Homelessness Myth #21: They’re All Happy-Go-Lucky

Also published on The Huffington Post.

Some housed people believe that homeless people don’t have a care in the world. They think that because many homeless people don’t appear to work, that life on the streets is carefree. Truly, nothing could be further from the truth.

The truth is that homeless people have extremely challenging lives for a host of reasons, some obvious, some not so obvious. Sometimes, many times, these challenges, be they physical, mental and/or spiritual, feel overwhelming to homeless people. Without resources to get help, many homeless people succumb to the pressure of these challenges and are anything but “happy-go-lucky.”

However, this myth is, perhaps unwittingly, perpetuated even by highly educated and presumably kind-hearted individuals. Take for example, these sentences:

“In my experience, the more people have, the less likely they are to be contented. Indeed there is abundant evidence that depression is a ‘disease of affluence.'”

When I read these sentences in the excerpt, “Don’t Let Chaos Get You Down” in Newsweek double issue, November 7 & 14, 2011 page 9 from Dr. Andrew Weil’s new book, Spontaneous Happiness, I thought, “Really?”

I immediately felt compelled to go out and buy the book. But not for the reason you may think. I just had to learn whether the excerpt accurately reflected what Dr. Weil intended to say in his book or whether these sentences were somehow taken out of context.

In my experience, homeless people have very few material possessions and are not content. In fact, I have found that many homeless people suffer greatly from depression. In the words of a homeless friend of mine, “All homeless people are depressed.”

I found Spontaneous Happiness to be quite interesting. It contains helpful definitions of terms, historical references about the evolution of psychology particularly as it has dealt with emotional health and depression and quotes from professionals in the field of mental health. I learned a lot from reading this book.

In Chapter 8 of the book, Dr. Weil presents his program to help people attain “optimum emotional well-being.” In his introduction to this program, Dr. Weil writes, “Feel free to proceed through the program at your own pace, taking as much time as you need with the assignments…[I]n my experience, it takes at least eight weeks to realize the effects of lifestyle changes on health, both physical and emotional.”

However, throughout the read, I kept asking myself, but what about people who are homeless? These people have little or nothing. Presumably, they can’t even afford the book. How can they deal with depression?

Truly, I don’t intend to put Dr. Weil or his fine book down. I’ve even recommended his book to one of my friends to whom I thought the book might be of interest. It’s just that I believe that the book was intended to be purchased, read and utilized by affluent people, at least by people affluent enough to be able to afford the book.

But what about unhoused people? Where are the books written specifically for them to help them meet their need to overcome depression? And how can they afford these books? And would eight weeks be sufficient to help them achieve “optimum emotional well-being?”

I don’t know the answers to these questions. There may be pamphlets on depression available at low-cost and/or free health clinics, but books? If there are such books, how many of them are available at a price that homeless people can afford? In other words, are these books available to homeless people for low-cost or free? And how would homeless people find these books?

Of course, I am presuming that some, many or all homeless people want books to help them overcome their depression. I believe that generally few people want to stay in pain. Further, it is my understanding that depression can be very painful.

If books can present tools to help housed people alleviate their depression, why can’t books help unhoused people alleviate their depression? Therefore, I believe that some, many or all depressed homeless people would benefit from and want books to help them overcome their depression.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have books that could help all people suffering from depression, not just affluent people?

Dr. Weil, can we talk?

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Homelessness Myth #20: They Make Millions

Also published on The Huffington Post

The myth that homeless people make millions or thousands of dollars is a myth of gigantic proportions. This myth incorporates the mistaken belief that homeless people make big money by trading on their homelessness, which is simply not true.

Panhandling is one of the primary ways a homeless person can raise funds. In today’s parlance “begging” is called “panhandling.”

I learned a great deal about the nature and necessity of panhandling from a young homeless woman I met outside a theater in Los Angeles. It was 9:30 p.m. on a cool winter’s night when I walked by her as she stood by a shopping cart that held her young child and her infant.

“Can you spare some change?” she asked.

I reached into my pocket and pulled out two $1 bills. As I handed these singles to the young mother, she pulled out a wad of bills from her pocket. She proceeded to place my bills on top of the high stack that she already had.

I began to walk away when I thought I would talk to the young mother.

“May I ask you a question?”

“Sure.”

“I’m wondering about something. It’s late at night, you have two young children and you have a lot of money. Why are you and your children outside in the cold?”

“Well, you don’t understand.”

She pulled out all of her money from her pocket. For the first time I noticed that the high stack of bills was actually a bunch of crinkled one dollar bills stacked one on top of another.

“Before you came along, I had $26 here. Now, with your two dollars, I have $28. I’ll be out here until I get $36 for a motel room for me and my babies.”

I was silent. I had no more cash to give her. So, I wished the young mother well and left with a heavy heart.

