Is fear preventing us from solving homelessness?

Posted: April 26, 2011 in Discrimination, Homelessness, Housing, Mental Health, Misconceptions, Morality, Stereotypes

Homelessness is not, by any stretch of the imagination, an easy issue to address. And although I personally do not believe that homelessness can be eliminated altogether, I am nonetheless convinced that we can significantly reduce the numbers of folks who are experiencing homelessness. But in order to do so, we have to look beyond the myths and stereotypes associated with homelessness.  

One thing I’ve come to realize is that what many people believe about homelessness isn’t based on what they know, but rather on what they think they know.

In other words, their concept of what homelessness is; why folks become homeless; who can become homeless; and what may keep them homeless for extended periods of time, is based primarily on misconceived perceptions (and, in many cases, on the hearsay of others) instead of actual fact.

In addition, whenever a community finds itself struggling to "deal" with a growing and visible homeless population, public discussions become emotionally charged. Sadly the one emotion that seems to invariably take center stage is fear.

It is not unusual for me to be reading a news article about a community which finds itself trying to address homelessness. An analysis or two are presented. Demographics and studies are discussed. Everyone agrees that something must be done to "fix the problem." Suggestions are made. But then, when a proposal is put forth to build a shelter, increase services or, as in some cases, affordable housing units — well, that’s when fear kicks in.

Suddenly, folks go from the compassionate and humane Yes-let’s-do-something-to-help-the-homeless attitude to the angry Not-in-my-backyard! mindset. And the reason for their abrupt change in opinion? Fear.

Folks don’t mind the helping of the homeless as long as they themselves are not affected. They don’t mind the helping of the homeless as long as it’s located somewhere where they themselves don’t have to interact with the homeless personally. They don’t mind the helping of the homeless as long as it is someone else who is required to make the concessions.

And why is this?

Because in the minds of so many, the homeless are nothing more than drug addicts; alcoholics; mentally unstable; lazy — and yes, even dangerous thugs and criminals. In essence, the homeless are viewed as the scourge of the earth. And people are literally afraid of having them in their neighborhoods.

But is that fear even justified?

There is no denying that there are some (please note the word "some") homeless who are of questionable character. But, the same could easily be said of some folks who aren’t homeless. All you have to do is pick up your local newspaper and scan the headlines if you want proof.

The truth is that the overwhelming majority of folks who are experiencing homelessness are basically decent folk. The only real difference between them and the rest of society is the lack of a place to call home. It’s that simple.

It seems silly to me that folks are afraid of someone simply because they have no home.

I can understand someone being afraid of a particular homeless person if they’ve been accosted by that specific person. But to fear an entire segment of a community’s population — in this case, the homeless — based on the actions of a handful of persons lacks common sense. And, it robs us of the ability to do what’s best, not only for our fellow man, but for ourselves, as well.

I whole-heartedly agree with what Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, Marian Anderson, said about fear:

"Fear is a disease that eats away at logic and makes man inhuman."
 

As a society we need to ask ourselves a couple of questions: Are we going to forego helping the homeless regain a place in our communities because we are paralyzed by fear? Or are we going to behave like rationale human beings and do what’s right?

As simple-minded as is may make me appear, I believe that in order for us to effectively address homelessness in our communities, we have to set aside our fears — fears that have been anchored on misconceptions, myths, and stereotypes.

Once we do that, we will be able to clear-mindedly see what needs to be done to create successful solutions for solving homelessness in every community across our nation.

As I said at the very beginning of this post: homelessness is not an easy issue to address.

But the task becomes all the more difficult if we continue to allow fear to make the decisions for us.

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Comments
  1. Rev. Cynthia says:

    Michael, “overcoming fear” is certainly a huge factor in getting the general population to decide that “enough is enough” & to collaborate on getting folks re-housed more quickly. Thanks so very much for posting about stereotyping & stigmatizing those, who are experiencing homelessness!

    It has been my experience that when a person encounters or thinks about the idea of someone, who is experiencing homelessness, the initial thought is “Something is wrong & that’s why this person is homeless.” And, in fact, they are quite right, something IS wrong. The problem is that, without further inquiry, folks are left to their own imaginations, which often do not take into account the hundreds of possible scenarios that can land people on the streets.

