Here are two different perspectives as to why the homeless are, well, without homes. Which is your perspective?
Before I began working with the homeless, I fit into the first perspective. I believed people were homeless primarily because they did not want to work, were lazy, or had addictions and/or mental illness. I also believed they made lots of only bad choices. (As if any of us are that one dimensional!)
What I have come to find is a very different pictures of homelessness. Here are some top reasons for homelessness that I have found: DEATH
To begin, the overwhelming majority of those who are homeless with whom I have talked, when they begin sharing their story with me, almost always share about a death. Very frequently, they have experienced multiple deaths of people extremely close to them in a short span of time. Almost everyone talks about having lost one person to death, and many people have lost 2, 3, 4, or even 5 people. Often, these deaths have come close together, like within the span of 2 to 5 years.
Many things occur as a result of familial or friend deaths:
- Loss of support system
- Loss of financial help when the person gets into a bind
- Grief and depression
Second, the overwhelming majority of those I talked to have lost a job. (Guess who else has lost a job?? ME!) Most of them have worked their entire lives before losing their job, and they very much want to work again. It is true that some get into a rut after being homeless for a time. I can't help but think the discouragement of having lost not only a job but a place to live, and then continuing to find it difficult to get a job contributes to this.
A STRING OF BAD EVENTS, OUTSIDE THEIR CONTROL
Third, most people who are homeless, when they describe their life before being homeless, describe multiple difficult events happening in close proximity to one another. For instance, someone's spouse may die, then they may lose a job, then they may run out of savings. During this time, they were also unable to find another job, even though they searched diligently. Sometimes, the economic situation is bleak. Often, they are older or have a disability, and therefore are not as competitive in the job market as younger people are.
WHAT ABOUT ADDICTIONS?
Do some homeless people have addictions that make it difficult for them to get off of the streets? Yes. Some of those who are homeless and have an addiction, however, did not start using drugs or alcohol until they were homeless, and their current use of drugs/alcohol is their attempt to self-medicate. Some of them also use these substances to cope with the hard street life.
When we think "homeless," we tend to automatically make a value judgment of "bad."
If you think about it logically, however, without knowing the underlying causes as to why an individual person is homeless, this linkage between homeless = bad does not make sense. Let me explain...
For one, all we actually know about a homeless person before talking to them is simply this: They do not have a home. Is this bad or good? It really depends on why they are without a home. Do you think you could ever be without a home? Can you picture a world in which you lost everything, including your family/friend fallback plan, and ended up homeless? Can you imagine a world in which you had an addiction?
Approximately 1 in 10 of us do, as a matter of fact, and those that don't are no better.
Having an addiction is actually not a value statement either. We tend to think addiction = bad, but that is an unfair judgment until we know that person's story. Was their brain predisposed to their addiction? Did they grow up in an abusive home? Even if their addiction is a result of bad choices, does that mean they are beyond help or hope? Would we ever want to be written off ourselves?
I know it's hard to grasp, but you and I are really no different from the homeless. We all make bad choices at times in our lives (if you have never made a bad choice, you can stop reading now ;)...); it's just that our bad choices have a lot more padding underneath them. When we fall, we may fall down three levels, but we have ten more levels we could fall before we would end up homeless. When the homeless fall, dropping three levels is often rock bottom. They are without a further support system.
My awesome stick figure drawing displaying how much further we have to fall before becoming homeless
So now let me ask you...
Can you imagine a world in which you lost a family member to death, lost a job, and ran out of savings?
I certainly can.
And that's why I am thankful for the homeless, because they teach me that I am no better than anyone else.