Homelessness is not what you think it is. Unless you work directly with the homeless, you probably have an opinion about homelessness that is based on false assumptions that are common in our society.
But don’t be afraid to admit that you may have adopted some false conclusions about this universal problem. I, too, once held a lot of false beliefs about the homeless. Then, at the age of 37, I found myself in charge of solving the problem of homelessness in Central Florida (Orange, Seminole, and Osceola Counties). And one of the things I learned quickly in my new position is that I had a lot to learn about the problem. Actually, I had a lot of false beliefs that I needed to “unlearn,” because I had never worked directly with the homeless the way that I would work with them as CEO of the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness.
At the CFCH, I decided to learn the truth about homelessness by going directly to the source. So with a camera and some blank pieces of cardboard, my staff and I took to the streets to ask homeless people to tell us things about themselves that we might not know. We asked each of them to write down one thing that they would like people to know about them. And not only did this experiment lead to some significant changes in the way our community thought about the homeless and how we addressed the problem of homelessness; this little project also touched more than 6 million people who were able to view our “Cardboard Stories” video on YouTube.
So let me take this opportunity to set the record straight by addressing just a few of the leading misconceptions that I used to hold regarding the homeless and that many Americans still believe about homelessness.
People are homeless by choice or as a result of their own irresponsible actions
Obviously, some people will be living on the streets because they don’t want to be responsible for themselves. But research has shown—and my own personal experience has confirmed—that the vast majority of the homeless are homeless because of no fault of their own. Homelessness has little to do with our individual choices and has more to do with unforeseen circumstances that could negatively impact even the strongest among us.
For example, a large percentage of the homeless are mentally ill. We no longer confine mentally ill people to “asylums” or to other places of confinement from which there is no escape. Instead, our contemporary policies are designed to protect the rights of all citizens, including the mentally ill. Unfortunately, this has created a dilemma for our society, because many mentally ill people who are incapable of caring for themselves end up living on our streets.
Many other homeless individuals have physical disabilities that make it impossible for them to work, especially if they are lacking the necessary skills or education. And a huge number of homeless people are veterans who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or people who have finally succumbed to mounting problems of poverty or unemployment that have put housing beyond their financial reach.
There will always be a few people among us who will try to “game” the system. But the vast majority of homeless people in America do not fall into that category. The vast majority of the people sleeping on park benches or in wooded lots behind shopping centers are men, women, and children who are not there by choice. They are there because life dealt them a very bad hand and they are simply trying to survive.
Homeless people are mostly drug addicts and winos who don’t want to work
As stated above, there will always be some bad apples in any barrel. But for the most part, this is not a true description of the person who is homeless in America. Most homeless people fall into one of four categories.
First, there are the chronically homeless. These are adult men and women who have been homeless for a minimum of 1 year consecutively or homeless four times in a period of 3 years and who are homeless because of a physical or mental disability. And you might be surprised to know that a lot of chronically homeless people have jobs. They just don’t earn enough money to afford their own homes. In addition, many of the chronically homeless are women who have recently escaped an abusive or life-threatening situation and who prefer sleeping on the ground to sleeping in an environment of physical or emotional abuse.
Second, there are a large number of homeless veterans, intelligent men and women who have served our country with distinction. Yet because of an injury sustained in combat or because of the onset of a mental illness or post-traumatic stress disorder, these brave heroes find it impossible to function in society.
Third, many families are homeless. In fact, in Orlando, where I worked personally with the homeless, we conducted a study that revealed that 1 in 17 children in our community had been homeless for at least one night during the year prior to our study. Many American families live just one paycheck away from total financial devastation. And sometimes, especially during economic downturns, families slip through the cracks. Most homeless families will eventually recover and get back on their feet. But unless somebody offers them a little help, they will continue to live in their automobiles or in cheap roadside motels while they try to find better jobs and stabilize their circumstances for the sake of their children.
And finally, there are teenagers and senior adults who often find themselves unable to work or take care of themselves due to their vulnerable stations in life. Some teens have also escaped violent or physically abusive situations, and between 20 and 40 percent of them are LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, or queer). Some seniors are homeless because they have nobody to help them in the final years of their lives, or they have nobody to take care of them when they are sick.
The realities of the homeless population do not match most of the presumptions that Americans hold about this ever-present group of people. But if we ever intend to solve the deeply entrenched problem of homelessness, we need to know the truth about those who are homeless in our midst.
There is nothing we can do to solve the problem of homelessness
Did you know that veteran homelessness in America has been reduced by 47 percent over the past 4 years? Did you know that in 2013 Orlando was ranked number-one among midsized cities in America for chronic homelessness, but that Orlando reduced its homeless population by 60 percent in 3 years?
