10 Myths of Homelessness from a Formerly Homeless Man

Cartoon showing two men: one holds a cardboard sign that reads Plays Sax and says "that should get me some money panhandling."10 Myths of Homelessness from a Formerly Homeless Man

There exist many aspects of homelessness that one could write about, from the varied causes of homelessness to the welfare system that largely supports the homeless. You could write about the hundreds of agencies and organizations that make it their business to care and support the homeless. You could write about how the general public views the homeless. You could, of course, talk about being homeless (if you’ve ever had that life experience). After you have exhausted all there is to say about these things, you could write about resolving homelessness, eradicating it from the face of the Earth, like a horrible disease, in the same manner our society currently talks about ending hunger.

It is my goal, and my passion—possibly my calling—to change how homelessness is perceived, to put forth workable solutions for eradicating homelessness. As a formerly homeless man, I will use the remainder of this article to address what I believe are the 10 prevailing myths regarding homelessness. This list is not exhaustive by any means and is in no order of importance.

MYTHS ABOUT HOMELESSNESS

Myth #1: Homelessness is a result of losing a job or home, and it’s their fault.

Homelessness is so much more than not having a roof over your head, or having a place to put all your possessions. Homelessness is not caused by the loss of income, although it’s a contributing factor. Individuals and families lose homes every day to natural disasters, predatory loans, death, illness, divorce, bad debt, loss of income/job, etc. The list is endless. If even a tenth of all of these incidents resulted in homelessness, it would be considered a national disaster. Losing your home would be a devastating experience for anyone; however losing your home or your income does not have to result in homelessness. Homelessness is a condition, like a sickness or disease, and needs to be treated as such. It is often long term and chronic in nature, like a disease; but it can definitely be treated and it certainly can be prevented and eliminated. Homelessness is a very complex and perplexing issue, that is not simply the result of losing your job or home.

Myth #2: Helping the Homeless is the Responsibility of the Government

The fact of the matter here is that it is everyone’s responsibility, not just the government’s. Today, however, the Federal, State and local governments are not helping in the manner in ways they should. Instead, they are helping in ways they shouldn’t. Take the Cash Assistance Program for example: When it comes to supporting the homeless individual by giving cash money, generally in the form of EBT, and often in the form of disability income (SSDI), what are they really doing? Are they really helping or are they enabling?

The government’s support of the homeless in terms of cash assistance only serves to exacerbate the chronic homelessness and does nothing to alleviate the condition. This issue of our state government giving monetary assistance to the homeless is no different in my opinion than you or I handing money to someone displaying a sign on busy intersection. What you and I and the government are really doing is allowing the homeless—in fact enabling the homeless—to remain homeless, while giving them enough money to sustain themselves for just a single day. More often than not this money is used for cigarettes, alcohol, drugs and even cell phones and motel rooms. It is seldom used to pay for their housing needs. Put another way, money is not the most pressing need of the homeless: Love is.

Myth #3: Homelessness generally involves African-Americans and other Minorities

Homelessness, as far as Myth #5 is concerned, does not show any favoritism whatsoever to the individual’s color, gender, religion, sexual lifestyle or preference, age, social or economic status, and, most certainly, any ethnic background. It bears repeating that homelessness plays no favorites; NO ONE is immune. Sooner than you may think, or realize…  today, tomorrow, next week, maybe even a year from now…  you could, realistically, find yourself homeless, sitting in a park perhaps, shaking your head in total denial and be wondering what on earth has happened to you. You wouldn’t be the first and you certainly won’t be the last.

Myth #4: Solving Homelessness is too Overwhelming for just One Person like Me

To the individuals in Myth #6 who think that there is nothing that they can do to truly help the homeless person, or community, I say this: If they would take the time to think, and do some research into the matter of being homeless, they would see and discover for themselves that there are a great number of things that they could be doing to help remedy the situation. Any one person could provide real hope.

Myth #5: The homeless are generally uneducated, irresponsible, lazy, worthless

After having been personally involved in the lives of many people, I can tell you that they are some of the smartest, the most educated, the most articulate, and the most honest and responsible people I know. Myth #7 is not only a myth but it is also a total and complete misconception and misunderstanding of the true homeless scenario. There are a good number of homeless people who are improving themselves every day in a school of higher learning.

Myth # 6: The Homeless People are Only those who “Fly Signs” at Intersections (panhandle)

The pure and simple underlying truth here is, is that on an average day there are some 300-500 homeless individuals in the city of St. Paul; and the majority of these people are not the ones at the busy intersections with signs.

