Nine Common Misconceptions About the Homeless.

Via Ann Halsig
on Aug 20, 2012
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The first time I got to know a homeless person well, I was 16 and worked at McDonalds.

It wasn’t hard to do:  I’m from Southern California. Anybody who’s even driven through the coastal parts of SoCal has seen the massive numbers of people rough sleeping in the streets of Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego Counties.

Since then, I’ve worked with homeless young people and adults in the United States, England and the Philippines. This is a multicultural community that consists of every age, every religion, every gender identification. There are homeless people in every city of every country. And every single last one of the millions of people without a fixed abode has taken a completely unique journey to their current set of circumstances.

In my work, I have been moved beyond words by the unimaginable kindnesses people can bestow upon one another.  I have also encountered the horrors of bigotry at its absolute apex. I perceive this as perhaps the worst kind, because offenders seem to feel—particularly in the U.S.—completely justified in their hate, because they so often see homelessness as the result of sloth and debauchery, rather than a series of life’s cruel turns.

What follows is based on my personal experience of homelessness, which I assure you only begins to scratch the surface.

Dispelling myths means also owning up to the truths that brought them into being. Here are some of the most common misconceptions I’ve encountered:

1. Almost all homeless people have major mental health problems

False. Sort of. A 2009 report by the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) puts the number of “severely mentally ill” homeless at 20 to 25 percent, as compared to 6 percent of the general population. So what is severe mental illness? The two most common conditions referred to as such are schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. And either of these conditions can and often do play a part in a person finding themselves homeless.

(Although this writer would argue that it’s more often the lack of proper treatment as a result of a lack of attention from government at both local and national levels in nearly every country that should be considered culprit).

So in this case, the illness led to homelessness, and not the other way around.

But homelessness is difficult. It’s scary. It’s stressful. And spending 24 hours a day in difficult, scary and stressful conditions is traumatic. After a while, it plays on a person’s ability to cope. This inability to cope with day-to-day life circumstances manifests in a variety of ways—self harm, drug and/or alcohol misuse, abusive behavior toward others, etc.

Given the opportunity—and the strength—to seek professional help, many will be diagnosed with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder or the more noncommittal borderline personality disorder. Particularly in the U.S., most homeless people will never even have the chance to be diagnosed and treated. In this case, homelessness—and any number of other problems that led to the state of homelessness to begin with (abuse, neglect or simply a string of terrible turns in one’s life)—led to the illness. And as the vast majority of these people remain undiagnosed, there’s no telling how many people on the street are suffering from mental health problems of this nature.

2. Almost all homeless people are addicted to drugs and alcohol.

False. But not far from true. A different report by the NCH, also from 2009, put the percentage of homeless people dependent upon alcohol at 38 percent. It goes on to say that a further 26 percent “abused other drugs.” Whether there’s an overlap in these figures, I’m not sure. What I do know is that this is an excellent time to learn a new term (for those readers on unfamiliar ground): Dual Diagnosis. This is your textbook case of chicken-and-egg. Years of unchecked drug dependency have been known to trigger short-term and long-term mental health problems. And yet many people with mental health problems from other sources, like trauma or genetics, self-medicate with street drugs. Ergo, lots of people on the street are both suffering from mental health problems as well as drug and alcohol dependency. Two sides of one horrible coin.

3. Homeless people would do anything to have a roof over their heads again.

True. And false. This should be a no-brainer: life on the street is hard, dirty, scary, dangerous. Who wouldn’t jump at the chance of a “normal” life again? But then, what’s normal? Many street-homeless have been there for years. The end result is that, for many, their lives are on the street. Their friends, their daily habits, their consciousness. Traditionally-housed people wouldn’t want to say goodbye to everything they thought of as “life”—why should the homeless be any different?

Life functions differently on the street. While we plan for next weekend, Christmas, or our five-year savings, many homeless people are thinking about where their next meal will come from, where they’ll sleep that night or indeed, from whence their next hit will hail. The stress is tremendous, but as anyone with a stressful job will tell you, that doesn’t always equate to a bad thing, and it can be hard—sometimes impossible—to learn to live without it.

