Myths about the homeless, Part Two

Dennis Brandon of Philadelphia smokes a cigarette on the back porch of the Greater Bangor Area Homeless Shelter in 2009.
Dennis Brandon of Philadelphia smokes a cigarette on the back porch of the Greater Bangor Area Homeless Shelter in 2009.
Associated Press photo
Posted April 08, 2011, at 4:45 p.m.
Last modified April 09, 2011, at 5:04 p.m.

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.

Last week, we looked at five of these misconceptions about people who are homeless, and the facts that challenge those myths. Here are five more.

Myth #6: Homeless people are criminals.

Targeting this population as a group of individuals to be feared has no basis in fact. Homeless people are more likely to be victims of crimes (including hate crimes) than to become criminals.  In fact from 1999-2010 there were a total of 1,074 reported acts of violence against the homeless population that resulted in 291 deaths. The crimes that the homeless do commit tend to be related to non-violent crimes, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless.

For every homeless person who commits an act of violence there are many peaceful homeless individuals just trying to survive and protect themselves from being harmed. For example, a study done by Johns Hopkins University found in reviewing arrest records in Baltimore that although homeless people were more likely to commit non-violent and nondestructive crimes, they were actually less likely to commit crimes against person or property. They found that for persons who were not homeless, 35 percent of crimes were crimes against property or person.  For homeless individuals, on the other hand, only 25 percent of crimes committed were against person or property.

Myth#7: Helping the homeless infantalizes them or is a form of inappropriate “rescuing.”

There is a big difference between helping the homeless and rescuing them.  Stephen King said in a speech to Vassar College in 2001: “My own philosophy—partly formed as a young college graduate without a job waiting in line to get donated commodities for the kids—is by all means give a man a pole and teach him to fish, but people learn better with full bellies. Why not give him a fish to get started?’

Imagine being homeless with no resources at hand. You are left with a few belongings, if they are not stolen. You probably don’t have a car to go around looking for apartments or jobs.  You are living at a homeless shelter. You apply for a job, but your only address is the shelter, and they recognize the address immediately. You obtain a “Trac Phone”, but perhaps the shelter where you are staying limits the use of phones.  Even if you could get access to a computer, your access may be severely limited. If you go to the public library to get on line, you may only stay on-line for one  hour to apply for jobs that only have online applications. Clearly, the obstacles are such that even being a college graduate or someone with a significant skill set, you may not be able to get a job.

There is a big difference between helping someone and rescuing.  We have all received help at some point in our lives, even if we don’t realize it.

Myth 8: It’s cheaper to let people remain homeless rather than spend money on housing.

Data from the state of Maine that shows we receive significant cost savings when we house individuals. A study completed in 2009 titled “ A Review of Costs Associated with the Second Year of Permanent Supportive Housing for Formerly Homeless Adults with Disabilities” studied both urban and rural Maine.  They found after individuals were housed, there was 50 percent reduction in service costs during the second year of housing placement. Also found as a result of housing was a 46 percent reduction in health care costs, a 49 percent reduction in emergency room costs, an 87 percent reduction in costs for incarceration, and a 53 percent reduction in ambulance transportation. Rural Maine also had significant cost savings. There was a 37 percent cost savings in service costs, a 54 percent reduction in mental health costs, a 15 percent reduction in emergency room costs, and a 91 percent reduction in incarceration costs. For rural Maine this was a $2,751 per person cost avoidance.

An Illinois study in 2009 tracked 177 individuals two years before and two years after they moved into supportive housing.  They found that once they are in supportive homes, the cost of public services  incurred by residents — such as inpatient mental-health care, nursing homes, and criminal justice — decreased by 39 percent.  This change in the use of public services yielded a total overall cost savings of more than $850,000, yielding an average savings of $2,400 per year for each resident.

For much more detailed information, and information on other studies that have been completed, please check out Housing California: Fact Sheet Effective Cost-saving solutions to housing “Why Supportive Housing Works” through “Housing California.”

Myth #9: Homeless people are lazy.

Facts: Imagine sleeping in a room with 30 other people. Some are snoring; some might be hearing voices and talking out loud. You don’t know any of them.  Your bed isn’t very comfortable and you might have heard rumors about bed bugs. How well are you going to sleep? Then you have to get up the next day at 6am after 2 to 3 hours of broken sleep. No sleeping is allowed during the day at the shelter. You may go to the library to snooze for a short period of time.  You walk around town looking for something productive to do, but you are so tired you have a hard time focusing.  Depending on where you live, you might have to be constantly on guard of being harmed by others, or having your belongings stolen etc. You might apply to some jobs, but because you look disheveled and tired during the interview, they don’t hire you. In addition to all these obstacles, you might develop more illnesses from living in a shelter. The claim that homeless people don’t work is another myth. Many do work, but the wages are not a ‘living wage’ and they do not make enough to pay rent. A study done in Chicago found that 39 percent of homeless people interviewed had worked for some time during the previous month.

Myth #10: We take care of our veterans; very few of the homeless population are veterans.

Military veterans are 50 percent more likely to become homeless than other Americans. Based on the annual point in time survey, Veterans constitute just under eight percent of the total U.S. population and they account for 12 percent of the total homeless population and 16 percent of homeless adults on any given night.

For more information on homelessness, here are a few websites that are helpful:

100,000 homes campaign: http://100khomes.org/

Invisible People: http://invisiblepeople.tv/blog/

Pathways to housing: http://www.pathwaystohousing.org

Information on the Vulnerability Index: http://www.commonground.org/?page_id=789

National Coalition to end homelessness: www.endhomelessness.org

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

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