It’s Not What You Think

Nobody wants to be homeless.

You may think this is a statement of the obvious. But in 250 hours of interviews I conducted this year on this topic, one of the most common things that people believe about the homeless is that they want to be homeless.

See opening statement.

As someone who had no previous experience with homelessness but who has since over the past year immersed himself into a documentary film on the topic, I thought I would share six things that I think any smart, well-read, socially-aware person needs to know.

1. The leading cause of homelessness in the US is lack of affordable housing.

On average, states have seen an increase in minimum wage of 9% since 2000. Rents, on the other hand, have increased on average 41% in the same time period. Further contributing to the issue has been the lack of up-keep and the aging of current affordable housing units. It is estimated that over the next four years 300,000 units will be lost due to expiring contracts and lack of funding. The most impactful statistic is from the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Their research shows that currently there is no county in the US where even a one bedroom apartment at fair market rent is affordable for a person working full-time at minimum wage.

2. Logically, the second leading cause of homelessness is the lack of a livable wage.

Several of homeless we interviewed had full time jobs, and they were still homeless. If you were lucky enough to be employed, particularly in these economic times, you most likely are making minimum wage. Half of all of the jobs created in the US right now are minimum wage. If you are making the minimum wage, you need to work 89 hours a week in order to afford an average two bedroom apartment in the average city, based on affordable housing guidelines. This flies direct in the face of the passerby who yells out to the person on the street, “Get a job!” The answer is, yes, we need to give them a job but we have to pay wages that allow everyone to afford a place to live.

Hand-in-hand with livable wage is the notion of how one “gets out” of homelessness. This sounds so simple (get employed, find a home) but quickly becomes a dizzying logistical dance. You can’t get a place without an ID. Getting some form of an ID is more difficult that it sounds. Depending on where you live, identification cost a minimum of $10, and if you are lucky to have the money, you also need to have to have an address. Here is the Catch-22. You cannot get an ID without an address, but you can’t get an address without an ID.

Then, if you have no home, you have no place store belongings-interviewing for jobs with the clothes on your back puts you at a serious disadvantage. Even if you get the job, your first paycheck doesn’t arrive for two weeks. During that two weeks you may not have the money to eat or for transportation to and from the job.

Here is a true example that I saw first had that illustrates what I am talking about. I met a man named Ted who, on the day we met, was going in for a second interview at an oil change garage. He was really excited about the opportunity, as he had previously worked as a manager at a competitor. A few days later I saw Ted sitting on a bench mid-day. I asked him how it went. He proceeded to tell me that he had got the job that day, and was really excited. He lived at the shelter, which had no place for him to keep his clothes, but a local church had agreed to let him locker there. For his first day, he had to get up at 4:30 am, catch the bus to the church, change his clothes and “bathe” in the sink. Then he caught another bus across town to work.

“The first day went pretty well,” he said. At lunch he sat outback and drank water, as there was not a soup kitchen or anything nearby. When the day was over, Ted hopped on the bus and rode across town to the shelter. He arrived too late to get in and so he had to stay under a nearby overpass. Because he missed dinner he “scrapped” meaning he went through the dumpsters outback of restaurants looking for food.

The next day, he was up at 4 am and back on the bus. When he got to the church, someone had moved his clothes. He panicked. He told me “The last thing I wanted was for anyone at the job to know I was homeless.” Realizing the time, he ran out to the bus stop-just in time to see the bus pull away. He called his boss and explained that he had missed the bus and that he would be 30 minutes late. When he got to work, his boss let him go stating, “You really need to learn to be punctual and responsible if you want to hold a job.”

Ted told me the story with tears welling up in his eyes. I asked if I could call the manager. I think, initially, Ted thought I was calling to confirm his story. Instead I was calling to ask the manager to reconsider. I explained that he had an opportunity to really make an impact, to help this man who was homeless get back on his feet. I went on to say how excited Ted had been for the opportunity and explained what had made him late.

There was a pause, then his response, which I can still hear as if he were talking to me now. He said, “If I had known he was homeless, I would have never hired him in the first place.” Then, a click on the other end of the phone.

