6 Myths and 1 Truth About Homelessness in the United States
This winter has been brutal. A number of primary weather observation sites experienced record-low temperatures in the midst of January's uncommonly frigid weather, and the polar vortex was blamed for at least 21 deaths in the first two weeks of the year.
People living in poverty and homelessness are especialy at risk to suffer the dangers of cold weather. Though U.S. homelessness has dropped 9% since 2007 and 4% since 2012, the December 28 expiration of the emergency federal unemployment insurance program and cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) have many concerned that the number will spike again in 2014.
Reasonable minds can disagree on how to address homelessness and poverty. Some solutions, however, cite half-truths, fabrications and incomplete information to explain them. Here are a few misconceptions:
1. MYTH: Homeless People are Mostly Drunk Single Men
Stories of homeless people are often accompanied by images of freeloading, shiftless and drunk men living in urban settings, itching to mooch housing and anything else they can off the government.
The U.S. homeless population is way more than this stereotype.
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's (HUD) 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress, almost one-quarter of all homeless Americans are children, and about one-third are 24 or younger. About 41% of the homeless population lives in smaller cities, counties or regional Continuums of Care (COC), which are local organizations that cover homeless services in a given area.
Of the 633,782 homeless Americans in 2012, 293,403 were in families, and 243,627 were unsheltered. The National Alliance to End Homelessness found that more people experience a temporary period without housing as opposed to chronic homelessness, which is characterized by having a disabling condition, being continuously homeless for one year or more or having experienced at least four episodes of homelessness in the last three years.
2. MYTH: Homeless People Don't Work
There is a popular claim that 44% of homeless people are employed. While PolitiFact found this statistic somewhat faulty — it is based on 18-year-old research and takes into account people who have worked, but do not necessarily hold a regular job — the number is a reflection of the most current available data and measures people who have done work of some sort, consistent or not.
Despite the statistic's incompleteness, the message often associated with it remains: "Shouldn't work be an escape from poverty?"
3. MYTH: Low-Income or Free Housing Should Have Conditions
Many well-intentioned people have genuine concerns about offering low-income or free housing to homeless people suffering alcoholism, drug addiction or mental illness. Shouldn't their housing be dependent on their willingness to undergo psychiatric examinations or get sober?
Some evidence actually suggests otherwise. Pathways to Housing DC is a nonprofit that has helped more than 600 people find homes and recover from addiction. Backed by President George W. Bush during his time in office, Pathways provides easy access to homes without requiring recipients to use its other services, which include mental and physical health care, drug treatment, education and employment options. After a year-long study, people who used Pathways had a 3% homeless rate with costs comparable or even lower to those of a typical city system, which in the study had a 28% rate.
Another organization, 100,000 Homes, has achieved progress with a similar approach. A University of Pennsylvania study found that more than 85% of homeless Philadelphians who were given homes were still in housing two years later. In its own experiment, offering free housing without strings, Utah is on track to end homelessness by 2015.
4. MYTH: Homelessness is Exaggerated
Having 610,042 people without a home on a given night, one could argue that homelessness is an overstated problem.
But consider how homelessness disproportionately impacts certain subsets of the public. 40% of homeless people are African Americans, compared to 11% of the general population.
Veterans are another good case in point. HUD has estimated that 57,849 Americans, or more than 12% of homeless adults and 9% of the country's homeless population, are veterans. Despite comprising only 10.4% and 3.4% of the veteran population respectively, African Americans and Latin Americans collectively account for about 40% of all homeless veterans.
5. MYTH: The Government Lost the War on Poverty
This year marks the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. Critics have been right to point out its shortcomings, the main flaw being that poorer Americans have not entered the middle class to the extent Johnson envisioned. Nonetheless, there have been important gains.
A Columbia University study reported that without government aid passed during the Johnson administration, the poverty rate would have hit 31% in 2012. Based on two different measures, it was instead between 15 and 16%. The White House Council of Economic Advisors found that poverty rates have declined more than one-third since 1967. For senior citizens alone, poverty rates went from 35% in 1960 to 9% in 2011.
SNAP, which was initiated as the First Food Stamp Program (FSP) in the 1930s and made permanent when President Johnson signed the Food Stamp Act of 1964, has also been successful. The U.S. Department of Agriculture found that "every $5 in new food stamp benefits generates almost twice as much ($9.20) in total community spending." This makes Congress and President Barack Obama's recent $800 million cut to the program all the more troubling.
6. MYTH: People Choose to Be Homeless
In an interview shortly before leaving office, President Ronald Reagan said of homeless people, "They make it their own choice for staying out there [on the streets]."
There are surely people who become homeless because of poor decisions, just as an unhealthy lifestyle can increase the likelihood of contracting certain types of cancer. But do we make generalizations about people choosing to get cancer?
As the first point indicates, people are homeless for a wide variety of reasons, a good number of which are at least partly and often largely beyond a person's control. As the previously listed Rock Center story shows, even people in relatively sound financial footing are not immune to a series of unfortunate events that can lead to homelessness.
In a 2009 report, the National Coalition for the Homeless found that 22% of homeless parents, most of whom were women, left their previous residence because of domestic violence. A 2012 survey by the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that 30% of homeless adults were severely mentally ill, 18% were physically disabled, 16% were victims of domestic violence and 13% were veterans.
7. TRUTH: Homelessness is Complicated
Having compassion and believing it is best for homeless and impoverished people to control their own lives are not mutually exclusive ideals. Some elements of President Johnson's Great Society, as well as programs like Pathways, have revealed the possibility of helping the homeless get back on their feet without attaching overly-stringent standards.
Homelessness is a complex problem. Many factors have contributed to its role in our country, and a multi-layered approach will surely be our best hope for continuing to decrease the number of our fellow citizens living without life's most basic needs.