4. One should always try to make conversation with homeless people.

Sometimes true. Often false. Homeless people too often feel invisible, and a kind stranger taking a moment to chat can be a great thing. Having said that, if there’s one thing that’s hard to find on the street, it’s a moment’s peace. Sleeping through the night can be virtually impossible: cops wake them up for loitering, other homeless people wake them up for a cigarette, their things could be stolen at any minute, or worse—as has happened to too many—they could be beaten or raped. Sleep is a precious part of any person’s well-being, and you can bet that homeless people suffer from a terrible lack of it. Every situation is different, but unless it’s really important, this writer says let them sleep.

Finally, let your instincts be your guide. As I’ve mentioned above, many people on the street are suffering from debilitating mental health problems, and it can sometimes be dangerous to approach them. If you’re truly concerned about a person’s well-being, the local shelter or drop-in center can likely identify them with your detailed description, and can send trained outreach workers to look in on them to make sure they’re as okay as can be hoped.

5. Most people begging for money are just panhandlers…they’re not really homeless.

Does. It. Matter? As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t. And that’s false, by the way. Nevertheless, if a person is so down on their luck that they have to come and ask for a bit of money to get through the day, does it matter that they’ve lost the roof over their head, or they’re just about to? And let’s just say you’re the type of person inclined to spare a dime here and there, and you just so happen to make a donation to a swindler. How often will that actually happen? And where on earth must that person’s sense of self be that they spend their days impersonating a homeless person?

I hear all sorts of stories about people “faking” homelessness and making a killing off of the coins people throw at them. I can assure you, were that the case, a whole lot of homeless people wouldn’t be homeless anymore. I don’t buy it, and I don’t think the people preaching it do, either. Sometimes it’s easier telling ourselves these little lies than facing the difficult truths all around us.

6. If you give homeless people money, they’re just going to spend it on drugs.

True. And false. Some will.And some won’t. Some who are dependent on drugs or alcohol will still use the money you give them to buy a meal.  Some will use it to buy drugs and/or alcohol. But I promise you two things:

  1. You not giving them money will not get them clean
  2. If you don’t give them the money, they will get it somewhere else.

More importantly, if the figures above from the NCH are correct, it would reason that the majority of homeless people are, in fact, not dependent upon drugs and alcohol. Therefore, most of the money you offer will be used to buy things like a clean pair of socks, a meal or a cup of coffee.

7.  Homeless people are dirty.

Depends on your definition. Are we talking existentially dirty? Then false. But if you mean dirty as in haven’t-taken-a-shower, erm…duh?  They’re homeless. That also means bathroomless. Getting a shower is hard, and it really depends on the facilities in a person’s area. Using public showers means being in the region of those showers (remember, they’re on foot). Depending on the facility, it could mean being sober (sometimes that’s tricky to coordinate). It can also mean getting naked in front of a whole gamut of strangers (not easy without mental illness).

The only clothes many own are the ones on their back and what they can carry. Laundromats are expensive, and they aren’t always welcome.  Toothbrushes are easily lost on the street; finding the time and space to have a shave is a conundrum. There’s no two ways about it: hygiene suffers. But guess what? It’s not contagious.

8. There might be a lot of homeless people in the U.S., but at least there aren’t any street kids, like in India or something

False. False. False. There are homeless kids in every country on the planet, from England to China to South Africa to Mexico. This is going back to 2003, but the NCH estimated then that 39 percent of homeless people were under the age of 18. Some of those kids are with their families, some are run-aways, and some have been kicked out of their homes for any number of reasons, from poor behavior to drug use to homosexuality. Some parents don’t know what to do when their son or daughter has stolen from them for the fifteenth time so they can get high on crack. Other parents are hateful bigots, and cannot stand that their children don’t fit the mold they had ready for them from birth. It’s never, never not complicated.