Obviously, panhandling is not as lucrative as some of us think. This young mother taught me that appearances can be deceiving.

Recycling is another way a homeless person can make money. We’ve all seen a homeless person pushing a cart filled to overflowing with cans and bottles. Sometimes there are even plastic bags bulging with recyclables tied to the sides of the cart.

Can a homeless person “get rich quick” by recycling? Not really. Working from dawn to dust, a homeless person may gather as much as $40 in recyclables. Just enough for a motel room and perhaps one meal.

Also, recycling is not easy work. It requires some mental ability and more than a little physical strength. Certainly, this method of pursuing an income is not available to the elderly or infirm.

My homeless friend Danny recycled cans and bottles every day for years. Each morning Danny would follow the same route, visiting the same locations searching for discarded recyclables. He considered recycling his job and he was devoted to his work.

A lovely, responsible person, Danny was hired not long ago by the City to do part time maintenance work. Although he enjoys his new job, Danny says that he misses his old job of recycling and the places he would visit every day.

Government benefits are another way that a homeless person can acquire funds to live. In California general relief (GR), also known as “welfare,” is a program funded by the county. Although each of the 58 California counties sets its own amount of benefits, San Diego County provides $234 as a loan to a single qualifying adult.

A $234 loan per month is a far cry from riches. Often a homeless person will use some of his or her GR to rent a motel room for several nights and to pay for food during this same period of time. His or her goal is to clean up, rest, and possibly remember what it is like to be housed once again. This brief respite gives the homeless person an opportunity to leave the harsh conditions living on the streets.

A homeless person may also qualify for Social Security benefits. Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is available to assist the elderly, blind, or disabled person who has low or no income. In the year 2000, SSI’s maximum monthly benefit was $512.


Social Security Disability Insurance
 is a monthly benefit for disabled people who have worked within 10 years of the disability and paid Social Security taxes. In the year 2000, the average benefit was about $750.

The monthly benefits available to a qualifying adult through SSI or SSDI will not make a homeless person rich. The goal of these programs is to provide a safety net for those who do qualify. These funds may be sufficient for a homeless person to secure housing.

People are homeless for a host of reasons, but they are not pretending to be poor. They do not have the funds for three meals a day and a roof over their heads every night.

No homeless person is getting rich through panhandling, recycling or any government program.

Homelessness Myth #19: R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Also published on The Huffington Post

Imagine for a moment the image of a homeless person. How do you feel? Are you imagining someone you respect?

Many of us do not respect homeless people. And by “us,” I mean “housed people.” Often, having respect for homeless people is only a myth.

At home with our families, at work surrounded by colleagues and even with friends, we may thoughtlessly use negative words, such as “bums” or “transients” to describe unhoused people. Our use of these words has become so prevalent that even homeless people use them to describe themselves.

For example, I saw a homeless man wearing overalls taking a shower at the beach two days ago. Standing in the cold weather under even colder running water, the homeless man made a great effort to wash. \As the homeless man finished his shower, he explained to an approaching housed person, “That’s how a bum washes his jeans.”

The word “homeless” is an adjective. There are homeless dogs and homeless cats. We need to remember our nouns. We need to be clear and accurate when we’re speaking about a “homeless person.” By avoiding the noun “person” when we’re talking about someone who is unhoused, we’re essentially dehumanizing the person about whom we’re speaking.

Words count and we know that words can hurt.

In addition, while we may be sympathetic to housed people with various limitations, our empathy does not seem to extend to homeless people with the same limitations. It seems that many of us have become desensitized to the plight of homeless people through constant exposure to negative language and images in our culture. For example, our print, radio and TV media often contain many disrespectful and inaccurate references to “transients,” when those homeless people are often born and raised in the same area in which they are currently homeless.

We may also show disrespect through our treatment of homeless people. Why else would we offer fewer services than are needed by them? We disrespect homeless people when we have insufficient shelter space for the number of homeless people within any municipality. We generally don’t meet homeless people “where they are.” In other words, we often ignore the reality of their situations and require that homeless people live up to our standards in order to get into shelters and/or receive services.

However, there is some very good news. The cities of Los Angeles and San Diego are now attempting to “meet homeless people where they are” by providing housing to 50 and 25, respectively, most-in-need homeless people regardless of their personal needs, habits and/or addictions. After these people are housed, appropriate services will be offered.

Why should we respect homeless people? We need to respect homeless people because they’re people. Living without a home, money, modern conveniences and often a job, they’re suffering more distress than many housed people have ever experienced.

Further, about 45 percent of homeless people are mentally ill. Does this diminish the respect that we owe them? No, because they’re still people. Most of the time we are unaware that certain housed people that we know are mentally ill. Because of a number of factors, mental illness among housed people is often not as obvious as the mental illness of homeless people.