These statistics prove that the problem of homelessness can be solved. But these encouraging statistics also tell a story: They tell the story that a different approach to homelessness can often produce a different outcome. Where there is a will, therefore, there is a way to solve the homeless problem. Unfortunately, many American communities are focused more on other problems and opportunities. Homelessness is not an issue that is at the forefront of those cities’ agendas. So a problem that could be solved remains unsolved in too many localities.
Over the past few years, the strategy that has produced the best results in the fight against homelessness has been a strategy known as “housing first.” The basic premise of this strategy is that the homeless must be housed FIRST… then assisted individually by caseworkers who can identify the reasons those individuals ended up on the streets in the first place and the best course of action for helping those people regain self-sufficiency. While the traditional model of addressing homelessness has been to require mandatory rehabilitation as the first step in the process of restoration and housing as the last step, the “housing first” model makes housing the first priority for the homeless and voluntary treatment a subsequent step in the process.
As strange as it may seem, this is also a less expensive approach to homelessness for most communities. In Orlando, for instance, we investigated what we were currently spending to simply maintain our homeless population and what we would have to spend to actually house all those people. What we learned is that the City of Orlando was spending about $31,000 per homeless individual for things like incarceration, emergency medical care, drug rehabilitation, court appearances, and so forth. But we decided to change our approach to our local homeless problem when the same study showed us that we could permanently house and treat those same people for about $10,000 each per year, a whopping financial savings for our community.
According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a person must have access to the most basic needs for survival before that person can work on those areas of his or her life that can enable that person to grow, to improve, or to evolve into a better human being. So with that in mind, communities across America are now utilizing the “housing first” approach to homelessness, and this new approach is producing impressive results.
People who are homeless need to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps because they need to be self-reliant
In America, self-sufficiency is a goal that we have for ourselves, our children, and our neighbors. But we must never forget two other truths that can help us apply this principle more equitably to ourselves and others.
First, some among us only need temporary help. Many homeless people have the capacity to overcome their problems and to learn to be self-sufficient. But until we help these people get back on their feet, they will remain on the streets and in the woods, and they will continually drain the human and economic resources of our communities. The government does not have the resources to pay everyone’s bills forever. Therefore, creating self-sufficiency through a hand up, not a handout, should be a fundamental objective of the work we do with the homeless.
But second, we must never forget the uncomfortable fact that many of the homeless, because of their disabilities, will never be able to sustain themselves. Some people in our society will need our help for as long as they live, and we cannot just leave these helpless people on the streets to die from exposure to the elements. In order to qualify for permanent supportive housing, a homeless person must be chronically homeless AND must have a disability. So the “housing first” approach to homelessness is not designed to reward laziness or irresponsibility; it is designed to help capable people get back on their own feet and to help those who are incapable of achieving self-sufficiency to live in safety and security.
Most of the homeless we see on our city streets, the ones who have been there the longest, are either physically disabled or mentally ill or both. And it seems that, in most communities, this portion of the population makes up about one-tenth of 1 percent of the people. As a society, therefore, it is good that we believe in self-sufficiency and that we promote self-sufficiency through our speech and our behavior. But our decency also compels us to accept responsibility for that small percentage of people who will never be able to sustain themselves. Besides, if we choose not to help the most vulnerable among us, that decision could ultimately cost us more as a nation than it would cost to provide these people’s basic needs, and it would violate every moral conviction that connects as a society.
Only government can solve the homeless problem, and more money is needed
It is true that government would have to take a prominent role in any effort to end homelessness, and it is true that a meaningful reduction in homeless would require a substantial financial investment. But government cannot solve this problem alone, and government should not try to underwrite a solution by itself.
In those communities where homelessness has been most effectively reduced, local government has combined its resources with those of the state and federal governments in order to combat the problem. But these local efforts have been bolstered by leaders from other sectors of these communities who have risen to the challenge of a community-wide endeavor. Business leaders and faith leaders have collaborated with top elected officials to create strategies that each group could support. And leaders from philanthropy, mental health, criminal justice, and education have helped to implement and pay for these plans while charitable service providers who work with the homeless have also been part of the process.
Progress against homelessness has been made in those cities and towns that have learned to harness the creativity and financial power of each group that has a vested interest in solving the local homeless problem. So stakeholders from across the spectrum must come together to create the strategies that can work in their respective environments by meeting the needs of the homeless and meeting the needs of each group that is impacted in some way by homelessness. When solutions are the result of local collaboration instead of central mandates, money is spent more wisely and local leaders are held accountable for their results. And homelessness will yield to those communities that pursue this course of action.