Why People Become Homeless

Lately, many people are beginning to take interest in the homeless issue. Maybe it's due to the economic downturn. Maybe it's because they realize that they're just a paycheck away from being homeless themselves. Maybe it's because they are seeing more and more homeless people on the streets of America. Then again, it might be all of the above. Regardless of the reason for their interest in the issue, It's good to see that they care. However, most people don't sufficiently understand the root causes of homelessness.

Many believe that people are homeless by choice. this is only true in few, if any, cases. Those who "choose" to be homeless are usually mentally ill. Making an irrational choice as a mentally ill person doesn't constitute true choice as far as I'm concerned.

Then there are those who believe that people become homeless due to their own missteps such as drug use, failing to pay the rent and going to jail. While this might account for some people's homelessness, there are also many legitimate reasons for becoming homeless.

(Copy and paste this informative link: http://www.nationalhomeless.org/factsheets/why.html)

The fact of the matter is that many people become homeless due to a lack of affordable housing and/or living wage. Women often become homeless while running from a violent husband. Teens often become homeless after revealing that they are gay and consequently being put out by their parents. Then there are the people who have prolonged hospital stays during which they lose their job and their house. The lack of affordable health care causes some people to have to choose between paying the doctor and paying the rent. They end up paying the doctor and defaulting on the rent.

Oftentimes those who haven't experienced homelessness yet have an erroneous vision of what a homeless person looks like. When they think of a homeless person, they think of someone who is filthy, mentally ill and digging through a sidewalk trashcan looking for food. Such people are the exception and not the rule. The fact of the matter is that most homeless people dress neatly and carry themselves rather well. I often advise people to visit a homeless shelter or soup kitchen and take a look at the people there. I tell them how that most of those whom they'll encounter are so neat and well-mannered that no one would've guessed they were homeless had they not been seen at a shelter or soup kitchen. People have stood with me in the soup kitchen as I gave my spiel and agreed with me. Some of those who you'd least expect to be homeless are. This speaks volumes to the fact that we are all "just a paycheck away from becoming homeless".

While the reasons for someone becoming homeless are easy enough to understand, understanding the reasons for prolonged homelessness might require that you use a few more brain cells. You must first understand the mental and emotional changes that a person goes through after becoming homeless. the first stage is the "why me?" stage during which the person feels sorry for him or herself. then, at phase 2, they are bound to become gung-ho about getting out of homelessness. they believe that they are going to find another job and another place within a short time frame. If a person remains homeless for longer than a month, they are likely to enter into phase 3 where they lose hope and begin to resign themselves to the notion that homelessness is just their lot in life.

That's not to speak of the fact that making friends is pretty much the only way to get by as a homeless person. It is nearly impossible to find needed homeless services without speaking to a homeless person. Some newly homeless people are unaware of shelters and soup kitchens in a city where they lived for years while housed. All of a sudden, they find themselves speaking to the homeless people that they used to ignore or even look down on. They come to find that "homeless networking" is a means of survival. They make friends in the homeless community. it stands to reason that they will never see homeless people in the same light even after they exit homelessness.

I'd be remiss if I were to fail to mention the current crisis. With the economic downturn, all of the housing foreclosures, unemployment being above 10% and there being no end in sight, even the former middle class is becoming homeless. Oddly enough, some of them have been known to say things like,"I shouldn't be homeless; I'm middle-class." They're actually in denial. They used to be middle-class. Now they're homeless. The fastest-growing segment of the homeless population is homeless families. In the Metro DC area, which includes Washington DC and the 8 surrounding counties (the Metro Washington Council of Governments -- MWCOG) there has been a 25% increase in family homelessness in the past year.

While many homeless individuals are seen as being responsible for their plight due to their own delinquent behavior, family homelessness is usually indicative of a plummeting economy. As a result of homeless families being victims of objective economic circumstances as opposed to their own behavior, they don't get the same bad rap as homeless individuals. People often tell a homeless individual to get a job. (See my previous posts about the difficulties of getting a job when homeless.) On the other hand, the general public tends to become highly emotional when they see women with children living outdoors or in a car. This can translate into political pressure as the public demands that local governments find quick fixes and get those women and children out of the elements. Ironically, governments (like the DC Government)that, in some cases, couldn't find money for shelters or housing for homeless singles can all of a sudden find the money when their political capital is at stake. After all, who would re-elect a mayor who couldn't house an innocent 5 year old?

Let's not forget that many people the world over become homeless due to natural disasters. Consider Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans or the tsunami of December 2004 which left thousands of Asians homeless. Then there are wars which displace thousands of refugees. "All roads lead to Rome". "All socio-economic problems lead to homelessness."

In conclusion, the reasons for homelessness are many. Anyone can become homeless. In spite of appearances any of the neatly-dressed people that you encounter from day to day can be homeless. With the economy being what it is at the moment, the number of homeless people is steadily growing. It, therefore, behooves the housed to befriend the homeless who they might end up sleeping next to in the very near future, while at a shelter or on the street.

Copy and paste the following video link of homeless people in DC asking for shelter. The final woman (at the 8 minute and 23 second mark) died outdoors 3 days after making the video:


My next blog post will spell out the evidence that I have to prove that DC Mayor Adrian Fenty has plans to close the Federal City Shelter (where CCNV is located). That building (at 2nd and D streets, NW in washington, DC) has housed as many as 1,500 homeless people at one time. The building was commandeered from the Reagan administration by a group of homeless people under the leadership of Mitch Snyder in the 80's. Stay tuned.....


Caitlin said…
Excellent post outlining the reality of homelessness as it is now & as it has been for a very long time.

I remember so clearly the Reagan years when people who were one paycheck from the street lost that paycheck & hit the streets - that's definitely happening all over again.

I also remember a man who used to come into the public library where I worked in high school. He came in every day & never bothered anyone - just read newspapers & magazines & various books. Some patrons, however, complained because he smelled. My boss talked with him & discovered that he was on the street, dying from cancer. He'd maxed out his insurance, lost everything he owned, & his family abandoned him. We found a place for him to stay & one week later he died there.

It's a hard world & it's our responsibility to take care of each other in it. Thanks for writing so well about things people need to know.
Oh, Eric, a wonderful post. I completely agree with Caitlin's last paragraph:
"It's a hard world & it's our responsibility to take care of each other in it. Thanks for writing so well about things people need to know." We must notice and look to the care of our neighbors -- the wide world of neighbors.
sarah said…
Eric, as a social worker who works with the chronically mentally ill, I just wanted to say thanks for putting this post up. It's really important to shatter the myth that people who are homeless are that way because of their poor choices or laziness. Thank you for all that you do, I can't tell you how important your work is.
Anonymous said…
I have a brother who has been homeless for the last 25 years. He is definitely suffering from some type of dementia. He used to come around to visit & my siblings used to see him up near the Union Station. In the last five years we have not seen him We filed a missing person report but we have found nothing. Can some agency help us find him ? He is mentally ill & cannot make decisions on his own.
Eric Sheptock said…
Five years is a long time not to see a loved one. I hope he is still living. I used to see a certain man who looks to be in his mid 50's and shows obvious signs of dementia around E and 6th streets NW (about 8 blocks from Union station). I haven't seen him in about 3 months. He's a small white man with short gray hair.

Call the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless at 202-328-5500 or the National Coalition for the Homeless at 202-462-4822 for info on homeless people whom you can't find.

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