When we look at homeless people, our response is sometimes one of disbelief.
“How could this happen? How did they let it come to this?”
We imagine the descent into homelessness as a gradual slope. First came financial problems, then poverty, then desperation, then homelessness. The assumption is they had several chances to realize the course they were on and do something about it. This is how we fool ourselves into believing homeless people choose to be that way – and that it could never happen to us.
There are several problems in this line of thinking. First, we are comparing ourselves to them. We know nothing of the personal or situational challenges that person is facing. Second, it shows a lack of understanding in how people typically become homeless. It’s rarely, if ever, as forgiving as we like to think.
The painful truth is, no one allows themselves to be homeless. No one sees it coming a long way off and ignores it until it is right at their heels. Homelessness doesn’t discriminate – it comes for everyone equally, and is never a choice.
Below are a few examples showing homelessness can come for any of us at any time.
Imagine you are faced with a catastrophe – storm damage to your house, an emergency room visit, or your car breaking down. How would you pay for it? The average financial emergency costs $3,500. Twenty-eight percent of Americans faced such an emergency within the past year.
Only 41 percent of Americans could dip into savings to pay for crises. The others would use a credit card, take out a loan, borrow from family, spend less on other bills, or simply have no idea.
These might seem like decent, if unpleasant, options. But what happens when you hit a streak of bad luck and have one crisis after another? One-third of Americans say they’re still paying off debt from their last crisis. It won’t be long before the savings account runs out, your credit cards are maxed, and you have no one left to ask for more money (if you had anyone to begin with).
If your luck is hard enough, it’s only a matter of time before your rent or mortgage becomes impossible to pay.
End of a Relationship
If you rely on someone else for financial support, that person’s absence is devastating. This could be due to:
The link between the death of a spouse and homelessness is well documented. Women (or men) whose partners pass away, and happened to be making most or all of the household income – suddenly shoulder the burden of all the family’s finances. Savings run out quickly when there are children to feed and clothe. These individuals can’t simply go get a job to replace their partner’s income, especially if they lack higher education, childcare, and recent work experience.
Relationship breakdown is the number one cause of loss of housing. That doesn’t necessarily result in homelessness, but it does trigger homelessness 10 percent of the time. There are many reasons for this. If one person owns or rents the home, they could kick out their partner.
Divorce is also extremely expensive. Attorney fees and court costs add up to thousands of dollars. Loss of combined income can also lead to poverty, especially if one partner was relying on the other for financial support.
Domestic violence is defined as physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, as well as forms of manipulation like stalking and gaslighting. Of 58,936 people identified by the 2019 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count, 20,263 reported having experienced some form of domestic violence in their lifetime. The number of people listing domestic violence as their immediate reason for homelessness was 2,767.
No Housing for Families
Family homelessness is increasing faster than any other type of homelessness. Homeless families account for 40-50% of America’s homeless population. It can be caused by the same factors described above. It can also be caused by factors specific to the challenges of housing an entire family. Both parents are often working and still not making enough to house themselves and their children. Additionally, events like losing a job, accidents and illnesses can uproot an otherwise stable housing situation.
Family homelessness can be more invisible than other kinds. Families may live in campgrounds, cars or doubled up with others. This type of poverty is incredibly common, despite being less visible. In the U.S., 19.5% of families with children struggle with uncertainty about how or if they’ll get enough food to feed each family member. With several people to look after, the chances of something going wrong are higher. Even one medical bill can push an already-struggling family into homelessness.
Learning from Our Lack of Understanding
Why do we make so many cruel assumptions about homeless people? Maybe it’s because we’re afraid to see how little there is separating us from the people we see on the street. We can’t bear the idea of it happening to us.
Maybe we can use this new understanding to be more empathetic with the homeless people we cross paths with. Instead of pushing the idea out of our minds because we’re afraid, we can use it to be grateful for what we have. We can appreciate the good fortune we’ve had to not encounter so much adversity and suffering.
If we have an attitude of empathy and gratitude, we can start doing things like making eye contact with homeless people, donating our excess, and advocating for accessible resources and services. This includes affordable housing – a problem which exists in every single one of our communities, and for which we all have the opportunity to fight for.