Myths About Homelessness

Many myths surround individuals experiencing homelessness, and homelessness in general. These myths allow stereotypes to continue and can lead to hate. As part of our campaign to end homelessness, we share with you some of the most prevalent homelessness myths so that you can educate yourself and those around you.

1. Housing should be a reward for reaching goals.

Housing First dispels the old thinking that someone should “earn” housing by getting clean, getting a job, etc. In fact, a growing body of research suggests that outcomes for sobriety, employment, and health increase when an individual is housed first!*

*O’Campo P, Stergiopoulos V, Nir P, et al. How did a Housing First intervention improve health and social outcomes among homeless adults with mental illness in Toronto? Two-year outcomes from a randomised trial BMJ Open 2016;6:e010581. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2015-010581

Melissa Johnstone, Cameron Parsell, Jolanda Jetten, Genevieve Dingle & Zoe Walter (2016) Breaking the cycle of homelessness: Housing stability and social support as predictors of long-term well-being, Housing Studies, 31:4, 410-426, DOI: 10.1080/02673037.2015.1092504

2. It isn’t fair that some people are getting free houses.

“Nobody gave me a free house.” Understood, and no one gives our clients a free house either. The spaces we find for clients are usually studio apartments with the square footage of two parking spaces. And, there’s rent due. Clients may pay their share of the rent with work income, disability or social security checks, or vouchers available to veterans or individuals eligible for Section 8. There are no houses or apartments given free of cost.

3. People who are homeless don’t want housing.

In our experience, even people who don’t want to stay in shelters* do want housing. Very few of the individuals we meet inside/outside the shelter don’t want a stable housing option. Front Steps has been working with individuals experiencing homelessness for over 24 years, and we know this to be true.

*Common reasons for not using shelters include: trauma that makes proximity to others/enclosed settings a challenge, smoking habits, pets/partners they want to stay with, and lack of storage space.

The information below is taken from an article that originally appeared in the Washington Post,

entitled “Five Myths about America’s Homeless”, by Dennis Culhane. Read the original article here.

4. Homelessness is usually a long-term condition.

To the contrary, the most common length of time that someone is homeless is one or two days. Half the people who enter the homeless shelter system will leave within 30 days, never to return.

Long-term homelessness is relatively rare. According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, about 2 million people in the United States were homeless at some point in 2009 (meaning they stayed overnight in a shelter or in a place not meant for human habitation). But on any given day, only about 112,000 people fit the federal definition of “chronic homelessness,” which applies to those who have been continuously homeless for a year or more, or are experiencing at least their fourth episode of homelessness in three years.

Nearly all of the long-term homeless have tenuous family ties and some kind of disability, whether it is a drug or alcohol addiction, a mental illness, or a physical handicap. While they make up a small share of the homeless population, they are disproportionately costly to society: They consume nearly 60 percent of the resources spent on emergency and transitional shelter for adults, and they occupy hospitals and jails at high rates.

5. Most of the homeless have a severe mental illness.

Because the relatively small number of people living on the streets who suffer from paranoia, delusions and other mental disorders are very visible, they have come to stand for the entire homeless population — despite the fact that they are in the minority. As a result, many people falsely concluded that an increase in homelessness in the 1980s resulted from the de-institutionalization of psychiatric care in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

In some research, it has been calculated that the rate of severe mental illness among the homeless (including families and children) is 13 to 15 percent. Among the much smaller group of single adults who are chronically homeless, however, the rate reaches 30 to 40 percent. For this population, mental illness is clearly a barrier to exiting homelessness.

But depending on a community’s resources, having a severe mental illness may, paradoxically, protect against homelessness. People with a low income and severe psychiatric disabilities may have more means of support than other people in poverty. This particular group may be eligible for a modest federal disability income, Medicaid, and housing and support services designed specifically for them. Specific resources that may not be available for other childless singles — including ex-convicts, people with drug addictions and the able-bodied unemployed — who make up the majority of the nation’s homeless population.

6. Homeless people don’t work.

According to a 2002 national study by the Urban Institute, about 45 percent of homeless adults had worked in the past 30 days — only 14 percentage points lower than the employment rate for the general population last month. The number of working homeless would probably be even higher if “off the books” work was included. Whether scavenging for scrap metal or staffing shelters, many homeless people adopt ingenious ways to subsist.

A recent job loss is the second most common reason people say they became homeless. In a study done by professionals working with the homeless population, it was observed that a steep drop in earned income occurred in the year prior to the onset of homelessness. Interestingly, those people who return to work show a steep recovery in earned income, three years after their initial homeless spell. This preliminary data also suggests that about a third of the chronically homeless eventually end up working, thanks quite likely, to substance-abuse recovery.

7. Shelters are a humane solution to homelessness.

When homelessness became a national epidemic in the 1980s, reformers responded with emergency shelters that were meant to be temporary havens. But as homelessness became more entrenched, so did shelters: Their capacity more than doubled by the late 1980s, then again a few years later, and then again by 2000. Along the way, they became institutionalized way stations for lots of poor people with temporary housing crises, including those avoiding family conflicts, leaving prison or transitioning from substance-abuse treatment.

Large shelters are notoriously overcrowded and often unruly places where people experience the ritualized indignities of destitution: long lines for bedding or a squeeze of toothpaste; public showers; thieves; conflict. Many people have voted with their feet, and as a result, street homelessness persists.

Shelters may be the final safety net, but that net scrapes perilously close to the ground. To be in a shelter is to be homeless, and the more shelters we build, the more resources we divert from the only real solution to homelessness: permanent housing.

8. These poor you will always have with you.

Researchers and policymakers are optimistic about the prospect of ending homelessness. For two decades, the goal of homeless programs was to first treat people for their myriad afflictions (substance abuse or illness, for example) and hope that this would lead them out of homelessness. Now, the attention has shifted to the endgame: Get people back into housing as quickly as possible. This new thinking begins, and the treatment for other afflictions can quickly follow — and with greater benefits. People who haven’t had a private residence in years have found success in these “housing first” programs, which place the homeless directly into their own housing units (bypassing shelters). Rent is subsidized, and services are provided to help these tenants maintain their housing and be good neighbors.

Long-term or chronic homelessness among individuals with disabilities grew 8.5 percent from 2018-2019, while falling 9.4 percent below the levels reported in 2010. This longer trend is due, in large measure, to more permanent supportive housing opportunities available for people with disabling health conditions. People who otherwise would continually cycle through local shelters or the streets.