Homelessness Myth #15: Just Pull Yourself Up By Your Bootstraps

Also published on The Huffington Post

“Why don’t homeless people just pull themselves up by their own bootstraps?”  What I believe some housed people mean by this question is that homeless people should be able to get themselves out of homelessness by themselves, through their own efforts.  Of all the myths about homelessness, I feel that this myth indicates the least understanding about the situation in which homeless people find themselves.

Homelessness is a very complex issue.  Actually, homelessness is the result of many factors that contribute to people becoming and staying homeless.  Among these factors are lack of affordable housing, insufficient income, lack of jobs, mental and physical impairments, addictions, abuse, the foreclosure crisis, municipal ordinances and community attitudes.

Lack of affordable housing is the most obvious, yet the most challenging factor, in my opinion, in overcoming homelessness.  There are not enough emergency shelters, transitional housing, permanent supportive housing or affordable housing in any major city to house the number of homeless people living in that city.

In the event that a homeless person receives some kind of federal or state support, these benefits are generally not sufficient to cover the cost of housing, food and necessities, such as medical care and medicine, in any major city.

But how about homeless people getting jobs that will allow them to pay for housing?  Some homeless people do work, but cannot make and then save enough money for first and last month’s rent, plus a security deposit, so that they can move into an apartment.

And then there is the credit check done by some potential landlords through which they eliminate people who have poor credit scores as potential tenants.  Many homeless people, including most foreclosure victims, have poor credit scores and thus do not qualify for some housing.

Nearly everyone recognizes that there is a high unemployment rate in the United States.  There are just not enough jobs to go around.  Unemployed homeless people have the same challenges as housed people as they seek employment.  However, homeless people often don’t have the supportive environment and means, such as a home, clean clothes, job skills and transportation, essential to making a good impression for job interviews and securing jobs.

I asked several eminent professionals and unhoused people about their thoughts on the statement, “Homeless people should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.”  I am very grateful to them for their comments that follow.

Ken Peters, Peer Liaison for San Diego County through Recovery Innovations of California: “I do feel the idea that homeless people with mental illness need only ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps’ is ridiculous. Most of this community is so worn down by life they have little hope things can be any better.  Many have been abandoned by friends and family and feel no one cares.”

Stephen Carroll, M.S.W., Homeless/Transition Age Services Division Director, San Diego Youth Services:  “Regarding ‘bootstraps,’ my thought is that ‘to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps’ implies that we are responsible first and foremost for the changes that we want to make or need to make in our lives.

But like most, if not all, of us, when we find ourselves literally pulling up our bootstraps, we need someone or something to lean on to help support us until we have succeeded.  One is an American value, the other a human value.  And in my opinion, each is complimentary of the other.”

Roger, 26 years old, unhoused: “My belief is that we have to work as a team to do anything.  We have to come together as a unit and [that way we’ll] get 10 times as much done as we can by ourselves.”

Clayton, 25 years old, unhoused: “You should always be ready to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps because you can only count on yourself.  But, working as a team and taking guidance from elders are always a plus.”

Sean, 19 years old, unhoused: “People need places to go where you can get a place to stay, where they can get a job.”

Brooke, 21 years old, unhoused: “Do good deeds and you get good deeds.”

Darcy, 21 years old, unhoused: “I think it’s a community effort.  We can help ourselves and yet, we need to work together.”

Glorious, 23 years old, unhoused: “We have a lack of common spaces.  Our world needs that right now.  We’re interdependent.  To learn anything, we need teachers.  Our experiences are shared.”

Keoni, 28 years old, unhoused: “I’ve been on the road since I was 16 years old.  I know how to get myself up.  But I have to meet ‘locals’ [housed people] to get a job and a house.”

People who have no homes have fallen upon hard times.  They may experience a crisis state that envelops them and can feel overwhelming.  They may need a respite, a time to gather their thoughts, reflect and make plans for the future.  Perhaps counseling would help.  Certainly, being outdoors day and night during a time of crisis is not conducive to recovery from the crisis.

In my opinion, we all need to help one another.  Homeless people may need help to get out of homelessness.  Through understanding and compassion, we can help our neighbors be they housed or unhoused.


Homeless People in San Diego Compete in Triathlon (VIDEO)

Also published on The Huffington Post

On Sunday June 27, 1,400 people participated in the 28th annual San Diego International Triathlon consisting of a 1K swim, a 30K bike ride and a 10K run.  The event raised $50,000 for the homeless programs of St. Vincent de Paul Village.

