So, Who Are Homeless People?

by Mike McCray

The term "a homeless person" is a unique term that represents more the circumstances than the reason for the circumstance. It seldom asks why this person is homeless. More often than not it is implied that it is because of some flaw that made this person choose this life style, in other words it is all their fault.

Who are the homeless and why are they homeless needs to be understood if we truly want to correct this condition.

It is estimated that as many as one third of the homeless in America are mentally ill.

"If your leg is broken, the city will take you away. If your mind is broken, you lie there forever," stated AM Rosenthal of the New York Times. These are invisible homeless that we see in front of us everyday.

A large percentage of these individuals are not able to take care of themselves and we as a society are increasingly unwilling to spend the resources to care for them.

A federal study concluded, "Stigmatization, fear, mistrust regarding people with severe mental illness—especially those who are also homeless—are common place in our nation. Such reflections influence the development of local, state, and federal policy affecting them."

Legal rights that make inaction possible wins out over equal protections of the law in many instances.

An example is the New York judge who refused to probate a severely mentally ill homeless woman stating, "To the passerby seeing her lying on the street or defecating publicly, she may seem deranged...[but] she may indeed be a professional in her lifestyle."

Another group of homeless people are those who have simply fallen on economic hard times. Without an address, phone, or social supports it is very hard to find employment. Those who do not find a job often end up with a minimum wage job. In many parts of the United States a minimum wage job is not an adequate income to secure residence, food, and other necessities for life. In some instance these individuals hold down several minimum wage jobs while residing at shelters.

The working homeless are seldom seen on the streets during the day nor on the news in the evening. They are the invisible homeless population that we do not see when we cast judgments

The next large population of homeless is families that have collapsed. Most often the families consist of women and any number of children. They may lack the extended family support or, because of a violent spouse, contacting the extended family may not be a healthy option. In some instances for personal safety reasons these families must be relocated.

Given the complex nature of the differing family members needs, helping families is more complex and involves many levels of the social support system.

Runaway youths are also homeless but seldom defined as such. They tend to migrate to the larger metropolitan areas to avoid detection, quite often ending up victims of pedophiles and others who prey upon them for economic reasons. They are often unable to access the system at all because of the isolation in communities.

Those who are homeless because of an addiction come from a broad range of social conditions. They have destroyed their social support network by the time they end up homeless.

The only thing that we are sure of is the number of those people for whatever reason are homeless is increasing in all western nations. How we deal with the situation will be a prelude of how we deal with the poor, elderly, disabled and all others who have problems competing for resources in society. After all, the term homeless means "without a home"; it is does not define "why."

Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine published March – April 1996 – Issue 14