Homelessness Myth #8: One Size Fits All

Also published on The Huffington Post

Since the 1970s, as homelessness in the United States increased dramatically, some social service agencies created short-term homeless emergency shelters and transitional housing facilities to house homeless people. Some service providers emphasized the importance of finding jobs for their clients.  Their theory, “Jobs First,” was that once their homeless clients had jobs, they would be able to afford their own apartments and be housed permanently.

Over twenty years ago, Tanya Tull, president and CEO of Beyond Shelter and founder of Para Los Ninos, developed and implemented an alternative methodology to emergency shelters and transitional housing for the purpose of ending family homelessness that she coined, “Housing First” which:

• provides crisis intervention to address immediate family needs, while      simultaneously or soon thereafter assisting families to develop permanent housing and social service plans

• helps homeless families move into affordable rental housing in residential neighborhoods as quickly as possible, most often with their own lease agreements

• then provides six months to one year of individualized, home-based social services support “after the move” to help each family transition to stability.  (See, http://www.beyondshelter.org)

Similar to the housing first methodology is the “permanent supportive housing” approach  through which homeless people, regardless of whether they have families, can receive permanent housing with services to help prevent and end homelessness.

Together, the housing first methodology and the permanent supportive housing approach have now become widely accepted by some social service providers as “the way” to end homelessness.

But what about the 35% – 45% of the homeless population who have psychological problems? And what about the homeless people who suffer from physically debilitating problems?

I suggest that the first methodology for homeless people who suffer from mental illness and/or physically debilitating problems should be appropriate psychological and/or medical care and treatment.

Every mentally ill person, housed or unhoused, deserves appropriate care and treatment for their illness, even if that appropriate care and treatment means commitment in a mental institution.  Every physically disabled person, housed or unhoused, should receive appropriate care and treatment, even if that means long-term hospitalization.

I asked some people who are or were homeless how they felt about whether one methodology could be utilized as the best way to end homelessness.  Their responses follow.

Maurice:  “I believe that you know that it [the solution to homelessness] is multi-layered.”

Olivia:  “One size cannot fit all.  Many people are just coming out of violent situations, drug rehab, or prison.  [They are] not just jobless.

“Where to put them would be based upon the level and type of psychological problems they may have…

And prison does not train its inmates to behave appropriately for mixed-gender society.  Mental institutions with therapists and staff do.

“You must separate those with severe psychological problems from those without.  Otherwise, you create an environment that is psychologically, emotionally and physically dangerous to those who may be leaving stressful situations…

“[Some people] believe that healthy clients living in close quarters with those still in recovery from drugs, violence or prostitution will positively affect a change in the ill.  But, we’re not psychologists and it is merely putting new prey in the hands of predators recovering from such.”

Barbara R.:  “The concept of “one size fits all” is ludicrous, asinine and insane.  Try and take the dynamics, for example of women, children, men separately, whole families, and the new trans-gender population.  How can one remedy cure all the ailments?”

Melanie:  “The solution to the homeless issue is to view each individual within the homeless population as unique, and in so doing, properly address his/her situation in such a way that is in accordance with his/her vision of happiness.”

Pamela:  “The myth that one size fits all as a solution to homelessness is definitely not possible because the requirements to bring a person from homelessness into self-sufficiency is a process that inherently must be individualized.

“Individuals need a community network that is able to supply the needs of a wide variety of services that are available to bring them from the state of homelessness into self-sufficiency.”

Tim:  “Can’t get a phone call.   How can my needs be met?”

I believe that all social service agencies that are doing good things for homeless people are doing something great.

I further believe that we should continue, support and fully fund housing first and permanent supportive housing projects.

Finally, I believe that in order to help homeless people who have many different needs, we need simultaneous implementation of many kinds of approaches and methodologies, including the following three steps to ending homeless:

1.  Public toilets, showers and laundries

2.  Housing, transitional and permanent, with supportive services

3.  A self-sufficient village on an abandoned military base

• where homes and apartments would be available for families and individuals
• where a building would be available with services for mentally ill people
• where a building would be available with services for those people with dual diagnosis
• where a building would be available to house and provide for homeless orphans
• where light industry could provide employment for the residents
• nearby an established school district where the youth could attend classes
• run at first by a council of nonprofit agencies and then, as soon as practical, run by the         duly-elected representatives of the self-sufficient village.

