Monday, June 13, 2011

The True Face of Homelessness

The True Face Of Homelessness

As a not-for-profit professional, I am new to the homeless prevention side of things.  So over the course of the last six months I have been trying to wrap my head around the TRUE face of homelessness.  What is the reality, not the stereotype, of the homeless?  How does it happen?  How do people end up on the streets? 

People have many preconceived notions about what the face of homelessness is; I know I did.  The stereotype is the dirty person on the street shaking a cup or pushing a shopping cart filled with their possessions; the man or woman under the bridge sleeping on a cardboard box.  We usually assume there is some sort of alcohol or drug problem, some level of laziness or mental instability that caused these people to get there. 

Last week I had a friend that, for all intensive purposes, was homeless for a week.  He did not end up sleeping in his car or on the streets because he had friends and family in the city, and a stable job.  However, his circumstance got me to thinking that if he did not have a support system around him, and a couple of circumstances had changed, he could have found himself sleeping in his car; or as Chris Farley on Saturday Night Live so eloquently liked to put it, “Sleeping in a van, down by the river!”

What if he were in a different city with no friends or family around?  What if his car broke down and he couldn’t make it to work and got fired?  What if he had a criminal history and couldn’t find another job quickly in this economy?  What if he started drinking more due to the stress and got arrested?  His possession in storage got seized and sold because he couldn’t pay for the storage unit? 

Now all of a sudden this average man is in a city with no family, no transportation, no job, few possessions, and quickly dwindling options.  What can he do?  What would you do?  Does the average person know how to survive this? 

This is the reality that many lower income families and individuals face.  Usually living paycheck-to-paycheck with little or no healthcare, few if any family or friends with the resources to fall back on; many people are just a few bad circumstances away from being homeless: the loss of a job, an unexpected illness, a death in the family, etc.  This is how an estimated 7,000 people find themselves homeless here in Marion County (Indianapolis, IN) every year; up to 1500 on any given night. 

Working families staying in hotel rooms long term because they have an eviction on their record so no one will rent to them; people sleeping in their cars because they have no family or friends that can take them in.    

This support system is the small thin line that separates many of our citizens from having a bed to sleep in, a roof over their head, and a place to take a shower, from those on the streets.

So the next time we see someone on the streets, let’s not assume we know what they’ve been through, or why they are there.  Let’s not assume that if we were placed in their circumstances that we would make better choices.  We never know what would happen until we’re in that situation.

It turns out, the true face of homelessness may not be that much different from our own.