Homelessness Myth #2: “They’re All Bums!”

Also published on The Huffington Post.

Absolutes can be tricky because there is usually an exception that “proves” or breaks every rule.  We have often heard the expression, “Never say never!” We generally know in our hearts that in the world of human beings, no one is perfect, no rule remains unbroken and no expressions are absolute.

The same is true with homeless people. There are no absolutes. Just based on what we intuit about the world around us, we know that each homeless person is a unique person – just a housed person without the home.

Whether a person can be called a bum actually depends upon how, of course, we define the word, “bum.” However, anyone chooses to define that word, I think most of us would agree that children are not bums under any definition.

In my experience, I have found that approximately 25 percent of homeless people are children. Together, women and children make up close to 40 percent of homeless people and are the fastest growing segment of the homeless population. They have not chosen homelessness as a life-style; rather, homelessness has been forced upon them.

Escaping battery is one reason why women become homeless. When women leave their batterers, they generally take their children with them. Battered women’s shelters are testaments to this experience. Not unlike homeless shelters generally, most of the battered women’s shelters are full.

Another reason women and children become homeless is the impact of a challenging economy upon single mothers. Since the first working mom sought employment, finding a job and arranging for childcare so she could go to work have been huge issues. In the past, however, some of these working moms had family that they could rely on to some extent for support.

Today, large distances separate many family members and extended family finances have dwindled due to a host of economic circumstances. Thus, poor mothers often find they are unable to get help from their already overstressed family support system.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009 signed into law by President Obama on February 17, 2009, will hopefully help prevent more people from becoming homeless. On October 8th, LaDonna Pavetti, director of the Welfare Reform and Income Support Division of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, testified before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Income Security and Family Support that the ARRA  “prevented millions of Americans from falling into poverty and has helped some states to forgo significant cuts that would have weakened the safety net for very poor families with children.”

Part of ARRA, the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP) as administered through the States and their Continuums of Care may help homeless women and children become housed. Since applications for assistance are just now being made available to potential participants, the impact of the HPRP is yet to be felt.

The opinions that some housed people may have of homeless people may be understandable, but their opinions are uneducated. For example, some housed people may see homeless people sleeping in public during the day and conclude they are lazy.

In truth, many homeless people choose to sleep during the day because it is too dangerous for them to sleep at night because that is when they are most vulnerable.

Some time ago, I accompanied students from Crossroads High School in Santa Monica as they made a short film about homelessness in their city. I introduced them to my friend, “Charles,” who spoke to them very frankly about his experiences since he became homeless.

Charles shared that although he was over 6 feet tall and weighed over 230 pounds, he was afraid to sleep at night.

“Why?” asked the surprised students.

Charles was slightly embarrassed when he confessed that when he slept at night he was afraid someone would hurt him. Instead, he chose to sleep during the day and in well-trafficked areas because he felt that the constant flow of people would provide him with an additional measure of safety.

Charles asked the students if they had read the reports of some young people who had killed homeless people while they slept.

Bums or people protecting themselves? You decide.

Battered Into Homelessness

Also published on The Huffington Post.

Domestic violence perpetrated upon women is a leading cause of homelessness for women and their children.  In fact, the National Network to End Domestic Violence in its current online article, “Housing: Issue Overview”, states “the interrelated nature of domestic violence and homelessness is undeniable.”

Please play the following video of legendary artist Edward D. Miracle’s stunning sculpture entitled, “Battered Woman Syndrome,” E.D. Miracle © 2008, all rights reserved.

In the NCH Fact Sheet #7, published in 2008, the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) described the circumstances, which I list numerically below, that lead many battered women and their children into homelessness:

    1. When a woman leaves an abusive relationship, she often has nowhere to go.  This is particularly true of women with few resources.
  • Lack of affordable housing and long waiting lists for assisted housing mean that many women and their children are forced to choose between abuse at home or life on the streets.
  • Moreover, shelters are frequently filled to capacity and must turn away battered women and their children.  An estimate 29% of requests for shelter by homeless families were denied in 2006 due to lack of resources (U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2006).

In “Housing: Issue Overview,” the NNEDV describes the all-to-common scenario facing battered women who seek to leave their abusers:

Victims of domestic violence struggle to find permanent housing after fleeing abusive relationships.  Many have left in the middle of the night with nothing but the clothes on their backs, and now must entirely rebuild their lives. As long-term housing options become scarcer, battered women are staying longer in emergency domestic violence shelters.  As a result, shelters are frequently full and must turn families away.

The NCH Fact Sheet #7 sets forth the relationship between domestic violence and homelessness as found in state and local studies:

    • In Minnesota, one in every three homeless women was homeless due to domestic violence in 2003.  46% of homeless women said that they had previously stayed in abusive relationships because they had nowhere else to go. (American Civil Liberties Union, 2004)
  • In Missouri, 27% of the sheltered homeless population are victims of domestic violence. (American Civil Liberties Union, 2004)
  • In San Diego, a survey done by San Diego’s Regional Task Force on the Homeless found that 50% of homeless women are domestic violence victims. (American Civil Liberties Union, 2004)
  • A recent study in Massachusetts reports that 92% of homeless women had experienced severe physical or sexual assault at some point in their life.  63% were victims of violence by an intimate partner.  (NAEH Fact Checker, 2007)

Within the “2008 Hunger and Homelessness Survey” released by U.S. Conference of Mayors, twenty-two of the twenty-five cities participating in the study “reported that, on average, 15% of homeless persons were victims of domestic violence.”  The City of Trenton, New Jersey reported that 65% of people experiencing homelessness there were domestic violence victims, the highest percentage of any city reporting in this study (Appendix G-2).

I have to agree with the NNEDV’s conclusion in its “Housing: Issue Overview” that it “is not because homeless women are more likely to be victims of domestic violence, rather experiencing domestic violence or sexual assault often forces women and children into homelessness.”