Homelessness Myth #7: “Oh, No! A Transient!”

Also published on The Huffington Post

“Transient” is the new “N” word.  Although commonly used, the word, “transient,” is often used to disparage homeless people, much as the “N” word was used in the past to disparage African-American people.

By formal definition, the word, “transient,” comes from the Latin, transire – to go over, to go.  Dictionary.com gives definitions for this term as an adjective as in “passing with time; transitory” and as a noun, “one that is transient, especially a hotel guest or boarder who stays only for a brief time.”

Some housed people use the term “transient” to ridicule homeless people.  They use that term to mean a person who is an untouchable, an undesirable, often a lazy, possibly a bad person who is not a member of their community, but only staying in their community to utilize the available services and then the homeless person will be on their way.

However, the majority of homeless people in a certain place may not have come from somewhere else, nor do they intend to go anywhere else — so they can hardly be called, “transients” under any definition.  For example, the 2005 City of Los Angeles count of homeless people found that 78 percent of the homeless people living in LA were housed in LA when they became homeless.  They didn’t go to LA from anywhere else to become homeless in LA, nor did they leave LA upon becoming losing their housing.  Housed or unhoused, these people live in LA, they are Angelinos!

Where people live is their residence. The concept of residency is an easy one to discuss when people are housed because there are formal rules that apply to them.  For example, for tax purposes, we can only have one primary residence. Of course, we can have “second homes” or more, such as summer or vacation homes.  Wherever our second home is, we retain our legal residency at the location of our primary residence.

Establishing residency for homeless people is less obvious because homeless people, by definition, have no houses with a street addresses.

I believe a compelling argument can be made that unsheltered homeless people reside where they live, that is, on the streets.  Support for this argument may be found in voter registration materials.  Each of the 50 states set forth the voting registration requirements for federal elections and elections in their states.

For example, the California Secretary of State, Debra Bowen’s website (www.sos.ca.gov/eletions/election_faq.htm) sets forth a list of voting registration prerequisites. In order to register to vote in the State of California, a person must:

• Be a citizen of the United States;
• Be a resident of California;
• Be at least 18 years of age as of the day of the next election;
• Not be in prison or on parole for the conviction of a felony; and
• Not be deemed by an appropriate court to be mentally incompetent.

This website further raises and answers the question of how long a person must live in California in order to be a “resident:”

Q: I have just moved.  Am I required to re-register?
A: Your voter registration should always reflect your current residence.  However, if you have moved from your home into a temporary residence that you do not intend to use as your permanent residence, you can continue to use your prior permanent residence where you were previously registered to vote as your address for the purpose of voting.

Thus, a person becomes a resident of the State of California for purposes of voting by living there and intending to be a permanent resident.

But without a formal house address, how can an unsheltered homeless person identify where they are residing?

The California Voter Registration Form, line 6 provides the answer, “If you do not have a street address, describe where you live (Cross streets, Route, N, S, E, W).”

In other words, unsheltered homeless people become immediate residents of the State of California by living in the State and intending to permanently reside there. Their “residence,” their address, for voting purposes, is the street intersection or route nearest to where they live.

Of course, in order to receive voting materials, homeless people need to supply a mailing address (CA Voter Registration Form, lines 7 – 8), which can be any address or  P.O. Box where they can receive mail.  Homeless people often receive mail, including voting materials, through the cooperation of local social service agencies who let them receive mail at their address.

A further thought… My homeless friend, Maurice, informed me that the City of Santa Monica, CA, has a transient occupancy tax (TOT).  I was curious about his comment, so I researched the topic.  I found that the State of California Revenue and Taxation Code Section 7280 permits legislative bodies of cities and counties in California to convey a transient occupancy tax (TOT) based on the total amount paid for the rental of a hotel/motel rooms on any person who is not exempt.

In Santa Monica, the TOT is a 14 percent tax on the total amount paid for the rental of a hotel/motel room in the City.  Government employees on official business as well as person occupying the room for 31 or more consecutive days are exempt from this tax.

A question comes to mind:  if there is a “transient” occupancy tax upon persons, unless exempt, who rent hotel/motel rooms, does this, by definition, make these people,  “transients?”

Answer:  Visitors to Santa Monica, as well as elsewhere, might take offense if they knew that they were considered “transients” in the negative use of that word.

So, in the State of California, we really have only two kinds of people – residents and tourists.

