Homelessness: A Symptom, Not a Sickness

They throng street corners, wander through parking lots and hang out wherever people will let them. They hold signs, wear packs, and usually are in need of a bath and a shave.

No, they’re not political agitators. They’re the homeless, and they may be more numerous than you think. Recent studies by the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCFH) indicate that some 35 million, or one-plus percent of America, may be among the homeless. And the number is likely to grow.

Testifying before the Senate, NCFH Director William Brown stated, “The homeless are not a problem that will go away if we build enough shelters and find enough jobs. They are a symptom, not a sickness, and it will take a concerted effort to address all facets of the problem that put them out there to begin with.”

Part of the solution, Brown said, was education, not of the homeless, but of the rest of America. Many myths have been perpetuated about the homeless life, and the record should be set straight. Thus, without further ado: five things you thought you knew about homelessness. The number following the statement is the percentage of respondents in a 2003 Knight Ridder poll who agreed with the statement (the poll had an error of +/- 3%).

1). A lot of homeless people are veterans. (76%)

True. Over 40% of homeless are indeed veterans (one estimate suggests that on any given night 200,000 veterans are homeless), though the majority of such vets did not actually see combat. Interestingly, the majority of veterans on the street come from the post-Vietnam era, and never had exposure to combat. Most of the people who claim to be Vietnam vets are fibbing, but when that claim makes the difference between a dollar or two and being flipped off, the little lie may not seem like such a sin.

Oh, and incidentally, most of the homeless who claim deafness as well can actually hear quite well, but the fib cuts down on the epithets and “suggestions” that get hurled out of car windows.

2). The average American is not likely to become homeless. (39%)

Myth. The average American family is actually 1.38 paychecks away from homelessness, according to NCFH. That’s the amount of savings that the family generally has to pay bills, keep up the rent/mortgage, and buy food. As a side note, this does not take into account the large number of people that are currently unemployed. Additionally, 2-3% of the US population during any given year will find themselves homeless for at least one night. That’s between 5 and 8 million people annually, and that doesn’t include massive disasters like Hurricane Katrina.

3). Most homeless have drug and/or alcohol problems (95%)

True. The vast majority of the homeless (66% according to one set of HHS figures) report long-term substance abuse issues. In fact, several homeless shelter workers have reported that many of the long-time homeless are so addicted to alcohol that they cannot handle normal food. The lack of simple sugars (the body breaks alcohol down into glucose, albeit slowly) can cause rejection by the body of more complex foods. Whether that addiction is what put them on the streets or not, however, is not as universal. Many homeless have gone on record as stating that the heavy drinking did not begin until after they became homeless, probably quite true

It is worth noting here, though, that recent studies have called certain aspects of the HHS figures cited above into question, but no one, so far, has been silly enough to state that addiction is not a problem for homeless individuals.

4). Most homeless could hold a job and work for a living, but being homeless is easier. (65%)

Myth. Almost half of all homeless people (44% according to research cited by the Department of Health and Human Services) actually work part-time. The remainder often suffers from a lack of those basic working skills, not in spite of them. While homelessness is a choice for some (and was a choice for many more in decades past), the majority of people who will be homeless in any given year are forced into the situation. Poverty, recent changes in welfare systems that lower the amount of financial assistance available from the government, a debilitated economy: all have combined to place people into homeless situations. SSI recipients, for example, spend an average of 69% of their SSI income on housing; the majority of people with disabilities severe enough to allow them to collect SSI do not have the ability to work in good-paying jobs. “Worst-case housing” cases (families that spend more than 50% of their income on housing, or live in severely substandard locations, or both) rose by nearly 40% from 1995 to 2005, while the number of people who directly attributed their homeless condition to job loss, reduced governmental benefits or increasing rent nearly doubled across the same period of time.

Homeless people rank lowest on the income scale, proving that homelessness is never an “easy” lifestyle. The national average for American household income is somewhere around $2850 a month (just above the federal poverty line); homeless people scrape by on an average of $367 monthly. Health conditions, substance abuse issues, disabilities and depressed or variable job markets contribute to the burden of the lifestyle. A basic rule of thumb used by one social science researcher of the homeless was that every year lived on the streets ages the individual at a rate equivalent to five years of living off the streets.

5). Most homeless have some sort of mental illness. (83%)

Myth. Not quite one-quarter of the single adult homeless are afflicted with mental illness, close to the national average, in fact. However, those with mental illness are not escapees from asylums. Most, according to a HUD study in 2003, could live in normal residential areas, if supportive care and medications were available. The vast majority of the mentally ill homeless self-medicate, though, turning to narcotics, alcohol, and psychotropic drugs such as marijuana and cocaine.

Treatment of the mentally ill homeless is often exacerbated by the fact that most have no health insurance, and cannot afford regular care or medications, even if they stayed put long enough to be seen by a doctor regularly. Physicians have also been traditionally wary of handing out psychotropic medications to the homeless, for fear that the meds will be abused or sold on the streets. With the nomadic lifestyle of many of the mentally ill homeless, the possibility of “doctor shopping” or visiting more than one physician to obtain multiple prescriptions is a very real fear, and recent changes to drug laws that can assign culpability to a prescribing doctor for misuse of medical drugs has forced even the more generous docs to think twice.

A symptom, not a sickness. Homelessness does not go away because we wish it away. It does not disappear because we refuse to give a dollar to the man on the corner, nor does giving that dollar extend the problem. This is a long term problem that requires a long term solution. Education of Americans is just the beginning.

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