Everything You Think You Know About The Homeless Is Wrong

Homelessness is a broad term that is used to define several habitation situations. According to the U.S. Department of Health And Human Services, the definition of homelessness includes someone who lives in a public or private facility not meant for habitation, someone who lives in transitional housing, or in any situation where a person’s homestead is unstable or non-permanent. GreenDoors.org – an organization dedicated to ending homelessness and poverty in central Texas – reports that on any given night, there are 643, 067 people who are homeless in the United States. Of these, 238, 110 of those people are families, and 25 % suffer from mental illness.
Flickr / Marc Brüneke
Flickr / Marc Brüneke
The homeless are among us, especially if you live in a big city. But what do we really know about homelessness and individuals who are homeless? To find out, I dialogued with Kavita Das, who has 15 years of experience in social change, and is well-versed on the topic.


Thought Catalog: Hello Kavita, can you tell us a little about yourself, and your background in urban planning and working with the homeless?

Kavita Das: Hi Kovie, I worked in the social change sector for about 15 years and I started out my career working on special needs housing for the City of Philadelphia. I’ve never struggled with homelessness personally, and I mention that because I think the perspective of people who have struggled with or are currently struggling with homelessness is an important one. In my role, I helped support transitional housing programs for people with various special needs including those who had disabilities or had HIV/AIDS.

TC: We hear so many different statistics and narratives about homelessness, regarding causes and consequences, and how many stay homeless, its relationship with mental illness, etc. Now I have never worked with the homeless in any professional capacity. My experiences have been limited to volunteering, as well as my everyday interactions, and what I know from a few studies I have read and analyzed. My first question is what are the biggest misconceptions about homelessness that we come across every day?

KD: One common misconception is that there are only homeless individuals not homeless families. And similarly, people think that it’s not possible for a middle-class family to become homeless. However, families can become homeless and end up in the shelter system because of a lost job or a health care crisis. Another frustrating misconception is that homeless individuals want to be homeless or that they are too lazy to find employment. One of the biggest drivers to chronic homelessness is untreated mental health or substance abuse issues.

TC: I’m glad you mentioned mental health because that is the capacity in which I have most been familiar with homelessness. However, both homeless people I have interacted with, and recently when I saw a post on Humans of New York, one of the stereotypes that people who are homeless face, is that others think they are always suffering from mental illness. (Or substance abuse, as you said. But the stereotype that seems to get the most complaints is the former.) So, what do you know as fiction and what is fact, when it comes to how mental illness and homelessness are related?

KD: Well, as I understand it, the link between mental health issues and homelessness is a strong but complex one. First, there is a distinction between those individuals who are chronically homeless and those who are temporarily homeless. Some individuals who are chronically homeless are dealing with serious mental health issues and may have been in and out of the mental health system and even the criminal justice system. They face the double stigma of having a mental health issue and being homeless. But it’s also important to note that anyone and probably everyone can and will face mental health crises and if you have a strong support network, you tend to have better outcomes.


TC: Stepping away from mental illness and homeless, can you speak to the relationship between LGBTQ youth and homelessness? I have heard and read limited information about the relationship, but it does seem like a particular concern. What is known (and unknown) about how and why many LGBTQ youth are said to make up a large portion of the homeless communities across the United States?

KD: Yes, LGBTQ youth are a part of the homeless population, particularly in big cities. They are often underage and don’t have support networks because they’ve either been kicked out of their home or run away from home because they don’t feel accepted by their families because of their gender/sexual identity, and they can be vulnerable to sexual abuse and prostitution. I’m happy to see that there is greater awareness and support for at-risk and homeless LGBTQ youth through initiatives like Ali Forney Center, Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors Fund, Miley Cyrus’s Happy Hippie Foundation, and organizations like F.I.E.R.C.E. that specifically do outreach to LGBTQ youth of color.

Flickr / Vlasta Juricek
Flickr / Vlasta Juricek

TC: Can you speak to some of the differences in homeless in the United States as opposed to in other places in the world? Some places, for example, have what is called a “begging culture” while other places seemingly have a true, authentic “homeless community” in their cities. How do different places in the United States compare to other parts of the world? Also, the United States is often seen as doing relatively poorly in comparison to other countries in the West. Is that solely a function of the way our social systems work, with regard to employment, and indeed to mental health?

KD: Well, broadly I do believe that the level of homelessness in a society or in a city is a barometer for how well or poorly it is doing in terms of providing accessible mental health services, job opportunities, job training, prison re-entry support, affordable housing…essentially it’s a barometer of how well the safety net works for the most vulnerable. And although homelessness has decreased nationally, it is still high in many cities. Here in NYC, it has tripled from 1985 to today. According to the Coalition for the Homeless, there are close to 60,000 people sleeping in NYC shelters each night. And this doesn’t include those who are sleeping on the streets of the city. So, New York City has not been able to effectively address homelessness in part because it hasn’t addressed the issues above.

In terms of the United States versus other parts of the world, there are definitely some cities around the world where begging is more prevalent. I spent many childhood summers in Calcutta and begging by adults and children was heartbreakingly prevalent but then again, I remember living in Paris as a college student and seeing French individuals begging on the Metro. But as a lifelong New Yorker, the rise in homelessness is very troubling both in terms of the statistics as well as what is evident when you walk around the streets of the city.


TC: One of the questions that people always ask – well, well-meaning, decent people is, “How can I help the homeless person in front of me?” I’m going to leave out the people who say things such as, “If homeless people wanted a job, they’d have one.” But I’m talking about people who are somewhat aware of homelessness but who know the relationship between homelessness and substance abuse especially – how can people help the person in front of them, either monetarily or otherwise?

KD: All I’ll say about the latter, uncharitable group of people is that many people were against food stamps until they themselves needed them during the recent recession. In terms of how to help the homeless, it’s certainly something that I think about and there’s no simple or one-size-fits-all answer. I have one friend who started an organization to throw birthday parties for children in homeless shelters and I know writers and artists who do art therapy for homeless children. But when confronted by a homeless individual, I think it’s important to look at them and to see them and not briskly walk by because of what it communicates to them and to ourselves about their importance in this world. Personally, I don’t typically give money but if I feel comfortable, I ask them if they would like a cup of coffee or some food.

Flickr / mark O'Rourke
Flickr / mark O’Rourke

TC: Lastly, what would you like people to always remember about homelessness? One of the things that is a reality for many Americans, especially given the political and social systems, is that many people are “one paycheck,” “one medical disaster,” and “one failed support system” away from homelessness. Knowing this, I have always found it necessary to show compassion to the homeless. But I sometimes feel that this fear is what actually drives people to have such hardened attitudes towards the homeless. So, what is the parting advice for us all when we discuss homelessness and/or encounter homeless people?

KD: On a broad level, I think it’s important to educate ourselves about the issue by turning to national organizations like National Alliance to End Homelessness, as well as to those who are working to fight homelessness on a local level, whether it’s a homeless shelter, soup kitchen, or an advocacy organization. But on a more personal level, I hope we can see ourselves in those who are homeless and vice versa, rather than assume that they are somehow different or less than us. I hope we can pause from our hectic lives and look away from our screens and silence our headphones long enough to acknowledge and address their suffering. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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