Writing Sample: Understanding the Realities of Homelessness

by Mark Luthringer

This article was written for ThatHelps, an app that helps connect people with ways to volunteer for and contribute to charities.

Many of us have little contact with homeless people other than seeing them gathered in parks, panhandling, or sleeping in doorways, and as a result, some misleading stereotypes have persisted about them: for example, that they are mostly single men in urban areas, drug or alcohol addicted, often mentally ill, that they are lazy and refuse to work, even that they prefer living on the street. Some of us have also come to view homelessness as an intractable problem that no amount of money will solve.

While some of these are innocent oversimplifications of complex problems, others are more pernicious in how they blame the homeless for their plight, potentially relieving us of a need for compassion or urgency in responding. Here then is a reality check on some widely held misconceptions about the homeless:

The homeless are mostly urban men with substance abuse and mental health issues  
Substance abuse is a contributing factor to people remaining homeless, with over half having addiction to drugs or alcohol, but research has found that only a quarter have a documented mental disorder. And, according to 2016 data, the homeless population is over 40% women, 35% families with children, and 7% unaccompanied young adults and children, with just 46% living in large urban areas.

The homeless are lazy and don’t want to work
Actually, studies have shown that 40% of the homeless population has a mental or physical disability that could prevent employment. Furthermore, recent estimates are that up to half the homeless population is employed full or part time on and off. The reality for many is that, because of high housing costs, employment is no protection from homelessness. Depending on the state, a minimum wage worker would have to work between 69 and 174 hours a week to pay for an “affordable” (30% of income) two-bedroom unit. Because of these costs, many working people are just one health crisis, job termination, or other emergency away from being homeless.

The homeless don’t want help – they prefer living on the street
While there is a small subset of the homeless population that is chronic and somewhat unreachable by services and programs, the reality is that most shelters are military-style barracks with lots of rules, housing hundreds of people in a large room. Thus they are far from family-friendly and may not be an option for others because of physical or mental disabilities or the fear of having to be in close proximity to those who have them. Given the options, it’s not surprising that some would choose the privacy and autonomy of living outdoors or in a car.

The homeless exploit the system by moving where the services are
This point is sometimes made by those arguing against state or local homeless programs. But the experience of Los Angeles and other localities with data to look at this question shows no significant increase in new arrivals after starting new programs.

The homeless are averse to moving for the same reasons as the rest of us – cost and the stress of adjusting to a new, possibly unknown place – and the suggestion that some have a strategy for moving wherever they can get the most benefits is both unfair and untrue.

The homeless problem will never go away
To believe this is to ignore progress that has been made over the last decade in the United States, and to believe that living wage jobs, supportive child care, and affordable, accessible healthcare – all attainable goals – wouldn’t, together or individually, help pull many people out of homelessness.

Want to contribute to efforts to help the homeless and other disadvantaged people? Join ThatHelps and help vetted NYC partners like New York Cares and City Harvest.