Fix homelessness with opportunity and a support network, not penalties for misfortune.
Updated: Jun 11
Lazy or down on their luck?
Many people believe homelessness is the result of poor decisions and moral failure and describe homeless people as lazy drug addicts or predators.
Solutions for the Underaffiliated spoke with Marcus Walls, Homeless Services Director of Homeward Bound in Western North Carolina to learn from his direct experience with homelessness and homeless people.
Homelessness is a view into a community’s overall health in terms of job opportunities, physical and mental health status, affordable housing, and financial support available from family and friends.
The people we see on street corners or along a sidewalk are a small portion of the homeless population.
Just like in politics, entertainment, business, and sports, we see the extremes.
Instead of trying to understand how they came to not have food, healthcare, a roof, family, and friends, we often judge homeless people.
What is the difference between someone asking for donations for an organization that provides services to people in crisis or need in front of a grocery store and giving it directly to those people? Ether way, you don’t really know where the money is going.
Most of the homeless are veterans, older kids, and the elderly
The homeless population is predominately middle-aged and male.
Veterans are around 20 to 25 percent of the homeless population.
More kids aging out of foster care and elderly people living on fixed income are becoming homeless.
Women have more support services, especially those with children, so are often not out on the street.
Homelessness is usually the result of uncontrollable events from which it is hard to bounce back.
Some homelessness is caused by alcohol and drug abuse.
However, some event usually makes people homeless, like escaping a family situation, losing a job, or experiencing a costly medical event.
Modern-day work and high-housing costs are part of the problem.
Employers have shifted the burden of paying for healthcare and retirement to workers.
They can fire people at will.
Median-income jobs often can’t cover even the slightest “abnormal” expense, so a medical emergency could force someone to be unable to pay rent.
Poor and middle class families, and sometimes unmarried couples, often stay together to avoid homelessness
It is difficult to get out of homelessness because without a home — and often a car — one can’t eat and shower, which makes it hard to look presentable for a job interview.
Without family and friends with a place to stay or money to help out, a person can easily slip into homelessness.
There are few long-term housing options that are simple to attain, so people stay homeless
Only extreme cases get permanent housing: Safe, stable homes provided by The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), plus long-term intensive case management services have high eligibility requirements.
Only people who have experienced homelessness for at least a year while struggling with complex and long-term health conditions such as mental illness, substance use disorders, and physical disabilities are eligible.
Temporary housing services involve staff going out into the community and finding and encouraging homeless people to get temporary services and resolve homelessness in the first month with supports like family, friends, and shelters.
Temporary services provide a place to eat, shower, use of a telephone, mail services and storage of personal belonging, plus counselors to explain the process and plan for getting temporary and permanent housing, including connecting them to support resources.
Homelessness drives poor mental and physical health, which increases its burden on society
Homeless people can’t get a good night’s rest, free from the wind, cold, and rain to give them energy for the next day.
They lack food to provide energy to look for a job and health to avoid expensive emergency department visits or hospital stays.
They lack a community to provide moral support and a place to stay or to help them get to an interview or doctor’s appointment
Homeless people are worried about eating, sleeping and whether they will be attacked.
Just like anyone experiencing a crisis, they are likely not sleeping well or thinking clearly and may be too distracted to listen.
Homeless people tend to age faster.
A 22 year-old can look 32 after just two or three months of sleeping on the street or in shelters.
Homeless people in their 40s often have same health issues as people in their 60s.
Homeless people use emergency medical services like ambulances and emergency departments, and they stay in the hospital.
A single homeless person can cost $150,000 in a single year, which we all pay for in taxes, waiting for these services ourselves if we need them, and the burden of homelessness before an emergency event, like policing and incarceration.
Housing one person can cost $38,000 a year.
Learn and get involved
It’s up to us. Professionals handle supporting homeless people, not ending homelessness.
Remember that the homeless people you see came from somewhere that didn’t provide them a path to success.
Don’t blame them or assume they chose to be homeless. It could happen to anyone who lacks money and a support network.
Ask a homeless services or religious organization what you can do to help.
Advocate for social media conversations about the causes of homelessness, not the obvious symptoms of it, like substance abuse and encampments.
Support funding to end homelessness with programs that provide the basic needs — food, shelter, transportation, training — with milestones to help people become self-sufficient and productive.
Understand and advocate for more affordable housing
Use empty office buildings for more affordable housing.
Advocate for HUD to loosen eligibility requirements and perhaps add milestones to keep housing.
Use government owned land and property from low-income housing.
Take advantage of empty office space.