9. Homeless people are lazy.

False. This is just so silly, it boggles the mind. Work on your feet all day? Some of the people I’ve worked with are on foot for more than 24 hours, forced to keep moving because they’re in violation of loitering laws and the cops are cracking down to appease business owners. Hardly slept last night? Homeless people often can’t sleep at all during the night, because it’s too cold, or because they were told by gun-wielding police to “move along,” or because they were simply too frightened for any number of circumstances. Dealing with difficult clients? Try begging for money as a full-time enterprise, and see how receptive your clients are to your sales pitch.

The bottom line is this: most of what we think about this population is based on fear and ignorance.

Sometimes we’re afraid of them, but more often we’re afraid of this deepest state of poverty. The director of the first organization I worked with used to say to us, “There but for the grace of God go we.” She used to tell us, “None of us is more than two steps away from life on the street.  Never forget that and you’ll do just fine.” She was right.

And, as long as we remain afraid of the condition of homelessness, and therefore afraid of homeless people, we can never know how extraordinary each one of them is, the tremendous obstacles they have overcome every single day, how they, perhaps more than any of us, are passionately in love with life because, in spite of it all, they choose to fight. They choose to live. They choose to hope. And that is indeed admirable.

Editor: Lynn Hasselberger

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About Ann Halsig

Ann Halsig is a freelance writer with a background in Social Science and Ethnic Studies. She has lived and worked in the U.S., England, the Philippines and currently resides in France. You can check out her musings, meanderings and misadventures on her blog or hire her for some word whittling here.


38 Responses to “Nine Common Misconceptions About the Homeless.”

  1. […] any rate, it was the subject of my last article at Elephant Journal – do have a gander if’n you fancy, and let me know what you think! Share […]

  2. Kimberley says:

    Thank you for this article. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.

  3. Mark Ledbetter says:

    Long-winded? Not at all. Well-written. Well-thought out. Real rather than ideological. Educational. And, yes, passionate. Very nice.

  4. cherokeepurple says:

    Thankyou for this very real article. I am 42, single, over-educated (M.A. in Creative Writing, go figure on the hard to find a job thing), but poor as ****, have been working on farms for the last 18 months and currently in between farm jobs (and thus housing, b/c i don't make enough to sustain an apartment), and temporarily i hope, homeless. Not carless, (i hope, b/c it sounds terrible right now), but trying to figure out how to come up with the gas $ to get to my next job. My last apartment (in 2010) was a such a struggle to maintain financially on unemployment (lost my "real job in 12/08) and then no unemployment that i felt the threat of homelessness every day, which is pretty darn stressful. One thing i would like to see tackled by social services agencies and policy makers is the courage to actually look at what it takes to look at and break down the practicalities of overcoming homelessness, i.e. Even when i was working this spring as a waitress i wasn't making enough to cover gas to drive to the bigger towns to look for a full time job or go to interviews. I just recieved a 2 page list of social services agencies in this city of over 50,000 ppl: there is ONE place for woman to take a shower (only one shower: wierdly, even the rec center here does not have a shower), there is ONE shelter for women, there is ONE church that MIGHT assist me with gas, in order to receive food bags at most shelters/food banks, etc. you have to have an ADDRESS.

  5. maxzografos says:

    Amazing, and very informed piece. I can honestly say, I will never look at this issue the same way going forward.
    Thank you so much Ann. And keep them coming.

  6. ronaldanne1 says:

    This is piece is both informative and moving, a difficult combination to master…well done. I believe fear of homelessness is the driving force of our fear of the homeless, these days especially, we are so many of us walking too close to the edge.


  7. I have been living in the NYC shelter system since the end of June. I have a master's degree. I also have plantar fasciitis in both feet, sciatica in both legs, multiple herniated discs, sciatica, and overactive bladder, and the cots at the shelter are making my back worse. The problem is lack of interviews–possibly because I couldn't afford to take an unpaid internship while in school, and by the time I was offered any work I could do, I had used up the life insurance money I received when my dad lied ($37,000) to pay rent, when the only desk job that I could find was tutoring, and I couldn't get enough hours to survive. The final straw was when a grad school colleague called and said that he had work for me in another state. He consistently no-showed our meetings and fired me when he was paying me an $18,000 salary. Consequently, I am trying to live on $126 per week on unemployment. I have never used drugs and have been a teetotaler all my life. As it is now, given my background, all I have been offered are $8 per article writing jobs that are very difficult to do because I don't have a laptop, and even if I did, they are contraband at the shelter. These articles take several hours to research, and thus pay below minimum wage.