It’s time to stop using the word, “transient,” to refer to homeless people.  How should we refer to people without homes?  Just that way… we can say, “people without homes, “homeless people,” “unhoused people” or any other descriptive language that is emotionally neutral, bias-free and respectful.

Homelessness Myth #6: Homeless People Sleep All The Time

Also published on The Huffington Post.

Last post, I wrote that we need to wake up to the issues of homelessness.  First, we need to be become aware, then we need to become educated. And through this education, our compassion will be re-awakened.  No longer should we sleepwalk through the issues of homelessness.

In this companion post, I asked some homeless people to share their feelings about sleep.  I made no suggestions on what they should or should not share.  I share their feelings with you.

The following people who have responded to my inquiry have demonstrated great courage, for which I thank each of them.

“Sleeping is kind of rough.  Sleeping on the streets you have to watch other people.  You have to be real careful of the weather and other people.  You could get kicked in the head.  Other people like to mess with the homeless.” – Joe

“For the moment, let’s just say riding around all night on the bus and trains keeps you out of jail.” – Maurice

“Problems I encounter – I have people stalking me for crimes that they have committed against me, including poisoning me, drugging me.  So, therefore, I do not have a place to sleep or sleep on a regular place or regular sleep times.  So, therefore, I cannot keep appointments or regular life.  Sleeping times are hard to get as well as keeping my health correct.” – Antonio

“Out of all the years my family and I were homeless, we slept in shelters and got enough sleep.  Except for one night when we slept in a car which was a horrible experience.” – Barbara

“As soon as you get camp set up and get into your blankets and fall asleep, it’s time to get up and pack up your stuff and start the day.” – Connie

I.  “Make yourself tired every day by making yourself busy doing something.”

II.  “Being stir-crazy is a box thing!  It leads to a constant insomnia.”- Gerod

“My experience with sleep as a homeless person… I have sleep problems anyway.  I have diabetes and asthma.  It affects my sleep pattern.

I’m always tired.

The other day I slept under the bridge because it was overcast and supposed to rain.

Before I woke up at 3:00 am, there was a car that crashed into a tree next to the trolley.  I didn’t hear a thing.  I slept right through it.

People near me said that the people in the car were drunk.  I don’t know.

When I woke up, they were towing the car away.” – Anonymous

The factors “that affect the sleeping habits of people sleeping on the streets are:

  • People on certain medications
  • Medical, physical conditions
  • Noise levels
  • Too much light
  • Harassment by pedestrians and/or people driving by
  • Other homeless people
  • Weather, especially if [a homeless person] is not protected from extreme weather conditions by tents, A.C., cold weather gear, enough clothes, umbrellas, etc.
  • Fear/paranoia of being robbed, mugged, raped, beat up, harassment by anyone you’re concerned about being bothered by
  • The hard cold/hot ground
  • Debris on the ground if [the homeless person] is unable to properly clean up
  • Vermin – bugs, rats, birds
  • Hunger or [being] full of caffeine
  • People nearby having conversations in voices loud enough to keep someone awake, although not intentionally
  • Having a good quiet spot, but cannot sleep there until real late because of business hours
  • People waking you up for blankets, cigarettes, looking for criminals or friends, [asking for] directions, giving food or other things
  • A person’s personality [being] too polite to end a conversation, anger slow to cool, etc.
  • Habits, like reading, insomnia, smoking, visiting friends, staying up at night and sleeping during the day

“Sleeping near noisy spots:  freeway, noisy businesses, hospital fire station, police station, high crime areas, high traffic streets, metered parking lots, skateboarding, teens using your location to extreme skate.”  – Bookwyrm

Homelessness Myth #5: Sleep-Walking Will End Homelessness

Also published on The Huffington Post.

Some of us ignore the issues of homelessness.  When we walk past homeless people, we may even pretend that these people do not exist.  I call the act of ignoring homeless people who are right in front of our eyes, “sleep-waking past homeless people.”

Of course, sleeping is a natural function for all human beings.  Mark Stibich, PhD. wrote in About.com Guide, updated on May 8, 2009, that sleep is important for people because:

1.  Sleep keeps your heart healthy; 2.  Sleep may prevent cancer; 3.  Sleep reduces stress; 4.  Sleep reduces inflammation; 5.  Sleep makes you more alert; 6.  Sleep bolsters your memory; 7.  Sleep may help us lose weight; 8.  Naps make you smarter; 9.  Sleep may reduce your risk for depression; and 10. Sleep helps the body make repairs.

