Understanding Homelessness: What It Is and Isn’t

Homelessness happens when people do not have safe and secure places to live. While this definition may sound quite simple, the causes of homelessness are often complicated and varied. For example, some causes include a house fire, economic strife, the loss of a job, a medical emergency, rising rents, a death in the family, addiction, and/or family problems. These events and countless others can occur at any moment to anyone. Without a supporting community or financial preparation, anyone can become homeless; it’s not just a status reserved for alcoholics, drug addicts, and the mentally ill.

A recent study by the Federal Reserve shows that 47 percent of Americans could not pull together $400 in the case of an emergency. Among this 47 percent, many Americans live paycheck to paycheck with some form of debt and very little savings. Without a proper safety net, emergencies can strike that disrupt an individual’s delicate financial balance and send him/her into a state of homelessness. As nearly half the country lives so close to the edge, there’s no doubt that you have a friend or at least know someone who is one emergency away from living on the streets.

Beyond the threat of homelessness and its pervasiveness, there’s a huge issue regarding the general perception of homelessness. Many people base their opinions on what they see, and they buy into the negative stigmas surrounding homelessness. These people do not see that homeless people have the same feelings, emotions, dreams and ambitions as anyone else. What is popularly considered the slimy, dirty and ugly part of homelessness is out there in full view in our urban settings, and this is the narrative that prevails.

But this narrative is only part of the story. This “slimy, dirty and ugly” side of homelessness that most people see is the end result of a long-term struggle to regain footing in society. Throughout this struggle, most difficult is the uncertainty of not knowing if or when the next meal will arrive and what options exist for reversing such a situation. In the long term, this insurmountable predicament can lead to alcoholism and drug addiction—a last resort for finding reprieve.

Having been homeless myself, I can attest to the incredible psychological burden associated with the realities of homelessness. For example, finding a safe refuge is among the toughest challenges that you face. Not all shelters are safe places to live, with risk of theft quite common. The mental anguish of not knowing where you may sleep or if the place where you are sleeping is safe creates an added layer of torment to an already challenging situation.

It is a lot harder to survive homelessness day in and day out than people realize. The disparity between the realities of homelessness and the country’s negative perception of homelessness creates a great challenge for our society. On the whole, we ignore or disregard the homeless, refusing to take the time to fully understand the truth about homelessness.

Our government is as guilty of misunderstanding and misrepresenting the homeless as any one individual. If you take a look at government budgets, you’ll find that social services are always cut first. Why? It seems to me that the political thought process deems homeless people to be expendable, perhaps because few homeless people vote. As a country, we sweep this “societal epidemic” under the rug. Then, when conditions become unbearable, we tell the police to control the “homeless problem” in order to protect the franchised segments of our society. In order to break this cycle, we must think beyond ourselves and use our votes and resources to help the homeless and disenfranchised of our society.

While those with homes may never truly understand what homelessness entails, I’d like to propose a thought exercise to help bridge this misunderstanding. Imagine yourself without access to a shelter, with absolutely no disposable money and with no support from family or friends. Where do you turn? How do you get food? Where do you sleep?

These are not simple questions to answer. I hope that by proposing this scenario, however, it might get you thinking a little bit about your local homeless population and what life must look like from their perspectives.

This piece was edited by David Riche.

Mike Thistle is a vendor and a writer for Spare Change News.

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