Myths Surrounding Homelessness

March 08, 2019

Recent policies in Austin regarding homelessness and how to address it, reflect the changing views on how to help people struggling with homelessness. Previously, many cities focused on short-term care. By investing in research in to homelessness, cities have discovered that there are many myths about homelessness; what causes it, what prolongs it and the best way to help people going through it.

Myth #1

Homeless People Are Lazy

There is a stigma surrounding the homeless population that they are lazy and just don’t want to work. The Urban Institute says that nearly half of homeless people have worked in the last month. According to Forbes, nearly 80% of the U.S. working population live paycheck to paycheck. Meaning nearly 80% of the U.S. work force is one paycheck away from homelessness. Homeless people are not lazy, they need help to get through a rough patch. Anyone can become homeless. Furthermore, living on the street is not easy. Homelessness is a hard, tiring and degrading lifestyle. It takes a lot out of you and the simplest daily activities become huge obstacles. Homeless people have to work so much harder to do simple things like brush their teeth or apply for a job. People who go through a homeless spell and come out the other side are some of the most resilient and hardworking people there are.

Myth #2

Homeless People are Homeless For A Long Time

Chronic homelessness is relatively rare. According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development less than 6% of the homeless population in a given year in the U.S. is considered chronically homeless. The average length of time that someone is homeless is two days. Half of the people that are considered homeless, meaning they spent a night in a shelter, are never homeless again after 30 days. Oftentimes, homeless people need something as simple as a bus pass or internet access to get off the street and in to permanent housing.

Myth #3

Homeless People Always Have a Severe Mental Illness

The small percentage of homeless people that do suffer from mental illness are very visible. Meaning, they are the ones that are most likely to be seen wandering city streets drawing attention. Because of this the 13 to 15 percent of the homeless population that does suffer from a severe mental illness has come to represent a larger percentage than it actually is to the public. These numbers are calculated by Dennis Culhane, a professor of social policy at the University of Pennsylvania. For the most, if you passed a homeless person in your daily life you may not even know they were homeless.

Myth #4

Shelters Are the Solution to Homelessness

Shelters are intended to be temporary housing for people that are struggling. However, they are not a great experience for people and as a result many people chose to sleep on the street. The more resources we divert to building shelters, the less resources we have for the ultimate solution to homelessness which is permanent housing. Subsidized permanent housing is the best solution to homelessness. They are a great way for people to get back on their feet and work their way back in to traditional housing.

Myth #5

Homelessness Will Always Exist

Homelessness is the result of a failed system. This should not be a reality for people living in one of the most wealthy countries on the planet. It was originally thought that nothing could be done about homelessness and that it would always exist. Recently, researchers and policymakers have started to realize that this is not the case. The new approach to getting people in to permanent housing first and foremost is showing results and can ultimately lead to the end of homelessness in Austin. According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development the number of chronically homeless in the U.S. has decreased by a third since 2005 because of this new approach. The nationwide chronically homeless population is around 112,000. Within Austin it hovers just above 2,100 according to the last count. Many cities across the country have ten-year plans to end homelessness one life at a time.

Myth #6

Homelessness is the Result of a Bad Economy

People become homeless for so many reasons. As stated before most people in this country are one paycheck away from homelessness and that is certainly one reason. Another large reason for homelessness in the U.S. is health care. Health care in the U.S. is so expensive it can cause people to lose their homes so they can pay for medication they need to live. Other reasons include increased rent, family emergencies, landlord bullying, domestic abuse, etc. What all of these reasons have in common are they are not caused by the person facing homelessness. Homeless people are suffering from their circumstances and just need help getting back on their feet. People don’t chose homelessness. They are forced in to it.

Myth #7

Homeless People are Addicts

According to the 2017 Point in Time count in Austin, less than 20% of the homeless population in Austin suffer from some form of addiction. For the most part, it is families that simply can’t afford housing. However, it is worth noting that there is a yearly rise in the percentage of the homeless population that is struggling with addiction. In Austin the synthetic drug, K2, is linked to a lot of homeless people suffering from addiction. Austin has recently announced a Homeless Outreach Street Team that will be focusing on helping addicts get the medical care they need. Many people become addicts after they become homeless because drugs are readily available on the street. Homelessness is hard and drugs and alcohol can serve as a distraction from a pretty dire situation.