    Right-wing "friends" and even people in the shelter ask why I can't do such-and-such, ignoring the fact that I send out the applications and don't get called. Apparently, they expect me to work without pay when I have no capital to get started.

  8. Edit: the repetition of "sciatica" was supposed to be "scoliosis that went undiagnosed until I was 29."

  9. Unfortunately, you can't edit comments here. It should say "my dad died." The rest of my family doesn't give a shit and told me that I should have majored in accounting even though my SAT scores were 620 verbal and 490 math, and we weren't in a recession when I declared my major around 1996-7.

  10. dianabonyhadi says:

    Thank you. Having worked dependency court in SF, CA, I can support everything you say. The tragedy is the multi-generational issue of socioeconomic abuse. Children raised in poverty and on the edge, lacking the most limited of resources, through 5-9 generations. Oh, and then we wonder why the cycle repeats. Why do they keep having children? Dang-it all, who doesn't need love.? Who doesn't want to be held. Not to mention that sexual abuse tend to be a repetitive syndrome. And I will tell you also that almost every single parent and almost every single child that I worked with loved their children and their mommies and daddies and they all did they best they could. The tragedy is the system speaks a language and creates impossible roadblock for these families. Oh, and don't forget the educational system that didn't make sure they could read or add. And the medical system that won't fix an ear infection on a small child, so he/she can't hear what the teacher says. or the cost of glasses, etc. The system takes the kids because they are neglected, charges the parent a ridiculous some daily for the state to "care" for their children. And then the parents must pay for counseling, job training, drug programs, and whatever else the court mandates in addition to trying to fit all those appointments into a day of work – if they can find a job – traveling to and fro on public transport. it would be practically impossible for a well-education person with a private car to meet all those demands in a single day. That the judges and case workers wonder why the parents don't willingly meet their obligations made me so mad. In so many cases, the parents didn't even understand what the judge was asking them to do, so that at the next hearing of course they hadn't met the requirements to be again with their children. Please everyone, don't misunderstand me. Child abuse and neglect are awful, but before we go blaming the parents, let us first look at the system that allowed this to happen. So many of these children will end up on the streets, grow up on the streets, and they and their parents will continue to hope that they will meet up again. They will hope for health care and education and a good meal and a clean bed and a good night's sleep. not because they are lazy, but because our system has consistently demeaned, rejected and dismissed them.

  11. firstene says:

    THANK YOU so much for this article. I think it is so important— I try myself to dispel as many myths about homelessness as I can. I ran away as a teenager, and spend some time in Oregon, California, and Colorado living homeless. In the process, I came to know the stories of many people, and couldn't believe the hand some of them had been dealt. Some were like, me, and initially left by choice, some by force, and others just sort of found themselves there after a string of circumstances left them nowhere else to go. One thing I would add is that a big number of the homeless population here are veterans. This to me was one of the saddest things to realize. There were people who had given their limbs and their time, and sometimes their peace of mind to serve the country, and were forgotten upon return. Sometimes it seemed to me that they were still suffering war wounds that didn't heal, which could be a source of the other problems that homeless people face, like addiction and mental illness.

    I can say a few things about the treatment of homeless people in Boulder, CO. The community was overall kind to us compared to other places (like Denver, or LA). People would give us their leftovers from Foolish Craigs, sometimes if you were spare-changing by a grocery store, people would buy you an Odwalla and some hot soup (to the kind stranger at ideal market in the winter of 1998, that meal meant a lot to me!) , but there were still the frequent looks of disgust, or failure to make eye contact with us, or college kids making rude comments ("e.g., get a damn job!"), still existed in Boulder. I was young and feel like it was easier for me to deal with (I was a punk, I wanted to shock people with my mohawk!), then it was for some of the older adults. This is just one small way that being homeless breaks your spirit after time. Sometimes, seemingly kind people would purposely avoid looking at us, and that is a way to make a person feel very small and unimportant.