Myth #7: The homeless dress as if they actually want to appear homeless

I will admit that identifying a homeless person is often not very difficult to do—even with a minimal powers of observation. You can usually pick them out by the clothing that they wear, clothing that doesn’t fit properly or is inappropriate for the weather or season; or by their physical appearance, the nature of their skin from countless hours in the elements. Most often these individuals are the chronic or long-term homeless, those who have no hope of a better future, and thus, the ones who may have simply stopped caring about their physical appearance. But they represent a small minority in the homeless community. The majority of the homeless dress like everybody else because they know where to get the clothing and hygiene resources they need.

Myth #8: The only time the homeless are sociable is when they are seeking something tangible from you

Contrary to belief, the reality of Myth #10 is the opposite of what is perceived. There are some homeless individuals who DO live up to the standard of the misconception. There is always one who’s words are smooth, even believable, and if they were not asking for something, they wouldn’t be seen talking to you.

In contrast there are those in the community of the homeless that are quite articulate and would be happy to get involved in a conversation on any number of issues. It bears repeating: it is the few, the minority, who cause this perception to exist.

Myth #9: Most of the people who are homeless have never had a full-time job

This is another of the many BIG misconceptions and falsehoods about the homeless individual. Many of these people faithfully work regular full-time jobs, doing all that is within their power to better their lives; some are even former corporate professionals. Additionally, it must be noted that not all homeless are able to work due to age or disability. While it is also true that there are those who are capable of productive work who have never applied for work, or, who refuse to learn the responsibility or discipline of actually performing a 40-hour work week, these represent the minority.

Myth #10: As an individual I am actually helping the homeless by handing them money

It is NEVER wrong to give—even if your motive for doing so is not what it should be. As an example, I have often given my last dollar or last bit of change without having the right spirit or attitude. Other times, I have given with that sincere, honest, and loving spirit that I believe dwells and works within everyone. I am often torn between giving—just to satisfy my guilty feeling—and that of genuinely wanting to help a homeless person. None of these scenarios produce a “good feeling” within me.

It has taken me a couple of years, and many flips-and-flops in my decision-making, to write what I am about to share with you. What I have finally arrived at is this: That simply handing a person a 5 or a 10 is simply encouraging the recipient of your generosity to continue doing this same routine over and over again. When they find a “hot spot”, they will stay there and willingly depend on the generosity of others’ when this same person is fully-capable of earning a productive living on his own. In a very real sense, we are responsible for promoting their lifestyle.

There are those who will say that this is a very hard, or even cruel, stance to take; others will never be convinced or convicted that this continued action of theirs labels them as “enablers.” My stance is in one that is done in “the spirit of love.” There are other more loving things that I could be doing to help the homeless person or community that would be of greater benefit than handing them cash over and over again. I am asking those who do give cash to stop doing so, in the name of love and understanding. The homeless person, who is fully-capable of working, will have a hard time, at best, to understand this rational because they feel that their greatest “need” is money. I am telling you that they are deceived and that their real greatest need is the expression of your love in other more tangible ways.

In Summary…

I have, purposely written about the myths, misconceptions and stereotypes from the viewpoint of one who has NEVER been there and, God-willing, never will be. These 10 Myths of Homelessness from a Formerly Homeless Man isn’t nearly exhaustive. In fact you have probably thought of many more, as you read this.

My next articles will present the same myths and stereotypes taken from the perspective of the homeless person, define what homelessness actually is, and provide insights to solutions to the some of the causes of the homeless condition. I hope that through this article that you have been informed, even if it’s only in reference to a comment which causes you to pause and have a second thought about the nature of homelessness. It is my deepest desire to share with you my knowledge on this real-life issue, and in the process to inform, educate, and enlighten, and hopefully inspire you to help in whatever way possible.

I close this article with these words: Like everyone else in this world, the homeless community and each individual in it are human beings, with real feelings and desires, goals and aspirations, hopes and dreams and are equally created in the image of God. As God has shown grace and mercy upon each and every one of us, so we, also, should do so for each other, including the homeless. Yes, homelessness is sometimes the result of making bad decisions, but everyone is entitled to a second chance, even multiple second chances.

As I have done with considerable thought, I want YOU to give this following question serious thought and consideration:

If you had it within your power to transform the life of, even, ONE homeless person…WOULD YOU? and WOULD YOU make the effort that may be required of you?

Photo of Daniel Velner

Daniel Velner, Writer and speaker about homelessness. Board member of Prevail News.