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Homelessness: More Than Lacking Shelter

It is difficult to see someone living on the streets. It makes us uncomfortable. It’s a life that’s nearly impossible for most of us to imagine, to understand what it’s like to have no home. But, homelessness is more than not having shelter. It’s living without a support network, being cold or hungry or sick, and in some cases, having hundreds of people walk by you each day and pretend you don’t exist.

Homelessness is a complex issue. A person experiencing a homeless crisis is just that: a person. And, like all people, they each have different stories and an array of reasons why they are experiencing a homeless crisis. Addiction, mental illness, catastrophic events, family violence, and poverty are among the many causes of homelessness.

We take for granted that we’ll be able to meet our daily needs—safety, food, shelter—without facing significant obstacles. But, sometimes circumstances beyond our control change our course, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, which illuminated our vulnerability.

Even before the pandemic, available data shows that homelessness has been dramatically increasing over the past decade. The pandemic plunged thousands of people into unexpected situations. Thousands lost their jobs and found themselves unable to pay mortgage, rent, and utility bills. Although the CDC temporarily halted evictions due to the pandemic, a looming threat remains that will leave thousands of people without shelter when the moratorium lifts.

It’s nearly impossible to get an accurate count on the number of people who have been or will experience a homeless crisis due to the pandemic. However, the situation has forced many people to face the hard fact that they’re only a paycheck away from a homeless crisis and food insecurity. Economists, using data from the 2008 Great Recession, forecast a rising crisis.

Stigmas and Myths

Stigmas and myths lead to prejudice against people dealing with a homeless crisis. However, these assumptions are often incorrect and very hurtful to people who are experiencing homelessness.

Homelessness and Poverty are a Choice

In most instances, being homeless and living in poverty is not a choice. Evictions, mental illness, and addiction force people into a homeless crisis. All situations that make it difficult to find housing or live independently.

People Experiencing a Homeless Crisis are Violent

Although many people perceive homeless people as dangerous, they are more likely to be the victims of violence. Often, the few homeless people prone to violence prey on others living on the street, not non-homeless people. Therefore, most violence among homeless people is self-defense. Non-homeless people need to understand that they are in little danger from homeless people.

Drug Addiction is the Cause of All Homeless Situations

While it’s true that sometimes substance abuse and addiction can cause a person to experience a homeless crisis, only some people in a homeless crisis are addicts. In some cases, a person may turn to substance abuse to cope with their situation. Either way, addiction is a complex condition and very often an unaddressed mental health issue.

People Experiencing a Homeless Crisis are Lazy

Homelessness doesn’t always equal joblessness: for an estimated 25 percent of unsheltered people, a typical day includes a shift at work. Still more spend time seeking employment, either by stopping by businesses in person or by searching for opportunities online. Limited access to clean clothes, showers, transportation, and phones, which are crucial for finding and maintaining a job, makes working difficult.

All People Experiencing a Homeless Crisis are Criminals

While people experiencing a homeless crisis are more likely to have a criminal record than non-homeless people, they are usually not dangerous criminals. Often their criminal record is the result of being arrested for trespassing, littering, or loitering.

Fortunately, others respond with empathy and recognize that people dealing with a homeless crisis are people who have encountered situations that led them to this precarious position.

They understand that a staggering estimated 1.3 million public school students experience a homeless crisis and housing insecurity. That more than 37,000 veterans were without stable housing (as of January 2020). That more than 171,000 people in families with children experienced homelessness on a single night in 2020.

Homelessness isn’t just the lack of a roof over your head. Unsheltered individuals live without the means to acquire basic human comforts, such as warmth, health, safety, and cleanliness. The reasons people become homeless are varied.

5 Ways You Can Truly Make a Difference

The question of how to help a homeless person is not always easy to answer. While some general suggestions are outlined below, the best place to begin is by remembering the humanity of each homeless person you encounter.

  1. Learn how to see people dealing with a homeless crisis as people and treat them with dignity and respect.

An easy, effective way to accomplish this is to get in the habit of actually seeing and making eye contact with a person experiencing a homeless crisis. Even if you can’t help someone who asks for help, you can politely tell them you can’t help today. People in a homeless crisis often struggle with self-esteem. Talking to them with respect and kindness can make an enormous difference.

  1. Make an effort to understand why they are experiencing a homeless crisis.

Contrary to the beliefs of some, the data flies in the face of the most common misconception about people experiencing a homeless crisis— that they “chose to be homeless.” This is not to suggest that personal choices don’t matter, but most homeless people worked and paid rent just like everybody else before a job loss, an eviction, or a natural disaster, altered their life.

  1. Avoid giving cash.

Although your effort may be well-meaning, cash isn’t a viable solution. Offer to buy food for someone who’s hungry, direct them to a shelter or kitchen for help, or give them a Rescue Mission Resource Guide to see all the available services they have within their community. Because alcohol or drugs can be purchased using money, it can do more harm than good.

  1. Advocate for shelters and affordable housing in your community.

It’s easy to say you think shelters and affordable housing should be available, but a “not in my backyard” attitude doesn’t provide support. Get involved with local elected officials and community leaders to raise your voice for those without one.

  1. Support the Rescue Mission

There are many ways to support the Rescue Mission and homeless people. Individuals can make financial and material donations and volunteer. Corporate partnerships not only help the Rescue Mission but can help your business. And church partnerships provide multiple levels of engagement.

You may be familiar with the expression, “there, but for the grace of God, go I.” When we make an effort to understand the many factors that create a homeless crisis and understand that no one is immune, we can begin to change the fate of those experiencing a homeless crisis in a meaningful way.