Is homelessness really a choice?

Posted: February 25, 2011 in Compassion, Family, Homeless Shelters, Homelessness, Hopes, Housing, Misconceptions, Poverty, Stereotypes

Despite data and evidence which points to the opposite, there are scores of folks who continue believe that homelessness is a choice.

Even during harsh economic times – such as the U.S. is currently undergoing, when jobs are scarce – there are those who still believe that the homeless are so because they refuse to "seek help."

Perhaps part of it is that folks mistakenly believe that there is an abundance of resources available for the homeless. And, as a result, it’s easy to assume that if they are not escaping homelessness it must be because they enjoy being homeless.  

Unfortunately, there are not an over abundant amount of resources to help the homeless rebuild their lives. In fact, there is a noticeable lack of resources. Subsequently, there are numerous homeless support services (HHS) organizations, in communities all across the nation, who are reporting having to turn folks away.

Interestingly enough, that folks who are experiencing homelessness are being turned away by HSS organizations is rather compelling evidence that they are indeed seeking help; that they do want a way of escaping life on the streets; that they want to be able to rebuild their lives. And that contradicts the notion that the homeless choose to be homeless.

So, if the homeless are seeking help but are being turned away for lack of resources, does it mean that we aren’t spending enough at trying to help them? That we need to be spending more? Or, is there another alternative?

One of the realities of economics is that there is only a finite amount of funding to go around (as most families who are struggling to make ends meet will attest to). As such, making every penny count then becomes of paramount importance. In other words, we need to be getting the "biggest bang for our buck." We need to ensure that every dollar we spend is productive and yields positive results.

Last March (2010), the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), released a report outlining the costs associated with sheltering first-time homeless families versus providing them with a rapid re-housing approach. The cost of providing rapid re-housing programs proved to be the most cost efficient. In some communities, the savings were quite significant – by as much as two-thirds. The additional benefit is that by helping those families become housed, it meant that the communities then had less folks homeless and living on the streets or in shelters.

Let me put it this way: as long as we continue to provide only those types of services that shelter and feed the homeless, the numbers of folks living in the streets of our communities will continue to increase. And, we will continue to believe that the homeless do not want a better way of life.

On the other hand, if we begin to actively offer programs, ripe with solutions that help the homeless off the streets, back into housing and allowing them the ability attain some measure of self-sustainability, the numbers of homeless will decrease. And, if the numbers of homeless were to decrease due to those types of programs, wouldn’t that also be proof that the homeless aren’t so by choice?

Offering shelter and food to our nation’s homeless is a noble and humane gesture. And it certainly appeals to our desire to do something good for those who have less than ourselves. But in the end, if it doesn’t lead to helping the homeless get off the streets, all we’ve really accomplished is made ourselves feel good.

Is homelessness really a choice?


It only appears that way because they remain homeless. And regrettably, they remain homeless because we have yet to consistently offer them the types of assistance they need to rebuild their lives.

In some ways, you might even say it is a lack of choices that prevents them from escaping homelessness. Their options are restricted only to whatever services we are willing to provide. And with such limited services available to assist them, how can we in good conscience believe that they somehow find living on the streets of our nation, with no hope for tomorrow, a preferable lifestyle?

The next time you see a homeless person and are tempted to say that they are homeless by choice, think along these lines:

Would you find being homeless so appealing that you would choose to be so? Or, would you try your best to avoid becoming homeless? And if homeless did occur to you, wouldn’t you hope that someone would offer you a genuine chance at becoming housed, rather than have them just offer you a meal and a bed?

And, how you would feel if you could find no assistance to become re-housed and ended up being homeless for an extended period of time; unable to find a job? Wouldn’t it wound you to have someone believe that you were homeless because you chose to be?

  1. Galaxian says:

    Homelessness by choice was Ronald Reagan’s famous buzz quote back in the 1980s. Homelessness is actually a complex phenomenon that occurs for many reasons. Sometimes, it is indeed by choice, as can be seen in young men who pack their guitars with them on extensive road trips undertaken without money.

