By Staci Wright
This is the second installment of the blog series “Simple Truths: debunking common stereotypes surrounding those experiencing homelessness.” You can find the introduction to this series here.
The first stereotype I would like to discuss is the idea that “all homeless people are dirty, smelly and mentally ill.” Not everyone experiencing homelessness is dirty, smelly or mentally ill. Many are families, many are children, many are single adults and many are experiencing homelessness for a short period of time.
When we close our eyes and imagine someone experiencing homelessness, we tend to imagine the “street people.” We picture someone that looks worn and tired; they may have a cart or bag that holds all of their personal belongings. You visualize them with a cardboard sign asking for help or money. They may appear to be unclean and unshaven. The stereotypical image is often, at times, someone experiencing chronic homelessness. Chronic homelessness, as defined by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, are those that are experiencing long-term or repeated homelessness, commonly due to a disability. In reality, this group that you are imagining accounts for only 18 percent of those experiencing homelessness on any given night.
So, how is it that the group that often gets placed in this mold only accounts for a small percentage of those experiencing homelessness? It is due to the fact that they are the most visible, the most noticeable and the most commonly overemphasized. We tend to notice this group because they are the ones we see living on the streets. They are the ones we see begging for money. They are the ones who are caught in a cycle of homelessness that is hard to break without support or assistance.
With only 18 percent experiencing chronic homelessness, you may be wondering about the other 82 percent. This leaves those that find themselves in this situation temporarily, which may include individuals, families and children. This population will have often experienced a life-altering event that contributed to a state of homelessness, such as job loss, natural disaster, foreclosure, divorce, abuse, or medical problems. Whatever the situation, they find themselves in transitory living situations such as shelters, living with friends or family, staying in hotels, residing in their car, or another undesirable living situation. Though, after a relatively short period of time, many are able to re-build their lives and move back into self-sufficiency.
What about the Mentally Ill?
Mental illness, as defined by the National Institutes of Health, is a health condition that changes a person’s thinking, feelings, and/or behavior, which causes the person distress and difficulty in functioning. There are many different types of mental illness and not everyone shares the same diagnoses, symptoms or experiences. Though, if severe enough, it can disrupt daily life functions, personal relationships and personal health. If left untreated, mental illness is difficult to overcome and, without a support system, homelessness may occur. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 20 to 25 percent of the homeless population in the United States suffers from some form of severe mental illness.
When homelessness occurs, the mental and physical state of the individual tends to worsen and further issues arise. With depleting resources, and limited access to treatment and medication, about forty percent turned to substance abuse to cope, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. Thus begins a downward spiral which makes it difficult for them to maintain employment and stability. Though, if there is a lack of funding and housing programs, then it can be difficult for those to receive the treatment and care that they need in order to become self-sustainable.
In conclusion, it is just not the “dirty, smelly and mentally ill” that experience homelessness. There are everyday people that may have been dealt a bad card. There are families who were one paycheck away from going into foreclosure. And there are the percentage suffering from severe mental illness. So the next time you see those “street people,” know that they only account for a small percentage of a widespread population.