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10 Myths about Homelessness in America

The following is from an excellent article by Robert Polner and is based on the findings of NYU Silver School of Social Work professor Deborah K. Padgett.

1. Most are mentally ill.
Decades of epidemiological research reveal that one-third, at most, have a serious mental illness. De-institutionalization or closure of mental hospitals was initially believed to be a prime cause of homelessness, but this occurred well before the sharp increase in the 1980s.

2. The majority abuse drugs and alcohol.
Only about 20 to 40 percent of the homeless have a substance abuse issue. In fact, abuse is rarely the sole cause of homelessness and more often is a response to it because living on the street puts the person in frequent contact with users and dealers.

3. They’re dangerous and violent.
Homeless persons are far more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators.

4. They’re criminals.
Homeless persons are more likely to have criminal justice intervention. However, this is primarily because many of their daily survival activities are criminalized—meaning they might be given a summons or arrested for minor offenses such as trespassing, littering, or loitering.

5. “Bad choices” led to their homelessness.
Everyone makes mistakes, but the descent into homelessness is not necessarily the direct result of choices. Far more often a sudden illness or an accident, losing one’s job, or falling into debt leads to eviction—or doubling up with family or friends becomes untenable.

6. They prefer the freedom of life on the street.
There is no evidence to support this notion that homeless persons are “service resistant.” The offer of immediate access to independent housing with support services is welcomed and accepted by most homeless.

7. They spend all their money on drugs and alcohol.
Interviews with street homeless persons show that most of their money goes to buying food and amenities such as socks, hygiene products, and bottled water.

8. They just need to get a job.
A significant portion of homeless people do have jobs—they just cannot afford to pay rent. Some receive disability income due to physical or mental problems but still cannot afford rent. For those wanting to work there are complications of applying for a job with no address, no clean clothes, no place to shower, and the stigma of being homeless (or having a criminal record).

9. The homeless are not part of the local community.
Surveys show that 70 to 80 percent of homeless persons are from the local area or lived there for a year or lo

nger before becoming unhoused.


10. They live in unsanitary conditions because they don’t care.
Living outdoors means having no regular place for bodily functions, to dispose of trash, to store food safely, or to bathe. Lacking access to a shower is one of the more humiliating aspects of being homeless.

The full article may be available here: https://www.nyu.edu/about/news-publications/news/2019/september/HomelessQandA.html
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