It seems to me that the issues of homelessness have been in existence long enough for homelessness to become a formal science. Although we don’t offer enough shelter to meet the entire need, we now offer homeless people more housing assistance than ever before. Our service programs have become more effective over time and our statistical methods of counting homeless people have improved.

Therefore, it’s time to review our language concerning homeless people, our cultural influences on the topic of homelessness and our treatment of homeless people so that we can recognize our biases. When we realize our negativities, we can make changes to reflect our enlightened state of mind.

Once we respect homeless people, our world will change for the better.

 

Homelessness Myth #18: The Police Will Solve It

Also published on The Huffington Post

Homelessness is first and foremost a social service issue. In other words, homelessness can be and will be resolved through the work of compassionate individuals and social service agencies, be they nonprofit organizations or government agencies. Nevertheless, the myth exists that homelessness is primarily a police issue.

If homelessness is truly a social service issue, why is police activity often seen as the ultimate solution to ending homelessness?

First, some housed people fear homeless people. The concept of “NIMBYism,” not in my backyard, is the totality of the negative thoughts and fears of some housed people who think that their safety depends upon homeless people, as well as social service programs serving homeless people, not existing in their neighborhoods, their “backyards.” These housed people often look to their municipal policymakers, legislative bodies and the police to “solve” homelessness by preventing or removing homeless people and homelessness programs from existing in their neighborhoods.

Second, often in response to the real or perceived feelings of housed people, some municipal policymakers and legislative bodies have focused on homelessness as an issue to be removed from within their borders, rather than as a city issue to be solved. These municipal lawmakers may pass ordinances that appear to remove the problem of homelessness within their city as a political tool for garnishing votes in the next election from their fearful constituents.

City ordinances do not cost money to draft and pass because the municipal legislative bodies are already in place and being paid to pass ordinances. So passing ordinances relating to homelessness per se, costs no additional funding.

Third, when a city focuses on passing municipal ordinances for removing homelessness from within the city, its police department becomes charged with enforcing these ordinances. Police departments already exist and, hence, no additional funds are needed to create an enforcement body.

There is no doubt that there are many fine members of police forces across the United States who diligently enforce the laws and simultaneously compassionately help homeless people. In addition, in a number of municipalities, there are police teams specifically dedicated to addressing homelessness. Sometimes these police teams have a working relationship with social service agencies and may refer homeless people to them for needed services. However, while the police can help homeless residents, the police cannot be expected solve all of the issues of homelessness.

What can we as individuals do to help end homelessness? We can do a lot:

• We can volunteer for and support local social service agencies who are helping to end homelessness.

• There still may be time this January to volunteer and support the HUD-required Point In Time Count (PITC) of homeless people which has been mandated nationwide bi-annually at the end of January since 2005. HUD uses the statistics gathered as a basis for distributing millions of dollars of federal funds to social service agencies.

• We can be kind and compassionate to everyone regardless of economic standing.

I asked several social service providers to share their views on this myth. I am grateful to them for their comments that follow.

“There are a lot of times when the police get the rap… My experience is that the police are much more of a friend to us [Alpha Project] and homeless people. But, the police are complaint-driven…

“All the best officers are sympathetic to homeless peoples’ situations. Anytime the HOT Team [San Diego Police Homeless Outreach Team] brings in a homeless person, we put them in the shelter… The HOT Team is our biggest advocate. There is no place to take anyone without the Winter Shelter being open.”

— Bob McElroy, President, Alpha Project. The San Diego Winter Shelter Program is run by Alpha Project.

“Social services — whether publicly or privately funded — are all dedicated to improving social conditions- – that’s why they’re called social services. It’s part of the community that has solving social problems as its core mission, its bottom line. Social service agencies are core in providing the relationships people need to be successful. 

“Yes, to solve homelessness, let’s make everyone count. Let’s support the experts – the social service agencies – in the powerful work of building relationships with each person who is without a home.”

– Patricia Leslie, M.S.W., Director, Social Work, Point Loma Nazarene University

“The police can be invaluable partners in our shared effort to alleviate homelessness. However, they cannot be expected to arrest or simply relocate people who are homeless. Many jurisdictions restrict the reach of the law enforcement when it comes to where people sleep or reside during the day… 

“However, what is clear is that Homelessness is not a Police Issue, it is a ‘Community Issue’. As a community, we can solve homelessness. The solution begins with empathy, compassion, and understanding. This is often difficult, but necessary in order to create the groundswell of action needed to create solutions. From this, we need to commit to affordable housing, employment options, health care, and ongoing supports in order to enable people to achieve their potential. Whose issue is it? Ours.