    Plus, as long as people focus on the reasons for homelessness, which they themselves cannot identify with (like addiction/mental or physical disability/release from prison), then they do not have to face the reality that homelessness can happen to anyone, even them!

    Blessings,
    Rev. Cynthia

    • That’s absolutely right. What lurks under the fear is the dread that it CAN happen to anyone with the right combination of circumstances. A college degree doesn’t guarantee continued employment, a mortgage isn’t ‘insurance’ against losing the home, and a person in good health now can be financially devastated a year from now by enormous medical bills.

  2. Megan says:

    So well said!! Our Speakers Bureaus help tens of thousands dispel their negative stereotypes of who is homeless every year, but that is still just a small step.

    • michael says:

      Quick Note . . .

      The Speakers Bureau Megan makes mention of is a program sponsored by the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) that brings together people who are currently experiencing, or who have at some time in their lives experienced homelessness and providing them a forum to share their insights about homelessness.

      The NCH is one of the oldest national homeless advocacy groups in the U.S.

      – michael –

  3. John Doe says:

    Very well said. I’ve even been guilty of that mindset myself, and now here I am beginning my journey into homelessness.
    Feel at this point my best tool is to be as informed as I can, and then to hopefully pass on that knowledge

    • michael says:

      JD,

      Thanks for submitting a comment.

      I have checked out your blog Homeless in Boston, and have subscribed to your RSS feed. I look forward to reading your posts. And, of course, I am sending my best wishes that you may find your way back into the main stream community just as quickly as possible.

      Best of luck,

      – m –

  4. Perhaps there is a deeper fear that also stops us addressing homelessness.

    Our own wellbeing depends on a system of “property” (real estate) which we fear might collapse if there was no real threat of homelessness. That is to say, those of us who are “successful” in this system – ie the employed who can afford to rent or own a home – depend on the continuation of the system to maintain our successful lifestyle.

    If there was no real threat of homelessness there is a fear that the system which creates our wealth might be overwhelmed by “bludgers” who get housed without having to work for it. We depend on homelessness to protect our system and motivate compliance.

    If we are to end homelessness we need to establish a complimentary “economy” based on community, not on business. This would allow non-competitive people to contribute positively to their community in ways that were cooperative rather than competitive.

  5. cm says:

    Your words above:

    “Because in the minds of so many, the homeless are nothing more than drug addicts; alcoholics; mentally unstable; lazy — and yes, even dangerous thugs and criminals. In essence, the homeless are viewed as the scourge of the earth. And people are literally afraid of having them in their neighborhoods.

    But is that fear even justified?

    There is no denying that there are some (please note the word “some”) homeless who are of questionable character. But, the same could easily be said of some folks who aren’t homeless. All you have to do is pick up your local newspaper and scan the headlines if you want proof.

    The truth is that the overwhelming majority of folks who are experiencing homelessness are basically decent folk.”

    *************************

    From the 2008 Conference of Mayors:

    “For singles, the three most commonly cited causes of homelessness are:

    * Substance abuse
    * Lack of affordable housing
    * Mental illness”

    Link: http://to.pbs.org/R2Z6B

    *************************

    Some stereotypes are based on truth. I’ve done homeless outreach for more than 10 years and met hundreds of homeless people — most unsheltered and chronically homeless. I can’t recall meeting any homeless person who didn’t have an alcohol or drug problem, and/or mental health issue. Most had a criminal record — some misdemeanors only, some felonies, including violent felonies. (Many of these were “homeless” crimes — trespassing, urinating in public, open container, etc.) I still consider them to be “basically decent folk” and it’s quite rare that I meet a homeless person that I’m afraid of. I can think of only 3 or 4 in all the years I’ve done outreach, and they were violent felons with serious, untreated mental illness who threatened me or other outreach workers.