Six participants, racing in two teams of three people, were the first homeless women and men from St. Vincent de Paul Village to join in this event.  I asked these six amazing participants why homeless people would run in a triathlon.  I thank them for sharing their stories.

Team #1 Biker
Colette, 56 years old, born in Los Angeles, CA


“I am a former police officer and I came to St. Vinnie’s seeking asylum.  My homelessness was not a choice — it was due to circumstances beyond my control.

Although I have post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), I completed short and long term programs at St. Vinnie’s.  I am not homeless anymore.  I have my own apartment.  Now it’s a question of survival.

I rode the 18+ miles on a mountain bike.  [Laughing] I was the only rider on a mountain bike.  Everyone else had a real nice 10-speed, aluminum, made for racing bike.  But I love exercise.”

Why bike in the triathlon?

“Exercise is one of the most therapeutic things for me.  Although I began jogging in 1983, I have a stress fracture in my right foot, so I rode the bike. Participating in the triathlon was my way of saying thanks to St. Vinnie’s and Father Joe for helping me.”

Team #1 Walker
Charles, 57 years old, born and raised in San Diego, CA


“Although I had walked in a couple of 5Ks, this was my first triathlon.  I prepared for this race by walking one and a half months.  Before that, I had had kidney surgery.  The race gave me something to look forward to.

I would eventually like to get a job.  But depending upon what the doctors say, I may not be able to…”

Why walk in the triathlon? 

“Besides praying and reading my Bible, the triathlon helped give me hope. The triathlon, and walking to prepare for it, helped fight my depression and anxiety.  There is nothing more beautiful, nothing more wonderful than a park setting, even though it’s in the city, I find peace in my walk.”

Team #1 Swimmer
Malcolm, 49 years old, born and raised in San Diego, CA


“Before I ran in the San Diego International Triathlon, I had no previous triathlon experience.  I became homeless six years ago due to drugs and alcohol abuse.  My future plans?  I want to finish my classes at the Village.”

Why swim in the triathlon? 

“I have a background in water polo from high school.  There was a poster displayed in the men’s dorm about the triathlon.  I said to myself, ‘I can do this.’  I did not know which leg of the triathlon I would do until the day before the triathlon, so I practiced all three parts — swimming, biking and running.”

Team #2 Biker
Amos, 19 years old, born in Jamaica and raised in Haiti


“I came to the United States in 2005 to go to school, get a paying job and help my people back there in Haiti.  My goal is to attend United Education Institute (UEI) in Chula Vista and learn criminal justice.  I plan to become a police officer.”

Why bike in the triathlon? 

“I heard that many people had problems because of their age.  So, I thought biking in the triathlon was a way to show that age doesn’t matter.  It just matters that you finish.  The same attitude applies to life.  You can’t give up.  You have to finish.  And I had fun doing it!”

Team #2 Runner
Jan, 24 years old


“I became homeless in 2008 as a result of domestic violence.  Running is good exercise and a stress reliever.  Running relieves what I went through and will help me get back to school and become a nurse.”

Why run in the triathlon? 

“Except for my son, running makes me the happiest.  ‘Forrest Gump’ is my favorite movie and an inspiration for me.  I wish all St. Vincent de Paul residents could participate in the triathlon so that they improve physically and emotionally.”

Team #2 Swimmer
Nikita, 62 years old, born in Bulgaria


“In 1999, I came to the United States. I became homeless in 2007 when I left my apartment in LaMesa, CA because it was being remodeled.  After the remodel was completed, I was told that I could not go back to my apartment.

From the time I was a young girl in Bulgaria, I enjoyed sports.  As a student at the university, I studied Preventive Care Medicine.  As a math teacher and then later as a vice principal in a high school, I kept my love of swimming. In the future, I would like to work for Father Joe at St. Vincent de Paul Village.”

Why swim in the triathlon?

“Because they put an advertisement up.  I like adventures.  I thought, ‘I can do this.’  Every opportunity I can to do sports, I do.  Every day, I go to 24 Hour Fitness Center and swim.”

I asked triathlete Nicholas Coniaris, MS, CRC, the program manager at the Education Center/Health and Wellness Program for St. Vincent de Paul Village why he encouraged and coached these athletes.