Myth #8

Homeless People Should Just Get a Job

What many people don’t realize is that people can be homeless and have a job, they are not mutually exclusive. Having a job does not guarantee you can afford housing. Austin has very high rent rates which is why it’s important that the city builds more affordable housing and subsidized permanent housing for families struggling with homelessness. A minimum wage job in Austin is not a living wage and can not support a family and pay for a two bed, two bath apartment. The reality is that for many people, homelessness is not caused from a lack of a job but rather from an affordable housing crisis.

Myth #9

Homelessness is Only Prevalent in Major Cities

Only half of the nationwide homeless population lives within a large city according to research conducted by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The rest live in suburbs and rural areas. Homelessness is something that people face in every type of community. Sending homeless people outside of the city is not a solution. Finding permanent housing for them within city limits is.

Myth #10

Solving Homelessness is Expensive

The best way to address homelessness is on a case by case basis. Every person’s experience is unique. The problems they are facing are unique. But the first step is having affordable housing readily available for families that have nowhere to go. In most cases, people just need a helping hand to get back on their feet and they can self-resolve their homelessness. It costs the city of Austin between $31,000-$40,000 per homeless person per year through law enforcement, hospitals and other community services. It is much more expensive to allow chronic homelessness to continue than it is to find real solutions.

Myth #11

Giving Money to Panhandlers Encourages Homelessness

Gifting money to a homeless person on the street is a personal decision. Most people that are panhandling are doing so because they are in need of financial help. If you are uncomfortable giving cash to a homeless person because you are worried they will use the money for drugs or alcohol you can gift the money to an organization that focuses on helping the homeless community. Other ways to help include just paying for a meal or donating goods to homeless organizations that will distribute it out to the homeless community.

Myth #12

All Homeless People Live on the Street

Most homeless people are considered sheltered homeless. According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development close to 70% of the homeless population in the U.S. are sheltered or in transitional housing. A 13% of the unsheltered homeless population live in their cars in Austin according to a report by the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO). For most people, their homeless experience is short lived. It’s just a temporary situation while they are between jobs or homes and just need a little help getting back on their feet.

Myth #13

Homeless People Are Dirty

Homeless families have access to many different resources to keep a clean appearance. Keep in mind many of these people are trying to get a new job. Paying for a gym membership is one way many families have a place to shower. Shelters also offer a facilities to keep clean. Public places like libraries also have restroom facilities as well as computers for homeless children to do their homework. For most families going through homelessness there are resources to utilize to maintain a routine while looking for permanent housing.

Myth #14

Homeless People Shouldn’t Be Able to Afford Phones

Today, things like phones, computers and the internet are requirements for employment. As the prices of items like phones and computers have gone down, housing costs have steadily risen unequal to the rate of rising salaries. For many homeless people their cellphone is the only connection to the world they have currently. Free wifi provided by cities can be a saving grace because it allows them to seek and apply for jobs, create a resume and work remotely. These items are no longer luxuries but requirements for working.

Myth #15

Housing For Homeless People Should Come With Drug Testing

This myth stems from mis-information. Recovering from a drug addiction is nearly impossible while living on the street or transitional housing. It requires routine and stability that is non-existent while living on the street. People need to be placed in a safe and permanent housing situation in order to recover. Oftentimes, once people have regained a level of normalcy they no longer wish to continue their addiction. Addiction is a horrible disease that preys on the most vulnerable of our population. Homelessness is a result of an already bad situation and addiction just piles on it more. People struggling with addiction should be the most assisted homeless population. Requiring drug testing for subsidizations is counter-intuitive to what we are trying to accomplish, which is ultimately to help these people overcome the darkest parts of their lives. The worst thing we can do as a community is to turn them away.

Myth #16

Homelessness Only Affects Single Men

This myth comes from who is the “visible” homeless population. “Visible homeless” means who you see on the streets panhandling and living under bridges in tent communities. A survey by the Department of Housing and Urban Development found that one-third of homeless people were 24 and younger in 2014. Nearly 40% of homeless people were families meaning one in forty-five U.S. children experiences homelessness each year, according to the National Center on Family Homelessness. The large homeless shelter in downtown Austin, Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH), is a men’s only shelter. However, there are resources for families, women only and children only.

These misperceptions of homelessness have caused homelessness in the U.S. to persist. The misinformation combined with negative attitudes and prejudice have encouraged a cycle of homelessness. With proper research we have discovered real solutions to homelessness, both chronic and short-term. Having a deep understanding of the causes of homelessness was the first step toward solving it nationwide. The city of Austin can end homelessness by funding the organizations and needed resources. Homelessness isn’t something that can be solved overnight but it can ultimately be resolved.

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