The documentary Guttered
Perhaps more than anything else the first person, hidden camera, groundbreaking documentary about homelessness, Guttered, makes the need for immediate housing (Housing First) crucial for those who are unsheltered.
Only one city worldwide addresses immediate housing so that no one, no one is on the streets. That city is Helsinki in Finland (link).
It Costs Less to House Street Survivors
Helsinki responded in a way that ultimately saves money, for it costs more to leave people on the streets than to house them. The greatest costs to taxpayers for homelessness lies in their use of the emergency room and policing (whether necessary or not). A Vox article confirms this by pointing out that a Central Florida Commission on Homelessness study indicated that the region was spending about triple on policing homeless people’s nonviolent rule-breaking (link) as it would cost to get each homeless person a house and a caseworker (link).
Another study from the Silicon Valley area shows that leaving a persistently homeless person on the streets costs the counties $100,000 per person (link). They say that the solution to homelessness is ridiculously simple: provide housing, unconditionally.
Homelessness Leads to Chronic Homelessness
And chronic homelessness is traumatic. Several studies looking at behavioral changes as a result of epi-genetic changes (changes around the genes) show that behaviors become persistent. Where a person before being on the streets may have planned for the future, after the trauma of homelessness they are unable to plan beyond a day at a time. The future always looks terrifying.
This doesn’t happen to everyone (a handful are resilient), and to another portion of outliers it’s fully incapacitating to the point that you can’t get these people to leave their dwellings no matter how retched they are.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says this:
Adults whose overall functioning has been compromised by adversity and continued stress are less likely to engage in intentional self-regulation, and have difficulty with problem solving, and impulse control (Lupien, et al., 2009). (link)
FAQ’s about Homelessness
Why can’t they just get a job?
Turns out an estimated 25% of homeless people do work. 40 to 60 percent go in and out of part time jobs (link). I would challenge any person to find work without having an address and while needing to carry a backpack with every last possession in it and no car. Truth is too many of us simply don’t have the capacity for imagining what this would be like. Imagine, as well, that any of the following could be true:
- Prison history and, worse, a felony
- History of eviction from an apartment
- Mental illness, in particular, schizophrenia
- Medical issues that impact work
- Brain injury
And the list could go on. But the clinger is this:
- Rental has been rising to unaffordable rates (even with jobs)
- Many don’t have family or friend relationships for support
Should I give to panhandlers?
It’s really what’s in your heart. There’s no right answer. The majority really do need money for food (link). If nothing else, smile and wave to give these people respect (link). Or even better, write to your local legislators to push for Housing First.
People choose to be homeless (and I’ve been told so by a person who is homeless)
In Portland a myth circulates about unsheltered people who call themselves “home free” instead of “homeless” as though they’ve made the choice to be without a home. Presuming it’s true, it only points to cognitive dissonance. We have a human need to justify our conditions in a way that makes us appear to have dignity.
I think a scant few of us (estimated to be 3%) want to be rained on, snowed on, uncertain of our safety day and night, constantly awakened by screams and ear-bleeding noise, flooded by rain while sleeping, scowled at, kicked out by police, hungry, and everything else that comes with homelessness. Sure, a person can drug themselves (estimated at 20% of the population) to self-medicate, but much of that is simply to endure the circumstances.
The national coalition for homelessness is a great resource. Go to nationalhomeless.org.