The Four Biggest Misconceptions About Homelessness

Rethink Homelessness on March 3, 2015

Do Our Myths Prevent Us From Ending Homelessness?

In the United States, we know that homelessness is a problem. In fact, it is a problem that in the past never seemed to have a solution.

But the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that we have struggled as a society to find a real solution to homelessness because we just don’t understand the problem.

Unfortunately, our tendency as human beings is to solve the problem by stereotyping the victims of homelessness or developing false assumptions about the causes of homelessness.

But when we do this, the problem only gets worse, because when we draw incorrect assumptions about the realities we face, we can never prevail in this struggle. The problem will only get worse, and the misery will only spread.

So with this in mind, let me set the record straight. Let me put to rest the four most prominent misconceptions of homelessness that I believe contribute to challenges in helping those in need on our streets.


Homelessness Myths


MISCONCEPTION #1: All homeless people are homeless for basically the same reasons

All of us are victims of the limited perspectives we have on life. Until we actually do the research to understand a complex problem, we tend to focus on those causes of the problem that are familiar to us and those remedies we have seen with our own eyes.

For many of us, therefore, homelessness is a simple problem with just a couple of basic causes: People are living on the streets because they are lazy and don’t want to work, or these people have fallen upon hard times and don’t have the ability to get back on their feet.

Laziness and misfortune can definitely lead to homelessness, but it is not the primary reason. In reality, the problem is quite complicated and nobody can really write a formula that predicts who will be homeless and who will successfully make the transition from the streets back into society.

Over the years, we have been able to isolate a few “touch points” that seem to put people at a higher risk of homelessness.

One of these “touch points” is mental illness or some type of physical impairment that is permanent or increasingly regressive. In fact, until recently, a large percentage of the homeless were veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or a severe physical injury.

Over the years, victims of domestic violence and other forms of trauma or abuse also have constituted a large percentage of our nation’s homeless. So do younger families struggling to gain the education and employment needed to maintain stable homes for themselves and their children.

But in more recent years, we have come to understand that the problem of homelessness is much broader than it used to be and much more intricate than the average American realizes. In reality, a lot of factors now give rise to this growing national predicament. So a one-size-fits-all approach to the problem is no longer effective.

What causes a problem determines what a society must do to solve that problem, and no problem can be permanently solved until the primary cause is addressed.

So the expanding number of causes for homelessness and the almost unpredictable number of scenarios that lead to homelessness are making the problem particularly resistant to quick remedies and stereotypical models.

Living on the streets is not a choice


MISCONCEPTION #2: Those who are homeless choose to be on the streets

Because mental illness is prevalent among the most long term homeless, we must remember that a chronically homeless person can sometimes see the world through the distorted lens of their disease. Choices made because of mental illness are therefore not choices that are based on reality at all.

If you can recall the movie, A Beautiful Mind, you may remember that the central character of the film, John Nash, was a Nobel Prize winning theorist who suffered from mental illness.

In the movie, the viewer is clearly shown the struggles that Nash had with his perceptions of the world around him and the battles that he waged to differentiate between reality and fiction. So mental illness doesn’t really give a person the ability to “choose” anything from a foundation of truth. Mentally ill people do not have the chance to make any real choices concerning their lives unless they get the clinical help they need.

In addition, the challenges that have put these people on the streets are complex and convoluted, and they are difficult to unravel. So it is unwise for the rest of us to draw hasty conclusions about those living on the streets.

But we do know this; circumstances put people on the streets. It is not simply a choice.

Homeless Families in Central Florida

MISCONCEPTION #3: Arresting and punishing the homeless will effectively cure the problem

Law enforcement is necessary, and our police officers do a praiseworthy job of protecting us and maintaining order within our communities. But the criminal justice system—the best in the world when it comes to enforcing the law and dispensing justice—is ill equipped to solve our nation’s social problems.

Nevertheless, some communities have tried to utilize the legal entities of government in an effort to solve the problem of homelessness. They have arrested people living on the streets, they have criminalized the lack of a suitable domicile, and they have persecuted those who cannot seem to keep a roof over their heads. Yet all these legal approaches have proved fruitless.

Crime can be effectively controlled by punishment, because criminal activity is a choice. But homelessness, as I have clarified, is not a choice. So those efforts that are geared at punishing the homeless for the circumstances they face are is many times hollow and senseless. You cannot manipulate human behavior if the person you nbso online casino reviews are punishing has no ability on their own to get off the streets.

Law enforcement and court officials are placed in a no-win situation when they are asked to solve the problem of homelessness within their communities. In fact, there is little that the legal system can do to rectify this predicament.

While it is necessary sometimes for officers of the law to arrest homeless people in order to keep the peace, no city in America has ever reduced homelessness by arresting those who are the victims of this continuing problem. Experience tells us that we cannot force people off the streets and into a better life by adopting punitive attitudes toward them.

Can we end homelessness in Central Florida and beyond?

MISCONCEPTION #4: Nothing can be done to help solve the problem of homelessness in America

This may be the biggest myth of all, because, even though communities across our land have struggled with the issue of homelessness for decades, some amazing progress has been made in this effort over the past seven to ten years. Places like Salt Lake City, Houston, and Phoenix have reduced certain homeless populations by as much as 70 percent during this brief timespan.

Over the past ten years, therefore, those on the front lines in this important social battle have seen their greatest sustained victories and their most inspiring successes. And when we analyze the research and the data from all the communities that have made significant strides forward, we quickly learn that all of them have achieved their success in precisely the same way.

A new strategy called “Housing First” has been the backbone of these impressive community efforts to solve the problem of homelessness. This model, based on the idea that the first step in helping a person get off the streets is to help that person get into some type of stable housing, has led to amazing and historic results in the communities where this strategy has been implemented.

Although this simple approach may seem like common sense to those of us who are watching from afar, the programs and policies of the past thirty years have not been focused on this simple solution.

Instead, because of misconceptions about who the homeless are and because of false beliefs about the causes of homelessness, communities across America have been taking pathetically unproductive approaches to the problem of homelessness, and these communities have been largely unwilling to try anything new.

Most of the programs we have tried in the past are programs that have been based on “housing readiness” models, where the homeless person must earn the right to be helped by proving his worthiness for government or charitable assistance.

Historically, therefore, we have focused on fixing the person instead of fixing the problem, because we have mistakenly believed that the person was the cause of the problem. And of course, this philosophy and the programs built around it have proven to be untenable as homelessness has skyrocketed, because we have insisted on clinging to this unproductive approach and to the tragically inaccurate beliefs that undergird it.

Punishment does not solve the problem of homelessness and neither do incentives or rewards, because homelessness is not about the victim; it’s about the problem the victim has inherited. It’s not about choices; it’s about circumstances the victim cannot control.

Whenever a person finds himself on the streets—for whatever reason—the downward spiral can be impossible to reverse without some type of outside assistance. Homelessness is interwoven with the illnesses, failed relationships, negative financial history, and even past legal issues that give rise to and creates a tangled web of problems no person can untangle in order to prove his or her worthiness for help.

My hope, therefore, is that our society can eventually move beyond these four deeply held misconceptions about the homeless and start genuinely helping people with programs that are focused on getting them into long-term housing, where they can begin to deal with the problems that placed them on the streets in the first place.

When we use wisdom instead of prejudice and compassion instead of criticism, we can truly make a difference in the lives of those who are walking through the terrible plight of this common social issue. We can change the live of the homeless forever if we can rethink these four misconceptions.

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