    Also, it wasn't easy to find places to sleep. Sometimes I think people take the idea of a homeless shelter for granted. I am not sure if it has changed in the past decade or so, but in the winter, the shelter was often overfull, with the overflow shelter being full as well. You cannot be drunk and get a bed there, which is hard to do when it is bitter cold and you are drinking because you are addicted, or you are just trying to stay warm. ( I understand the safety issue, just pointing out the difficulty) Also, there are sometimes limits to how long you can stay in shelters. I am not putting the shelter down, just pointing out that sometimes people believe that every homeless person could just go sleep in a bed at a shelter if they wanted to, and that is not true. I slept in a lot of parking garages, or behind dumpsters in secluded alleys, by the creek when it was warm enough, in the library during the day if I could get away with it, and occasionally on the courthouse lawn for as long as I could chance it.

    sorry for the extended comment, I feel like I have been waiting to read this article for a long time, and wanted to agree and maybe add my two cents. thanks again for bringing these issues to light.

  12. GreatNorthSky says:

    First, Tremendously Insightful Writing. Very Passionate and Heart Felt, Thank You Ann !!!!!!!

    It's A Shame With All The Resources We Have That These Challenges Still Exist, Incredible. Even More Incredible Is How Little Prevention Government Does In This Area. I Recently Had A Personal Experience With Our Welfare System That Showed Me We Are All Just ONE Step Away From Being Homeless and It Can Happen In A Snap.

    Thank You Again and All My Best To You

  13. Pookibooboo says:

    In my country, we have this thing called the American Dream. I thought that was cool until I found out it is illegal to sleep. Call me crazy, I don’t care.

  14. bobcat says:

    Thank you. I've decided some time ago to connect and help the homeless people I come across. Yet, with that intention there are some situations that are more appropriate to carry it out than others. The ones I have talked to and bought foods and groceries for made eye contact, spoke clearly and grateful for the connection and support. Rather than giving money, I prefer to talk and ask what would be helpful. All just wanted some food and water. None asked for money except one guy who needed it to pay for a bus and get home. I come to realize that they are just like me, regular people who have fell through some hard times. The truth is they helped me understand life and it's meanings which are much more precious than a few words and a few bucks I offered.

  15. Cielo says:

    These are the realities I encounter, although I am not homeless. I do rent a cottage near a seasonally dry channel in a small city/big town. Homeless people often live under bushes and the nearby bridges over this broad, tree covered "empty" space and I've come to meet and talk with many as we run into each other at my recycling and trash cans on the road edge.

    I only see a difference in her assessment of drug/alcohol use among homeless people. I see that more who might be homeless or live in shelters choose homeless if they use alcohol or drugs. This isn't accepted in shelters and those who wish more autonomy prefer the shrub in a channel to a shelter with strict rules.

    But many are homeless by choice because the shelters won't take their dog, too. I've been hearing about some temporary homes and shelters that do accept pets who show as much safe behavior and hygiene as the humans. I hope more refuges find ways to allow this.

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  17. Lara Giblin says:

    I was curious if you ever considered changing the layout of your blog? Its very well written; I love what youve got to say. But maybe you could a little more in the way of content so people could connect with it better. Youve got an awful lot of text for only having one or two images. Maybe you could space it out better?Roofing of Fort Worth, 8100 Wallace Road, Fort Worth, TX 76135 – (817) 330-8100

  18. A big thanks to all the creative people who share their content with the world!

  19. Christine says:

    I have managed to sidestep homelessness on very narrow margins twice this past year, and managed to settle into a cosy apartment that is lovely and am ever so grateful. But the feeling of the other shoe will drop, flinging my daughter and I back into the downward spiral is never far away. My health steadily in decline would afford me less opportunity to seek out alternatives, and the knowledge of the hopelessness intertwined with a decided lack of engagement or empathy from friends or family leaves a grim depression, uncertain if I want to wake and fight thru another day or not. Thank you for your article, understanding our plight will hopefully lead to those pockets of good luck that allow us to move forward in the muck and mire of our circumstances.

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