    More often, there are other issues involved. Homelessness is not a romance, but a dangerous situation to be in. Unfortunately, having a place off the streets is heavily dependent on being enrolled in someone else’s pay list. Usually this is the result of sale of one’s own labor to a person or organization who wants it and can afford to pay. This ideology is firmly entrenched in American society. For at least 30 years a large political bloc that now calls itself the Tea Party has been working to bring about strict construction of a private property state that provides no social services. They seem to be slowly, but surely, succeeding in their efforts.

  2. poorlocavore says:

    Excellent, and great questions at the end. there seems to be a severe lack of empathy in many parts of this nation these days.

  3. Freddie says:

    i choose not to be homeless. but because i carry a guitar (only thing i have to make me happy) it looks like i choose this? thats sad. ive been homless for over a month now. im 31. ive worked since i was 15. i became disabled in 2002. lost my job 6 months ago for taking too much time for my medical family medical leave. then someone bought my house and gave me a 60 day notice, as he wanted to raise the rent three hundred dollars. and claimed he kicked me out for being 3 days late on rent, twice. in which both times he gave me a 3 day pay or quit. he just wanted me out period. it had nothing to do with money. as he wouldnt cash my checks till the 20th of every month. and i paid a late fee everytime. yet here i sit, he never sent me my 1000 dollars of deposit, or a letter of why he kept it. unable to get another home. i lived there for 4 years, and 5 years in my home prior. my medical condition will only get worse. so finding work is not an option. i do get temp disability. but its very very hard saving up, or not eating. and still living in ur car. :/

  4. Alex says:

    Good article. Another shocking statistic pointing to homelessness not being a choice, is the fact that about 25% of homeless individuals suffer from a servere form of mental illness opposed to about 6% of the general population. Similarly, about 45% of homeless people report having indicators of mental health issues. I believe these stats are from 2009. They are referenced on numerous organizations websites.

  5. Richard says:

    I myself was homeless once. Ok more then once. And I am here to tell you that there are ones that have infact decided to remain homeless by choice. When asked why, the answer was a simple one. Shelters provide all one needs. I did find your article interesting though. yet again i nkow several people that have remained for years in shelters. Drinking up every bit of money they get. Knowing that they can stay at a shelter for free.

    • freddie says:

      Reason people use up all they can get is due to the lack of resources to provide Permanent help. The prado day center employee(, yes they get paid salary to keep the homeless homeless. ). Imagine that. A non profit making profit. And they are the only place to receive help. So if you disagree with marylou down there, who thinks she owns the place. Like myself you will find yourself in a pickle. I still have my guitar, a dog and a bigger truck due to my last one catching on fire. Yes living in a car is very expensive considering gas, insurance, tickets, and being run off from every spot u park at in san Luis Obispo by some cop or sheriff treating u like a ” transient” and too be called one.

      All they offer is a meal, and a bed with bed bugs. Showers so dirty the homeless are even grossed out. And necessity health care. Thank god for that. Or I would die of starvation as I wait for SSI/ssdi. As I had. Head injury, and can barely remember my name at times. Yet the police and society, and god complex people like marylou down at the prado day center make u feel completely hopeless for any help. Except day to day needs.

      I am homeless for a year and a half now. I do not choose this, but this is the way our society is. So me and my dog will deal with the nightly harassment, due to being intelligent, responsive, and not jucpting no as a answer. I am a ver resourceful person. Unfortunately my head injury has made it difficult to perform this.

      Judge as u may, I don’t wish this on my worst enemy

      Your typcle in his 30s no kids, no marriages,means little help

  6. Jacqueline says:

    I either way believe homelessness is a choice their are many ways to get help..many…but they just refuse to do so

  7. V says:

    I agree 100% homelessness is not a choice. Not all homeless are alcoholics or drug addicts. Look at the resources. There are not many. And look at how hard it is to start over when you have no money. No cell phone, permanent address, or transportation will kill your job hunting. Not to mention a shower.

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