3. Drug and alcohol addiction is not in the top five reasons people become homeless

It is true that of the chronic homeless-which is a small portion of the overall homeless population- drug and alcohol addiction is higher. However, the chronic homeless are only 25% of the overall homeless population and of all those who are homeless and struggle with addiction nearly half became addicted after they became homeless.

4. More than 3.5 million people will experience homelessness in the US this year. Over 1.5 million of them will be children.

Some are estimate the actual number of homeless to be much higher-closer to 5 million people. That makes homelessness the 22nd largest state in the US. Surprising to me was that there is no standard method of counting the homeless; the politics around how we count tends to get more air time that the issue of homelessness itself. The government count is through Housing and Urban Development (HUD) which consists of a count in January of anyone at a shelter and those they can find outside. The count is done every two years. This does not include those living out of motels, cars, campgrounds, or anyone doubled up. It also doesn’t take into account any of those who become homeless and get off the streets in less than two years. Interestingly, because of the new McKinney Vento Act, we count children who are in temporary housing situations differently now but do not include their parents-who are in the same situation-as homeless.

5. There are four to six times as many animal shelters in the US as there are human shelters.

This statistic pains me. There is a shortage of beds for the homeless across the country yet we care more for animals? I saw this first hand in Virginia Beach where they have criminalized homelessness by issuing tickets to people who sleep outside between 8:00 pm and 8:00 am or who are caught panhandling. Because there is little shelter space, many are forced to hide in the woods. If the woods are owned by the city, the police come through and issue tickets for trespassing and cut down any tents or camps they may have.

One particular stand of trees served as a makeshift camp for as many as 100 homeless in Virginia Beach. The city bought the land, pushed out the homeless, cut down the tree, and built a $10 million no-kill animal shelter. This is a city that says they don’t have the money to build a human shelter, but was able to find public funds to build an animal shelter and displace homeless families with nowhere to go.

6. The fastest growing demographic of the homeless population is the family.

With not nearly enough shelters to accommodate a family, more and more find themselves living in cars, tents, motels (when they can afford to), or other make-shift accommodations. The majority of shelters split up men and women, adults and children, leaving families with no options other than to go to separate shelters, often miles apart, with no means to communicate.

7. Many of the homeless have lead lives just like yours. It could truly be you or I one day.

The homeless are bankers, grandmothers, middle-class, administrators, teachers and they come from every walk of life. Many of those we interviewed had lead lives were not so unlike mine, and then, as if hit by a bolt of lightning, events conspired to change their course. In some cases, an injury or an illness, a loss of a job or a relationship, or a natural disasters that had destroyed their homes, their businesses and left them with nothing.

Some, of course, described households where parents were alcoholics or addicts, others were abandon at a young age, and yet others told stories of horrific abuse which caused them to run with homelessness being a better alternative to remaining in a an abusive home.

Several recounted their dreams as kids of what they hoped they would be. Many talked about their plan to get housed and when they were doing to get there. And almost all talked about the shame and humiliation they experienced in being homeless.

Homelessness is right outside your window, on your way to work, in the bus station, on the Tube right in front of us. The issue is massive and making change seems like it will require unlimited resources, willpower and tenacity of the masses. But it will not be because our governments have figured out what to do-it will occur when we decide as individuals that we want to do something about it. Squelch the stereotypes that fuel unfounded fear that holds you back from helping. Figure out what you can do, and do it.

Mardy Gilyard, homeless as a college student and now a professional football player for the St. Louis Rams, summed it up. “When I was living in my car and I was hungry, I prayed a lot. I wasn’t praying for a god to come down, scoop me up and give me a home. I was just praying for a god to walk across that parking lot and hand me a sandwich.”

Get involved, volunteer, figure out what you can do on your own, do something. I mean really, we could all walk across a parking lot and hand someone a sandwich.

(Tom Morgan is the producer of These Storied Streets ( ), a documentary film about homelessness in the United States due out in April of 2012. Find These Storied Streets on Facebook, @storiedstreets on Twitter and read Tom’s blog posts at )

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