    I agree that there are far more “housed” people who have the same issues. I also agree that many people are afraid of homeless people. But I’ve seen that fear lessen or disappear altogether for those are willing to meet and get to know homeless people. We often fear the unknown. I think that relationships are the key to overcoming fear of homeless people. Most people have friends or family who have alcohol or addiction issues, or mental illness, or who have experienced trauma or abuse, etc. — or they’ve experienced these issues themselves. As they get to know homeless people one-on-one, they usually find that they can relate in some way. Regardless of where we sleep, we all have commonalities. But unless we get to know one other, we won’t know that.

    • michael says:

      CM,

      You only cited the “causes of homelessness” for unaccompanied persons from the PBS article — which, in turn, cites from the U.S. Conference of Mayors 2008 Hunger and Homelessness Survey (which can be found here). However, you failed to also include the primary “causes of homelessness” among families. That creates something of skewed picture.

      Since I always endeavor to provide my readers with as complete a picture as possible, let me cite from the most recent Hunger and Homelessness Survey (2010) — which can be found here — and outlines the following:

      Among families the main causes cited for homelessness are:
         * unemployment (76%)
         * lack of affordable housing (72%)
         * poverty (56%)
         * domestic violence (24%)
         * lowpaying jobs (20%)

      Among unacompanied persons (singles), the following were cited as the primary causes of homelessness:
         * lack of affordable housing (31%)
         * mental illness (19%)
         * substance abuse and the lack of needed services (19%)
         * poverty (15%)

      Based on those statistics, we can reasonably conclude that those homeless who resemble the typical homeless stereotype are the minority — not the majority.

      You also mentioned that your outreach was mostly among the ” . . . unsheltered and chronically homeless.”

      It is the chronically homeless who are most likely to have an addiction disorder or mental health issue (which is, incidentally, why they are chronically homeless). Therefore, since your outreach work was aimed primarily to that specific segment of your community’s homeless population, it is not surprising that you ” . . .can’t recall meeting any homeless person who didn’t have an alcohol or drug problem, and/or mental health issue.”

      That aside, let me again offer my readers a more complete picture —

      According to HUD’s most recent Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress (which can be found here), only ” . . . 27 percent of all homeless individuals . . . ” in the U.S. are chronically homeless (or just slight less than 3 in 10).

      As such, we can clearly see that the chronically homeless are not representative of the nation’s entire homeless population.

      – m –

  6. cm says:

    From your post: “The truth is that the overwhelming majority of folks who are experiencing homelessness are basically decent folk.”

    From your comment: “It is the chronically homeless who are most likely to have an addiction disorder or mental health… we can clearly see that the chronically homeless are not representative of the nation’s entire homeless population.”

    So we have the “basically decent folk” who are the majority of the homeless, and then there are the “chronically homeless” who “are not representative” of the homeless as a whole? That’s clearly stereotyping, and I can say from experience that it’s a myth that chronically homeless people aren’t “decent folk.”

    I see where you’re trying to go with this, but in trying to lessen people’s fear of “the majority of homeless people,” you’re casting aspersions on other, lovely, caring homeless people who are wounded and broken in ways that already cause many people to reject them. That makes me sad. I wonder if you’d thought of it from that perspective?

    • michael says:

      CM,

      Actually, I am not — nor was I — casting aspersions. I am, on the other hand, pointing out that it is usually the chronically homeless who the general public is most familiar with because they tend to be the ones who are the most visible. Unfortunately, when they are seen, they are being seen at the lowest point in their lives. Which is to say that the community sees them suffering their under the burdens of their addiction disorders and/or mental health issues. — or as you so correctly worded it: “. . . wounded and broken in ways that already cause many people to reject them.”

      In addition, since it is the chronically homeless with whom the general public is the most familiar with, the assumption, in their minds, is that every homeless person must have some form of addiction disorder or mental health issue. My point was that the majority of homeless do not have an addiction disorder or a mental health issue. Yet, the fact is that large numbers of people continue to believe they do — despite evidence to the contrary. People fear what they do not understand. And, consequently, that fear prevents clear and rationale thinking. That lack of viewing the issue of homelessness — untainted by fear — creates obstacles to implementing programs and services that have the potential for healing our nation’s homeless and repatriating them back into our communities.

