a job, eviction and the high cost of housing as causing their homelessness.”

Myth: The problem will never go away.

Reality: Little by little, cities and nonprofit organizations work to help reduce the homeless population. In 2017, the number of homeless people increased for the first time in the U.S. since 2010. Yet overall homelessness decreased by 14 percent since 2002. More signs of hope: the most dramatic decreases exist among veterans (34 percent decrease), the chronically homeless (27 percent decrease), and people living in unsheltered locations (24 percent decrease).

Ready to help?

In addition to volunteering with organizations like New York Cares or a food bank via Feeding America, consider donating to a homeless shelter. They are always in need of donations like socks, grooming items like deodorant, toothpaste, and toothbrushes, blankets, feminine care items like tampons and pads, non-prescription reading glasses, nail clippers, and gloves in the winter.

Another way? ThatHelps and our members share ways to help every day on its app. Download it today to start helping.

Photo: Martin Adams