There’s a pervasive belief in our society that people who are homeless or poor are lazy. If they truly wanted to succeed, they’d get a job, work hard at it, and save everything they could until their lives improved. But they don’t want to do that—they’d rather laze about on the streets.
This perspective offers a simple and convenient explanation for what is actually a complex, systemic problem. Blaming homeless people for being homeless, attributing it to character flaws or personal failures, is a lot easier than studying the sequence of events that eventually resulted in their poverty.
Attributing homelessness to simple laziness falls apart quickly when you consider what it’s really like to be homeless. Because at the end of the day, if homeless people were truly lazy, they wouldn’t survive.
They would die on the streets if they didn’t plan, hustle, and—yes—work. It takes work to survive on the streets. More work than many of us, in our comfortable office jobs that our privilege and social status allowed us to get, have ever done.
Everyday Tasks Present Huge Challenges
Surviving homelessness is a full-time job. Add on efforts that come with trying to escape homelessness, and it becomes multiple jobs. Below are just a few of the types of work homeless people put in every day, whether trying to improve their lives or simply survive.
Attain government assistance
Sometimes people think that having a social worker or case manager means someone else is doing all the work. However, that person can be better understood as a director, who only gives the client instruction and advice. The client must show up on time to appointments, fill out paperwork, gather materials needed for applications, complete interviews… the list goes on.
Additionally, programs like food stamps and Section 8 housing require significant paperwork that homeless people must store somewhere dry and secure. This takes care and planning.
Whether it’s to get to social service appointments, food banks, shelters, or any other resource, much time and energy is devoted to transportation. This might look like getting to the bus station at the right time to minimize walking, or it might mean just walking for miles.
Many homeless people average 10-15 miles per day of walking. Being homeless easily involves more walking per day than any of us do, or perhaps could handle.
Of course, many homeless people have cars. In that case, the work of figuring out how to pay for gas, where to park it, and upkeep (especially because it probably isn’t a new car) makes up for the walking.
Secure food and shelter
Soup kitchens have open hours on different days. So do clothing closets and other resources. Shelters have different rules, and finding an open bed in one may require some searching and coordination. Then there are rules about the maximum length of stay, and there may be maximum benefits for other services, too. If you’re not fortunate enough to have a case manager, you must do the legwork of finding and securing these most basic survival needs yourself.
Keeping clean is another daunting task while homeless. Simple things that we take for granted, like having quick access to a bathroom and a shower, present a problem for homeless people. They must always think about where the nearest bathrooms are and which are accessible to the public (because many are not).
Showering is a bigger problem and will probably require payment. In many cases, showering every day will be impossible; the task then is to coordinate them around things like appointments.
Keeping track of belongings
Homeless people don’t have as many things as a housed person does, but they still have things. Clothes, basic toiletries, sentimental items, and important documents are all things that they must move from place to place. Finding ways to keep belongings clean and dry is a challenge, as is trying to protect them from theft.
Taking care of children/loved ones
Around two and a half million children are homeless in this country. Childcare tasks that are supposed to be easy, like changing diapers and getting kids to school, become a lot harder without a permanent residence. It can be easy to forget that hidden homelessness—also known as couch surfing—is responsible for a large percentage of the homeless population.
For many homeless parents, securing a roof over their kids’ heads and food at mealtimes is enough work to occupy every thought and second of their days.
It’s not just kids, either; homeless people have elderly parents, family members with disabilities, and pets that require attention and care. Even while homeless, people can have a wide variety of caregiving responsibilities.
There is No Other Option
What would happen if a homeless person were to neglect even one of these critical areas? Life would become unlivable—probably dangerous. There certainly wouldn’t be the possibility of escaping homelessness.
If you feel overwhelmed thinking about the exhausting work that goes into living on the street, in a car, or bouncing from place to place, then you’re starting to get an idea of what it’s really like to be homeless. It isn’t a lifestyle anyone would choose. Having a job with a place to live is a far easier existence than the turbulent, unpredictable alternative.