Myths about the homeless

Posted April 01, 2011, at 1:24 p.m.
Associated Press photo

There are many myths and stereotypes about the “homeless”.  Myths and stereotypes come about due to misconceptions born of ignorance, overgeneralizations from a single experience, and poor access to the real facts.   Since the homeless population is often called “the invisible population,” it is understandable why these myths and stereotypes develop and why they persist.  However, myths and stereotypes can be challenged by facts and broken down by those willing to take a fresh look at what they thought they knew.  The following are some common homelessness myths, along with the facts that challenge them.

Myth 1: Homeless People Are Taking Advantage Of The System.

This myth assumes that all the homeless are on the dole, yet in fact, a relatively small percentage of homeless people receive government assistance.  The largest part of government assistance includes either disability benefits in the form of Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, or welfare benefits in the form of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or TANF.  What are the facts?  Although over 40 percent of homeless persons are eligible for disability benefits, only 11 percent actually receive them. Most homeless families are eligible for welfare benefits but only 52 percent of them receive them. Moreover, when individuals do receive benefits, they rarely receive enough to afford housing.   The current maximum TANF benefit for a single mother of two is 29 percent below federal poverty level. In 1998 a person on SSI had to spend an average of 69 percent of their monthly income just to rent a one-bedroom apartment.

Myth 2: Building housing or increasing services brings homeless people to the city (or Maine is a magnet state for the homeless):

This statement is a broad generalization that assumes only one reason why a homeless person may have arrived in the Bangor area.  However, the reason some homeless persons move to new areas may be because they are searching for work, have family in the area, or have other reasons not related to services. A 1997 national study found that 75 percent of homeless people are still living in the city in which they became homeless. # In other words, these people had not come to the city “as a homeless person.

Yet it is rumored that the homeless are sent to Bangor specifically because of the housing or because of the availability of services found here.  According to Michael Andrick, director of the Hope House shelter in Bangor, however, the vast majority of residents are from Maine.

Recent research tells us that fewer than 1 percent  of all 2010 recipients of public benefits came to Maine from another state. From 2008 through July 2010, the number of aid recipients who left Maine each month was double the number who moved to Maine.

Mark Swan who runs the Preble Street Resource Center for the homeless in Portland has stated that those who do come from another state have a connection to Maine, or a family member, or a reason to be there other than services. He notes that about one third are from Portland,  one third are from other places in Maine, and the rest have come from out of state. The number from out of state are seen as deceiving because some were born in Maine, left and lived in other states, and then came back to Maine years later and ended up being homeless.

Thomas McLaughlin from the University of New England has been has been compiling data for six  years on this very subject. Of those that do come to Portland from other states, most of them come to Portland to find work. Many travel between Portland and Florida for seasonal jobs. The number of people that are receiving services that move out is almost double or triple than those people moving in. Also of note is that of the hundreds of people McLaughlin has researched, none have said they are here for social service benefits or to have someone find them a place to stay. Swan of Preble Street states the myth of Maine being a magnet for people in need of services is “the most pervasive myth that social services have to deal with, not only in Maine but all over the country.

Myth 3: Homeless people are different that I am.  I could never become homeless.

It is easy to separate yourself from a population if you don’t see them.  If they are invisible, the homeless are easy to ignore. The fact is that one bad circumstance or series of unlucky or unfortunate events can lead to homelessness.  When you listen to the stories of the homeless, you soon realize that any one of us could become homeless in this society. Moreover, homelessness affects every area of the population.  Many of the homeless are still working, but without a living wage they can’t afford rent. Even being educated is not a guarantee against becoming homeless.   People with graduate degrees can and have become homeless. Homelessness does not discriminate. To learn more, go to http://invisiblepeople.tv/blog/ for some interviews with homeless individuals and hear their stories.

Looking at recent Maine data as provided by the non-profit Maine Equal Justice Partners, over 42,000 low-income households that rent pay more than half of their income towards housing costs. Many Maine families are at risk of losing their home. In the first eight months of 2010, there were 2,710 new foreclosure filings on Maine homes, with 271 new filings in August alone.

Myth 4: Nothing can be done.

There are real solutions and strategies for ending homelessness and many organizations are on the front lines in these efforts. As of  last month, 7629 of the most vulnerable people who are homeless have been housed by Common Ground’s “100,000 Homes” and “Hospital to Home” campaigns.   These national programs are addressing issues that present barriers to housing people.  The majority of people helped in this way are maintaining their status as being housed chronically.

Myth 5:  People choose or want to be homeless

According to the National Coalition to End Homelessness, the top five reasons of homelessness are:  1) lack of affordable housing, 2) lack of a living wage, 3) domestic violence, 4) medical bankruptcy, and 5) mental illness.   None of these reasons are related to choice!  They can happen to anyone.

Homeless people do not want to remain homeless.  Some waiting for months and struggling with regulatory barrier after regulatory barrier lose hope.  The “100,000 Homes Campaign” found that when people receive housing vouchers without red tape, they don’t turn down the opportunity to move into an apartment.

The solution to the problem of homelessness is to increase permanent housing, as is done with the “Housing First” model.  With “Housing First”, housing is provided before treatment services, regardless of substance abuse or mental health issues, and then treatment is added.  According to Sam Tsemberis of Pathways to Housing, “Some people think when you give housing away that you’re actually enabling people as opposed to helping them get better. Our experience has been that the offer of housing first, and then treatment, actually has more effective results in reducing addiction and mental health symptoms, than trying to do it the other way. The other way works for some people, but it hasn’t worked for the people who are chronically homeless.

Next week: Homelessness Myths six through 10

Meridith Bolster is a licensed clinical social worker at Penobscot Community Health Care’s Summer Street Health Center in Bangor.

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