From reading this lengthy list of benefits, it is obvious that sleep is very helpful to our well-being.

However, one thing that sleeping will not do is help to end homelessness.  Since the 1970’s, homelessness has increased and homeless people have become a familiar sight.  Often, housed people turn a blind eye to the plight of homeless people.  But why?

In my experience, some housed people ignore homeless people for a variety of reasons.  Perhaps the most common reason is that these housed people are afraid of becoming homeless themselves.  This fear is similar to the fear of contracting a disease that some of us experience when we are around a person we know has a disease.

By merely acknowledging the existence of a homeless person, some housed people are reminded of the fragility of their own economic existence.  They begin to think that their job and/or savings could go away and they remind themselves that they are only a paycheck or two away from becoming homeless.  This fear is based upon today’s economic reality.

Further, homeless people are often ignored because some of us housed people have become so familiar with what we deem to be their unsightly images, the “blight of homelessness,” that we just want homeless people to go away.  We are not surprised to see homeless women and men. Rather, we have come to almost expect to see homeless people standing on the corner or sitting in the park. The expression, “familiarity breeds contempt” may hold true in this case, particularly with regard to homeless adults.

Perhaps, some of us are surprised to see children we think are being unsheltered with their parent or parents. Seeing children who are unsheltered is not a familiar sight because they are usually either in school and/or being hidden by their parent(s).

Homeless parents sometimes hide their child to avert the perceived threat that their child will be taken away from them by law enforcement authorities. I say “perceived threat” because homelessness is not in itself enough grounds for the police to take away children from their homeless families. However, if a child is in danger because of being homeless or if their parent(s) is suspected of being an unfit parent, for example, the police have a positive duty to protect the child and remove the child.

Finally, some housed people may be afraid of some homeless people because these homeless people are strangers. As children, we are taught to be afraid of strangers with instructions such as, “Never talk to strangers!”  This fear of strangers is meant to protect children from danger.

However, adults have a greater ability than children to understand life situations and the new people they encounter.  While fear of the unknown is a common fear, we adults can change unknown strangers into acquaintances through the simple technique of introducing ourselves to people when we meet them.

By “sleep-walking past homeless people,” we will never solve homelessness. We cannot end homelessness by ignoring the problem.

We need to wake up!

Only by being aware of something, can we affect it.  Only by becoming aware of the issues of homelessness, will we be able to solve them.  Awareness of the issues of homelessness comes through opening our eyes and truly seeing homeless men, women and children.

Once we are awake and aware of the plight of homeless people, we can educate ourselves by directly serving those in need, by assisting people and programs already in place to help others and by attending workshops and seminars on the topic of homelessness.  Through our own education, we can understand what we can do to help those in need.

Finally, through compassion, which is factually love in action, we can resolve the issues of homelessness.

I suggest the following steps to cure “sleep-walking past homeless people:”  Awareness, Education, Understanding and Compassion.

Homelessness Myth #4: There’s Room In The Inn

Also published on The Huffington Post.

On December 8th, the San Diego Union Tribune reported that on the previous day, the County of San Diego, California experienced one of “the most powerful winter storms in several years…bringing damaging winds, record-setting rainfall and several inches of snow to the mountains.”

My homeless friend Maurice supplied me with the following video of the situation of homeless people in downtown San Diego and the efforts of Alpha Project president, Bob McElroy, to help homeless people cope with the challenging weather.  This video, as you will see, was filmed just outside the Emergency Winter Shelter, run by Alpha Project, which was filled to capacity.

Some background from the San Diego Regional Task Force on the Homeless 2009 Point In Time Count:

1.  In the County of San Diego, there are a total of 7,892 homeless people of whom:

  • 4,014 homeless people are living on the streets
  • 965 homeless people are living in emergency shelters
  • 2,913 homeless people are living in transitional housing

2.  In the City of San Diego, there are a total of 4,338 homeless people of whom:

  • 1,868 homeless people are living on the streets
  • 656 homeless people are living in emergency shelters
  • 1,814 homeless people are living in transitional housing

Homelessness Myth #3: Unsheltered People Only Count At Night

Also published on The Huffington Post.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Renewal (HUD) requires that every two years during the last seven days of January, Continuum of Care (CoC) systems (those agencies that HUD funds on a competitive basis) count the number of homeless people within their geographical areas.

