Table of Contents
Is homelessness a choice? There is a pervasive assumption that can lead society to blame homelessness on the personal choices of the person experiencing it. Sometimes people believe laziness or bad decisions cause homelessness.
The truth is that homelessness is caused by the lack of safety nets available for people when they lose their housing. And there are many, many reasons why a person might lose their independent housing:
- job loss
- physical illness or disability
- death in the household
- mental illness
- rent increases
- substance use disorder
- domestic violence or abuse
- systematic barriers against communities of color and people living in poverty
None of these reasons are because a person chooses to become homeless.
Homelessness is not something people choose.
Homelessness is very challenging and often has negative long-term health, social, and behavioral impacts on the person experiencing it.
Sadly, homelessness erects numerous obstacles in the way of a person completing even the simplest of tasks.
For someone living on the streets, transportation becomes an obstacle in accomplishing each basic need. If an individual cannot afford public transit or if it’s unavailable at that time or place, many individuals are relegated to walking multiple miles per day to access the most basic necessities such as showers, public meals, laundry, mail and even public bathrooms.
According to one study, people who are homeless walk a median of five miles daily. This is made even more challenging for those with mobility issues, disabilities or chronic health concerns. Additionally, paying for transportation can put an undue burden on a person with already limited income.
A review published in the the Journal of Social Distress and the Homeless reported that “individuals in the lowest income quintile spend about 36% of their annual budgets on transportation alone.”
2. Food & Health
Healthy and fresh food is scarce for people living without shelter and many rely on convenient or cheap packaged snacks and meals.
The lack of nutrition along with the lack of easy access for consistent medical and dental care can cause long-term health problems.
In fact the lifespan of a person experiencing homelessness is an average of 17.5 years less than the typical lifespan of the general population.
For those living without shelter, finding safe places to sleep or stay in local parks, along underpasses, on the streets and in encampments can be very challenging.
Choosing the wrong spot can result in a territorial dispute; in wet, cold or unsafe conditions, or in making individuals more vulnerable to theft or attack in the night.
A person experiencing homelessness is seven to ten times more likely than a person with housing to be the victim of a violent crime.
4. Accessing Social Services
Federal and state assistance programs are difficult for people experiencing homelessness to access.
Transience, instability and a lack of awareness of what’s available and how to apply mean that people often miss out on the resources available to them. People experiencing homelessness also lack a stable address for agencies to send application responses and disability checks.
For example, Public Policy & Research Department of America’s Second Harvest, reported that their “review of food stamp applications from the 50 states and the District of Columbia found in general that these applications are much longer than necessary, are difficult to understand and complete, and include excessive and invasive questions often with little or no legal connection to the Food Stamp Program.”
Steps for Long-Term Success
For example, many individuals don’t have professional clothing or access to a shower for job interviews. They don’t have easy access to computers for job searches, working on their resumes or submitting housing applications.
In a survey conducted by the National Coalition for the Homeless, 92% of individuals surveyed reported that they had been discriminated against due to their housing status.
Why do some choose to sleep outside instead of in shelters?
While people largely do not choose to be homeless, conditions of the social system might cause a person to choose to sleep outdoors instead of in a shelter. Sometimes the choices for shelter or assistance in the community are so limited, that it’s not really a choice at all considering a person’s specific situation. For example:
- Many shelters do not allow a person to bring their pets or their valued possessions.
- A shelter may not accept families with men, so the father would have to remain on the streets.
- A shelter may not accept married or unmarried couples without children and the couple doesn’t want to be split up.
- A shelter may require sobriety for a person experiencing substance-use disorder before they are ready to seek help.
- A family or friend may offer shelter in their home but that relationship is unhealthy or abusive or the offer comes with unrealistic stipulations.
- A person may not want to leave behind their community or system of support on the streets.
This is why diverse shelter options are so important. Support service, supportive housing and shelter programs must meet people where they are at in their journey.
They must cater their services to the specific needs of each individual to give them real empowering choices for their situation.
For example, Father Joe’s Villages designs its shelter policies so as not to create additional barriers that prevent many individuals from entering shelter:
- Our shelters allow pets at entry.
- Our staff members help people find ways to keep and/or store their possessions while living in the shelter, where space is limited.
- We offer family shelters for adults with children that welcome full family units of any make-up or size.
- We prioritize harm-reduction in our shelters so substance-use disorder is not a barrier to entering shelter.
- While a person cannot use, deal or store drugs on our property, we do not force sobriety or drug tests on our residents. Instead, we help to connect them to behavioral health care and substance use disorder services when they are ready.
It’s important that service providers remove barriers like those listed above to encourage more individuals to enter into warm, safe shelter where they have access to services that can help them leave homelessness behind for good.
In Summary: The Myth that Homelessness is a Choice is Harmful
The perception that homelessness is a choice can make society believe that people experiencing homelessness don’t deserve to be helped. In actuality, homelessness is hard work inflicted on an individual because they cannot afford stable housing.
Just to get through each day, people who are homeless must demonstrate truly inspiring perseverance, fortitude and resilience.
On any given day, our neighbors experiencing homelessness are confronted with issues of trauma, transportation, survival, health and disability, job applications and housing approvals, childcare, therapy and treatment, and more.
The idea that our neighbors choose the countless difficulties that come with homelessness only creates apathy. It also distracts from the systemic issues that cause and maintain homelessness.
Instead of supporting harmful myths about the homeless population, we all need to join together to ensure diverse and comprehensive solutions are available to people who lose their permanent housing and work together to end homelessness.