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:
- You not giving them money will not get them clean
- 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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