HUD guidelines suggest that the best practice for counting homeless people is to count unsheltered homeless people on the same night as counting people staying in shelters or when the shelters are closed.  Thus, while the counts of homeless people living in shelters take place during the day, the counts for unsheltered homeless people generally take place from midnight until 4:00 a.m., or from very early in the morning, often beginning before 4:00 a.m.

In 2007, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), the lead agency for Los Angeles CoC, counted 68,608 homeless people residing within the Los Angeles CoC.  Not included within the Los Angeles CoC count were the cities of Glendale, Long Beach and Pasadena, which counted a total of 5,094 homeless people in their cities.  Thus, in 2007, the total count of homeless people in Los Angeles County was 73,702.

On October 28 of this year, LAHSA released its January 27-29, 2009 count of homeless people that found that 42,694 homeless people reside within the Los Angeles CoC. Again, not included within the Los Angeles CoC count were the cities of Glendale, Long Beach and Pasadena, which counted a total of 5,359 homeless people in their cities.  Thus, in 2009, the homeless population in Los Angeles County was counted as 48,053.

While 48,053 homeless people is an extremely large number, representing misery for thousands of men, women and children, this number is surprising to some service providers because it represents an unexpected 38% decrease in the number of homeless people counted in 2007.

In its press release, “New Census Reveals Decline in Greater Los Angeles Homelessness,” LAHSA attributes this 38% decrease in the number of homeless people counted in Los Angeles County in 2009 to “progress in the City’s and County’s efforts at reducing homelessness.”

Of particular interest are the statistics that LAHSA quotes in its press release stating that:

[t]he decline in the numbers for Los Angeles appears consistent with similar national decreases [in the number of homeless people counted] seen in areas like: 

New York: 30% decrease
Indianapolis 22% decrease
Riverside County 22% decrease


I propose that counting all homeless people, whether sheltered or unsheltered, during the day would yield a more accurate number of the people who are homeless.

1. Finding unsheltered homeless people at night is problematic. In some cities, there is police activity to break up illegal public camping.  However, on those nights at the end of January every two years, enumerators look forward to finding encampments so that they can find homeless people to count.

It would appear that the police and the enumerators are working at cross-purposes.

2. Would you like it if a team of enumerators came to your home in the middle of the night?  Some homeless people know about the count process and may not want to be disturbed so perhaps they find more out-of-the-way places to stay on census nights.

3. Some unsheltered homeless people stay awake at night.  Why?  Because sleeping at night “outside” puts homeless people in a very vulnerable state.  They often sit in well-lit areas or on buses, or they walk.

The unsheltered homeless people who do try to sleep at night often look for quiet, private places so they are protected from prying eyes, possible attacks and the elements.

4. I suggest that the enumerators bring non-perishable canned and packaged food with can openers to these hungry, poor people.  This act of charity could make the counting experience something that homeless people might look forward to and for which they would make themselves more available.

5. Unsheltered homeless people can be more easily found during the day in public places, in food lines and at service providers’ locations.  Why not utilize the organizers and volunteers at these locations to help introduce the enumerators to their guests?

Finding unsheltered working homeless people can be accomplished by talking to the organizers, volunteers, service providers or friends who know these homeless people.

6. Concerned about double counting homeless people? Homeless people are knowable.  Prior to the official counting dates, a team could just go out, meet homeless people and bring much-needed canned or packaged food.  By knowing in advance many of the people they are counting, enumerators would know to avoid counting the same person twice.

Further, in the case of meeting a homeless person who enumerators have not previously met, the enumerators could simply ask the homeless person if he/she has been counted already.  Once a trust or friendship has been established between any enumerator and any homeless person, this information will be more readily forth coming.

7. It would be helpful if each team of enumerators were accompanied by a trained mental health professional.  Stress is a challenge for all of us and certainly homeless people experience a great deal of stress.  Thus, by their mere calming presence, these mental health professionals would be providing a valuable service.

It is important for many reasons, including justifying the funding of homelessness services, that homeless people be counted.  However, we must be as creative in our thinking about the ways to count them as homeless people are creative in the ways that they survive on the streets.

As fellow human beings, homeless people are entitled to our respect, need our help and deserve our compassion.

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.