– Peter Callstrom, Executive Director of the San Diego Regional Task Force

“I, of course, sincerely believe that homelessness and problems that accompany it must be addressed by society at large and the social service agencies that have the knowledge and skills to help the homeless population. Government (cities and counties) and the service providers should be working together to help homeless individuals and families acquire housing, health care, both physical and mental health, education and the employment skills they need to become contributing members of our society.

“The police do have an important piece in this process, but it should be ‘compassionate policing’ such as the Homeless Outreach Teams that are trained to work with the chronic homeless population…

“All of us must take some responsibility to help solve [the homelessness] problem. So many talented and caring people are trying hard to end homelessness. We all need to do our part.”

– Hannah Cohen, Policy Consultant on Issues of Housing and Homelessness, President of the Cohen Group

“It’s such a myth to me, that when I heard that, I almost brushed it off my shoulder…because the political involvement [in homelessness] does not make the issue go away, it only moves it around. You can sweep [homelessness] under the rug, then you shake the rug and people on the other side of the street get upset. 

“Whatever we do to get rid of ‘the problem’ [homelessness], we affect all those communities around us. It does not go away; it only grows.”

– Tim Sandiford, Head Trustee, Point Loma United Methodist Church, Commissioner of Ministries and Missions, Member and Point Person for Public Facilities, OB Forum

 

Homelessness Myth #17: They Flock for Services

Also published on The Huffington Post

In my opinion, the popular myth that homeless people “flock” to any particular city to take advantage of its services is cruel. This myth is espoused by some housed people, including some people in positions of political power in certain municipalities. They argue that their city should not offer humanitarian services or add further services to what they are already providing to homeless people, because, if they do, more homeless people will be attracted to their city.

In essence, they rationalize that homeless people will “flock” to their city for its services. As a result, this myth is often perpetuated as the reason to avoid creating or increasing services for people in need.

First, people don’t “flock.” When using the word, “flock,” as a verb, we can say, “birds flock.” Or we can say the phrase, “a flock of birds.” People move.

Usually people who are housed or unhoused move individually or in family units. They move when it is convenient for them, often during vacation time so that their children avoid missing school. Or they move to accept a new job. Or to “start a new life” for whatever reason in a new locale.

Only the impact of a major natural disaster, such as Hurricane Katrina, forces numbers of people to leave their homes and move en mass because their homes have became uninhabitable.

Second, statistics show that when a person is housed and then becomes homeless, they generally stay in their own location.

For example, in 2005, the Los Angeles County Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) held “the single largest homeless enumeration effort ever conducted…using HUD-recommended practices for counting homeless persons” that was published in its 2005 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count, “Executive Summary,” p. 3. LAHSA also reported in this same “Executive Summary,” page 8, that among the 88,000 plus homeless people residing in Los Angeles County, 78 percent of them were housed in Los Angeles County when they became homeless.

Obviously, these homeless people didn’t “flock” from another jurisdiction to become homeless in Los Angeles County. In The Daily News of January 13, 2006, LAHSA Commission Chairman Owen Newcomer acknowledged, “We do not have a situation where hordes are coming in from outside the county.”

In its 2007 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count, LAHSA found that there were nearly 74,000 homeless people residing within the County of Los Angeles. At that time, LAHSA also found, but did not publish, that the percentage of homeless people who were housed in Los Angeles County when they became homeless increased to 84 percent. (Source within LAHSA)

Third, some people also say that homeless people “flock” to jurisdictions where there are services to help them. However, in its 2009 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count, LAHSA reported that there were just over 48,000 people who were homeless in Los Angeles County. This number represented a decrease of 38 percent of the number of homeless people in Los Angeles County from 2007.

To what does the County of Los Angeles attribute this decline in the number of homeless people residing in the County? On November 13, 2009, I asked that question of a LAHSA employee who told me that the decrease in the number of homeless people was due to the cooperation between the City and County of Los Angeles and their programs that have been helping homeless people become housed. It would appear that providing effective housing programs does lead to a decrease in the number of homeless residents.

I asked several homeless people what they felt about this myth. I thank them for their responses that follow.

Jon, 47 years old: “I left East County because it was not making me happy and I have to be happy. Homeless people come to certain areas for the people. People are attracted by people. The services come after that. I didn’t know about the services when I came here. I only heard about them after I was here.”

Cosmic, 48 years old: “I wanted to come to Ocean Beach (OB). Someone told me about OB and I looked it up on the Internet. I didn’t come here for the City services. I am an OBcian.’

Cameron, 32 years old: “They try to keep services out of the beach communities because they don’t want to attract more people. But [homeless] people don’t come here for the services because there’re not many services or shelters.”

In conclusion, it is human nature that people move from one location to another seeking better opportunities for themselves or their families. Housed people move, why shouldn’t homeless people? However, if we are all kind to our neighbors, housed and unhoused, and provide housing programs for those people in need, there would be less homeless people in every city. What a wonderful way to put a myth to rest!