      – m –

      • L.M. says:

        Michael, I am quite surprised by some of the things you said. Nice of you to be sympathetic and understanding but… I read this ‘dialog’ between you and CM, and felt compelled to comment. I’m not taking sides, I personally don’t believe in statistics that much, as they are very inaccurate. And then we all already have strong opinions that prevent us from being objective so we tend to choose and cite sources that support our views. On top of that it’s hard to distinguish whether something is a cause OR a consequence of homelessness. For instance, is one homeless because they are a lazy, crazy drug addict, (reasons listed by CM) or is one homeless because of poor luck, poverty (reasons given by you) etc. and then being homeless drove them crazy and into crime and drugs etc.
        What is curious to me is that nobody is bringing up the homeless subculture aspect. There’s a surprisingly large number of folk in the States who choose that ‘free’ lifestyle, and are now a burden to society rather then a productive member. At heart I’m a socialist and I wish there were more programs that help the problem at the roots, and by that I don’t mean superficial help like giving them money and a meal, which really doesn’t help the problem at large. In my opinion it’s more enabling than helping. But I understand that people do not want this particular demographic group in their backyard. Can you blame them? Remember, there’s a reason for most myths as you call them. Let’s analyze for instance another demographic group: Mexican immigrants. Poor Mexican comes across the border, penniless, no papers, no home, no knowledge of language, left behind his family, friends, country. Basically left his life behind – that’s your ultimate homeless person in this country. Then he does stoop labor picking strawberries and thinning lettuce on CA fields, living in makeshift shacks next to fields out of ag towns in CA valleys. Now I see a lot of them in the fields, but I never saw a single one drinking, begging in the street, or roaming the roads on a bicycle running some poor dog to death.
        Now we agree on one thing: there’s no easy solution to this problem and it would take a big reform and years to make a visible change. But it’s a bit naive to brand most transients as decent folk, and it’s a bit naive to think that people would or should welcome them in ‘their backyard’ hoping that they would easily assimilate to a conventional lifestyle. The whole thing is very sad… and think it may not even be fear, it may be that people are just selfish and simply don’t want to address this as it seems like a no win situation however you tackle it.

        • michael says:

          L.M.

          Thanks for taking the time to comment . . .

          With regards to your statement: “What is curious to me is that nobody is bringing up the homeless subculture aspect. There’s a surprisingly large number of folk in the States who choose that ‘free’ lifestyle, and are now a burden to society rather then a productive member.” — it is highly misleading. The fact is that only an approximate 6% (6 out of every 100) of America’s homeless population are homeless “by choice” — hardly what can be considered a “large number.” If you’re willing, please read my post: Is homelessless really a choice?

          Regarding your statement: “Now we agree on one thing: there’s no easy solution to this problem and it would take a big reform and years to make a visible change. But it’s a bit naive to brand most transients as decent folk, and it’s a bit naive to think that people would or should welcome them in ‘their backyard’ hoping that they would easily assimilate to a conventional lifestyle . . . “ — the majority of homeless are not “transient,” but, are in fact, members of a community who have found themselves becoming homeless as a result of economic factors beyond their control. (Check out my post: Think The Homeless Are Just Bums And Derelicts? Think Again.) Furthermore, as it turns out, even those homeless who are classified as “chronically homeless,” indeed, are able to become repatriated into their communities — provided they having access to homeless services that go beyond the typical “meal and a bed” model used by so many homeless support services across the nation.

          If you have the time, you might be interested in reading my post: Why is ‘Housing First’ such a tough sell?

          – m –

  7. Irina says:

    This is such a well written reflexion on homelessness. It applies to any society in the world. I work as a social carer in an organization that battles homelessness and I agree with all your points. I have met people whose fears and prejudice against homeless prevented them from finding out what it really is (and they still don’t want to know). But I have had the pleasure of meeting people who have seen the other side, they have realized that homeless are people like everyone else and have understood that there are numerous reasons why a person can become homeless. By providing information we can prevent prejudice and stereotyping.

    Thank you for your article.

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