Nick responded, “At Father Joe’s Villages we strive to heal and rehabilitate the whole person, and that includes their bodies, minds and spirits. Yoga, tai chi, meditation, music group, walking and triathlon are all opportunities that we provide for our residents to start creating energy, pride and good health for themselves.”  Please visit www.svdpv.org for further information about Father Joe’s Villages.

The event creator and coordinator, Rick Kozlowski, was excited about the participation of these athletes: “This past race, something happened that we had talked about for 28 years — this year I got to see St. Vincent de Paul residents do what I had created all these years.  I hope that homeless athletes will participate in future San Diego International Triathlons!”

Please watch the following YouTube video of these athletes in action.


Homelessness Myth #14: They Choose to Be Homeless

Also published on The Huffington Post

No one truly chooses to be homeless.

Certainly, the nearly 50 percent of homeless people who are women and children don’t choose homelessness over being housed.

Further, the 25 percent to 40 percent of homeless people who are reportedly veterans would presumably prefer to re-establish the lives that they had before their military service rather than choose to become homeless.

Finally, we know that 35 percent to 45 percent of all homeless people suffer from some kind of mental illness.  If some homeless people are mentally ill, do they really have the mental capacity and ability to choose being housed over being homeless?

This morning my homeless friend, Jerry, asked me what I was up to today.  When I told him that I intended to write an article about the myth that homeless people actually choose homelessness over being housed, he said, rather matter-of-factly, “I choose to be homeless.”

“Really,” I replied.  Then I did something which upon reflection, I wish that I had not done. I asked Jerry to think about the life of the young person we saw getting out of his vehicle.

Motioning toward the young person, I said to Jerry, “If right now I were to give you the choice to exchange your lifestyle for his lifestyle with an apartment, refrigerator, bathroom, TV and car, would you do it?”

Jerry was silent.  He didn’t respond.  He just kept looking down.

I knew I had touched a nerve and possibly brought to his mind a lifestyle that is not an option for Jerry, not a choice for him.  At this moment, there is no way that Jerry can have a housed lifestyle and he knows it.


Because there is no room in the homeless shelters for the numbers of people who need a bed.

Because most, if not all, homeless shelters require that their clients be clean and sober before they can be admitted to their program.

Because there are limited, if any, programs to help a homeless person get clean and sober while they are on the street.  There are insufficient rehabilitative programs of any kind for the numbers of homeless people living on the street or in shelters.

Not long ago, a homeless friend, Nicky, said to me, “I choose to be homeless.”

“Really,” I said.  “Do you choose living in the cold, the trash food, the lack of a real bed or apartment?”

“No, those are the bad things about being homeless.  I don’t choose those.”

“You do realize that if you choose to be homeless that these things are a natural consequence of your choice?”

“Yes, but those are not the things that I choose,” he said.

In my opinion, one choice from two or more options is only a true choice when the consequences of the choices are equal or nearly equal.  The choice between living in a home or living on the streets is an unequal choice because of their unequal consequences.

Homeless people living on the street have no bathroom facilities, limited clean food, and unconventional sleeping conditions.  Often, the unsheltered homeless people eat “trash food” to stave off their hunger.  Clothing appropriate for the weather is sometimes a luxury.  Warm blankets, unsheltered people’s basic necessity, spread on the ground or on cement, even over cardboard, are no substitute for a real bed inside an apartment or shelter.

And we have not even discussed the safety issue.  When we housed people are indoors we lock the doors against possible intruders.

How can homeless people protect themselves from someone, housed or unhoused, who wishes them harm?  Often, homeless people stay awake in the night, sleep in well-lit areas or sleep in hidden places so as to keep themselves safe.  But, there are no locks outside.  There are not even doors which can be locked.

The answer: provide services for homeless people where they are.  For example, create programs that are for unsheltered people who have not yet kicked drug or alcohol addictions.  Have programs for people who live outside but who have mental illnesses.  Meet the people where they are mentally and physically.

Why wait and demand that homeless people become clean and sober on their own so that they can get into a shelter, when they will come to find out that there is no available bed in any shelter?

Help unsheltered homeless people become clean and sober through services and shelter programs designed for people recovering from additions.

I’m sorry that I raised the thought of a housed lifestyle for my friend, Jerry.  I raised unreasonable expectations for my friend and for what purpose — just to make a point?  I won’t do that again to Jerry or any other unhoused person.