What You Don’t Know About the Homeless
Living in New York, it is almost impossible to walk down the street without passing by a homeless person. This isn’t surprising, since one in every 147 New Yorkers is currently homeless. In a given year in the United States, over 3.5 million people are likely to experience homelessness. Despite the prevalence, there are many misconceptions about the causes of homelessness, as well as a general lack of knowledge about this widespread societal issue.
One of the most common misconceptions about homelessness is that all homeless people are mentally ill or addicted to drugs or alcohol. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), only about 46% of homeless people struggle with mental health issues and/or substance abuse. Interestingly, research shows that the primary cause of homelessness is actually lack of affordable housing.
There is a significant affordability gap between wages and the cost of renting an apartment. In order to afford a small, one-bedroom apartment in the United States today, an individual needs to earn a minimum of $19.35 an hour, which is about two and a half times more than the federal minimum wage of $7.25. This means that someone being paid minimum wage would have to work 85 hours a week just to afford a one-bedroom apartment (National Low Income Housing Coalition).
Poverty, of course, is inextricably linked to homelessness. The poverty rate today is about 15%, and two of the major causes are unemployment and inadequate welfare programs. Many people cannot afford to pay for food, healthcare, and housing, which forces them to make a choice about which to give up. Entire families can become homeless if they are hit with an unexpected financial loss from a sudden death, car accident, job loss, or expensive medical bills.
A lesser known cause of homelessness is the aging population. Studies show that adults between the ages of 50 and 64 account for a large proportion of the homeless population. These adults are not old enough to qualify for Medicare or social security benefits, yet many struggle with geriatric difficulties like dementia, vision loss, and limited mobility. Elderly adults over the age of 64 do receive social security benefits, but many find that this money is not nearly enough to cover daily living expenses as well as rent.
War veterans make up 11% of the homeless population today. Over 90% are male, and more than half struggle with a physical or mental disability. Veterans are at greater risk of experiencing homelessness because they are more likely to suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or a physical disability that makes it harder for them to secure a job. Many veterans find it extremely challenging to transition back into civilian life after returning from their service. Others find that the skills they gained in the military do not transfer to the typical workplace.
Another major cause of homelessness is family conflict. Many children become homeless when their parents get divorced. Others leave on their own after enduring years of abuse. Teenagers are often kicked out of their homes when they come out as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Domestic violence also plays a role, as many women must face the difficult choice of remaining in an abusive relationship or living on the streets.
Many people do not realize that being homeless is not always a life sentence. There are actually three types of homelessness: chronic, transitional, and episodic. The chronically homeless are usually older individuals who struggle with a disability or drug or alcohol addiction. They spend most of their lives in shelters, but they represent only a small proportion of the homeless population. People who are transitionally homeless make up a larger percentage. They are usually younger and have suffered an unexpected catastrophe or financial crisis which requires them to spend a short time in a shelter before finding a permanent residence. The third type of homelessness is episodic. These people transition in and out of homelessness, are typically young and unemployed, and struggle with substance abuse or mental health issues.
People often wonder why many homeless people choose to live on the streets instead of going to shelters. Despite the name, living in a homeless shelter is not the refuge that we think it is. Physical and sexual violence are extremely common in shelters, in addition to theft, which deters many people from spending the night. In addition, homeless people who frequent shelters are at greater risk of contracting communicable diseases like tuberculosis or pneumonia. Shelters are usually overcrowded, and there can be over 100 beds in one room. David Pirtle, a homeless man from Washington, was interviewed on NPR about his experience in shelters. He said, “I never found out what a body louse was until I got into the shelter. You know, I had my shoes stolen, just like people said you get your shoes stolen.”
Being homeless is not a choice. It is typically the result of unfortunate circumstances that could happen to any one of us. This idea is disturbing, as it reminds us of the fragile nature of our social position. When we see someone sitting on the sidewalk asking for money, most of us walk by quickly and avoid making eye contact, as if merely acknowledging their presence is too much for us. We turn away so as not to be reminded that in a moment, we could lose everything: our health, our family, our income, and even our home.