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.

Homelessness Myth #1: “Get a Job!”

Also published on The Huffington Post.

This post begins a series of articles about the myths surrounding homelessness. Myths are just widely held thoughts or beliefs that are not generally true. Possibly one of the most widely expressed myths is that homeless people would not be homeless except for the fact they don’t want to get a job.

First, many homeless people are employed while some even have two jobs. Usually, these people sleep under some kind of shelter. They may be living in a homeless shelter or transitional housing situation, on someone else’s couch or in someone’s garage. Since the foreclosure crisis, many families have formed “tent cities” from which they work.

Second, in order to get a job, people must be clean and they must wear clean clothing.   Even at McDonald’s and other fast-food restaurants employees are required to be clean. County, state and federal rules and regulations provide the standards by which fast-food restaurants must abide for the health and safety of their patrons.

Proper sanitation facilities are essential so that people and their clothing can be clean and meet the most basic qualification for a job–cleanliness. Without access to toilets, showers and laundry facilities, how are people to keep themselves and their clothing clean?

There are few public toilets, fewer public showers and even fewer public laundry facilities available to homeless people. Toilets and showers are available to students of community colleges, so some homeless people try to enroll in classes. Places like the YMCA have public toilets and showers, but day or membership fees are required that most homeless people cannot afford.

Some years ago, most of the public toilets available to homeless people were in fast-food restaurants or at gasoline service stations.

As the number of homeless people increased, the owners of fast-food restaurants began to lock their restroom doors and charge 10 or 25 cents per use. Of course, tokens to the restrooms were made available to restaurant patrons at the counter.

The restrooms at gasoline service stations were also closed to the public, with access to their toilets restricted through keys available only upon request by patrons. Today, a number of service stations have permanently closed their restrooms to the public by displaying “Out of Service” or “Out of Order” signs on their doors.

To be fair to the owners of fast-food restaurants and gasoline service stations, homeless people sometimes overuse restroom facilities by “bathing” in the sinks, which could potentially damage the plumbing. Other times, some homeless people may spend too long in the restrooms, thereby depriving other patrons the use of the facilities within a reasonable period of time. Further, if people have not had access to a shower or laundry facilities for a time, an odor can be detrimental to business.

How can homeless people clean themselves and their clothing? One answer to this question was the concept of “Housing First,” first popularized by Tanya Tull, founder of Para Los Ninos and Beyond Shelter.  This concept, which proposes housing creation for homeless people must come before or at least in tandem with job creation, has now been popularly accepted.

Unfortunately, sufficient housing for homeless people has been slow in developing and most, if not all of the shelters are full with long waiting lists for future available living space.

Offering public toilets and public showers equipped with available laundry facilities is another answer. Because there is an entire industry involved in the design, construction and rental of portable lavatories and showers, municipalities could quickly make these available to homeless people. Perhaps these public restrooms and showers could be situated near city-owned or operated laundry facilities.

Of course, municipalities could just maintain their existing public toilets and showers on a twenty-four hour a day basis, seven days a week, for their homeless residents.

Cities could also contract with existing homeless shelters to provide public toilets, showers and even laundry facilities to non-resident homeless people.

Third, not every person–housed or homeless–is capable of working. For example, in my experience, 35% of homeless people have problems with mental illness. Some of this mental illness is mild and some is totally debilitating.

To include housed or unhoused mentally ill people within the workforce requires mental health assistance. Certainly, there are mental health programs available for people regardless of their housing situation. However, unhoused people have the additional challenge of finding and pursuing mental health assistance while they have no permanent residence. I think most of us can agree this challenge could be overwhelming for many homeless people.

“Get a job!” is an easy expression to say. However, for some homeless people, getting a job is an impossible dream.