At Backpacks for the Street, we feel strongly that homelessness does not define an individual. Before anything else, that person is a human being. A human with dreams. Skills. Compassion.
While this is our stance, it’s undeniable that stereotypes about homelessness exist. These myths and misconceptions about the homeless are perpetrated in many ways, including everything from daily interactions to government policies.
“People experiencing homelessness are lazy.”
In order to survive, many people who experience homelessness are constantly in search for the necessities of life, such as food, shelter and a source of income. Due to the barriers that they face, many people experiencing homelessness do not have the option of being stagnant or lazy.
“Getting a job will keep someone out of homelessness.”
The National Low Income Housing Coalition found a full-time minimum wage worker would have to work between 69 and 174 hours a week, depending on the state, to pay for an “affordable” two-bedroom rental unit (the federal government defines affordable as 30 percent of a person’s income). A full-time minimum wage worker couldn’t afford a one- or two-bedroom apartment at Fair Market Rent, a standard set by the federal government, in any state.
“Fighting homelessness is expensive.”
Studies show that simply housing people can reduce the number of homeless at a lower cost to society than leaving them without homes. It now costs New York City more than it ever has to shelter homeless families and single adults. In the fiscal year 2017, it cost on average $73,000 to provide emergency shelter to a family and $38,000 to provide emergency shelter to a single adult, given the average length of shelter stays for each population.
“Mental Illness Precipitates Homelessness”
Sometimes, yes, but this one’s a bit chicken-versus-egg (and it’s obviously a rather contentious topic). It’s true that mental health disorders can precede homelessness. In some cases, for example, folks who suffer from mental illness may be less likely to work, and as a result, less likely to make rent or mortgage payments, says Dr. Hwang. That said, it’s been well-documented (and has been found in Dr. Hwang’s studies) that the stress homeless people experience can trigger or exacerbate mental illness.
“Most homeless people are addicted to drugs or alcohol.”
While many homeless people do report having a substance abuse issue, most report that the addiction occurred AFTER they became homeless and was not the cause of their homelessness. Often times, people experiencing homelessness turn to alcohol or drugs as a way to dull the realities that come with living on the street. While it depends on the person, many people find that once they are off the street they no longer find that they need or desire to continue with their addiction.
“Providing food and shelter only enables people to remain homeless.”
Food and shelter are essentials for life. By offering these and other outreach services, like restrooms and mail service, we build relationships with people in need. Then we’re able to offer them something more through our recovery programs, like counseling, addiction recovery, emotional healing, spiritual guidance, education, life skills, and job training.
“Homelessness will never end.”
Many U.S. cities have established ambitious goals with 10-year plans to end homelessness. While these plans to provide housing and better-centralized services to homeless people are important in reducing the scope and duration of homelessness, they will not completely eliminate it everywhere for all time. But homelessness does end—one life at a time. With your help, we continue to restore the lives of hurting men, women, and children every day.
“If you are homeless, it is your choice.”
Not all individuals confronting homelessness choose to live a homeless lifestyle. Many have faced a multitude of circumstances and cyclical systemic issues that have led them to homelessness.
“Homeless people are sitting on the side of the street.”
In reality, you see homeless people working at McDonald’s, standing in line at the grocery store, and picking up their kids from school. You just don’t know they’re homeless.
They may be temporarily staying with a family member but fretting because they can only stay a few more nights and have nowhere to go after that.
“Homelessness is a choice.”
The unfortunate belief that homelessness is somehow a choice made by people faced with this situation is all too untrue. For many, homelessness is the only option once evicted, kicked-out, or when affordable housing is not an immediate opportunity.