Sunday, February 23, 2014

Some Myths and Facts Concerning Homelessness

The following is a list of some myths and facts that Skid Row Housing Trust’s Community Relations Manager, Daniel Rizik-Baer, asked me to help him compile a few days ago, because... well the man’s basically helpless without my guidance.

1. Myth: The homeless are an insignificant percent of the population of the United States

Fact: According to the  Current Population Survey (CPS), 2013 Annual Social and Economic Supplement (ASEC), the source of official poverty estimates (The CPS ASEC is a sample survey of approximately 100,000 households nationwide. This data reflects conditions in calendar year 2012), the official poverty rate (set at $23,050 (total yearly income) for a family of four (How the federal government uses a poverty formula dating back to the 60s, here)) was 15.0 percent. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates the 2013 total population in the United States at 315,091,138.7. There were 47.25 million people in poverty.
   According to the Anawim Christian  Community, ((ACC) Anawim being a Hebrew word which means, “the poor who depend on the Lord for deliverance”), a homeless advocacy group based in Portland, Oregon, 10 percent of those 47.25 million will spend some time homeless and living on the street, which comes out to be approximately 4.7 million Americans, or 1.5 percent of the total population. 1.5 percent may be a small percentage but hardly insignificant considering it represents 47.5 million men, women, and children.

2. Myth: Most homeless are vagrants.

Fact: It depends on how one defines the word vagrant (excluding of course the 2002 Singapore television series, “The Vagrant,” and the free, open-source software for creating and configuring virtual development environments). One definition found in the Merriam Webster on-line  dictionary, the word vagrant means A: wandering about from place to place usually with no means of support, and B:  having a fleeting, wayward, or inconstant quality. 
   Some could claim the word “vagrant” retains certain pejorative connotations, yet the ACC reminds us that 75 percent of those who become homeless remain in the city in which they became homeless, and a large percentage of these find themselves homeless in the town in which  they were raised. For the most part the homeless are not what you’d call exceptionally mobile. 
   Of course another definition of the word found in Merriam Webster is A: one who has no established residence and wanders idly from place to place without lawful or visible means of support (like a Buddhist monk), and B: one (as a prostitute or drunkard) whose conduct constitutes statutory vagrancy, which is A: the very definition of “homeless,” B: pejorative, and C: may or may not be true (the prostitute and drunkard part).

3. Myth: The homeless lifestyle is carefree and much sought after.

Fact: In a 2011 survey of 234 American cities, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, another advocacy group for the homeless, found that 40 percent prohibited camping, 33 percent banned sitting and lying down in public places, and 53 percent outlawed begging. Recent examples of laws intended to relocate, ban, or otherwise restrict the homeless are ubiquitous. In July of 2012, Newport Beach, California, instituted rules banning public library patrons who smell, park their shopping carts near entrances, or sleep in the library. In April, Denver passed a law forbidding “urban camping.” In March, Philadelphia prohibited charities from distributing free food in public parks, a rule that was recently suspended after church groups sued the city. Other municipalities have removed park benches, closed public restrooms and banned sleeping in cars.
   Of course the carefree lifestyle of the homeless does present a certain amount of libertarian freedom for some, the advantages, in part, being able to sit on sidewalks for hours at a time, waiting in many lines for meals,  medical, or referral services, building unique and sophisticated architectural structures made out of cardboard and other indigenous materials, evade constance police surveillance and harassment, evade being robbed by your fellow homeless, being ostracized by the 98.5 percent of the population that have homes, being proselytized by religious groups who wish to redeem your soul in exchange for a scant meal, endure extreme weather conditions, as well as constant boredom, loneliness, fear, and helplessness... yet it’s not for everybody.

4. Most homeless are chronically so and will remain homeless for years. 

More than 70 percent of those who experience homelessness in their lives will do so for a relatively short period of time, only a minority actually remain on the street for two years or more. Most find their way off the streets by finding gainful employment, receiving help from relatives, or taking advantage of various social programs designed to permanently relieve homelessness, such as Skid Row Housing Trust (SRHT) and Single Room Occupancy (SRO).

5. Myth: The homeless are lawbreakers.

Fact: The homeless are a lot of things, which includes being criminals. But so are people who have homes, the percentage being approximately the same, unless you take into account laws designed to specifically target the homeless, which are predatory laws, criminalizing the homeless for being poor, laws against camping or loitering in any one area for example. Or begging for money. The homeless are 100 percent more likely to break these type of laws simply because they are homeless. 
   As a matter of fact areas experiencing a high percentage of homelessness, such as the Skid Row area of downtown Los Angeles (defined as lying within the area east of Main Street, south of Third Street, west of Alameda Street, and north of Seventh Street) probably experience less violent crime (rape, homicide, burglary, auto theft or theft from vehicle, aggravated assault, robbery, mugging) than other areas due to the constant high police presence. 
   If you follow this link, provided by the Los Angeles Police Department, you’ll find a map... a crime map. You’ll also discover a small area near the center which is completely crime free, and that area corresponds to Skid Row.

6. Myth: Most homeless people are addicts

Fact: It is estimated that 25 to 40 percent of all homeless are addicted to some substance, most notably alcohol, crack cocaine, marijuana, heroin, tobacco, and that blue crystal methamphetamine they made on “Breaking Bad,” which is indeed a higher percentage than the general population (statistics can be found here), but is not most.
   However, the stats are higher if only the chronic homeless are taken into account. But was it the addiction that caused the homelessness or the homelessness that caused the addiction? As with most substance abuse issues it depends on the individual.

7. Myth: Most homeless people are mentally ill.

Fact: This is absolutely true... except for the most part. It is estimated that from 15 to 25 percent of all homeless are mentally ill, which again is well below “most.”
   The percentage of all people who are diagnosed with some kind of mental illness in their lifetime is 40 percent. The disparity may be due to the lack of resources for the homeless compared to the general population, and their being diagnosed and treated less often.
   The Los Angeles County Jail, which is the largest jail in the world, also doubles for the largest mental health drug provider in Los Angeles County due to it’s large percentage of mentally ill inmates who are treated there.

8. Myth: Most homeless people sleep on the streets.

Fact: The majority of people who are homeless live in cars or trucks. Others sleep temporarily in other people’s living rooms or on their property. Less than 25 percent of those who are homeless live on the streets

10 Reasons Homeless People Sleep Out in the Cold... and Die, here.

9. Most homeless are Dutch.

Fact: This is absolutely silly and not true. Only a small percentage of the homeless are of Flemish ancestry. In its 2004 survey of 27 cities, the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that the homeless population consists of 49 percent African-American, 35 percent Caucasian, 12 percent Hispanic, 2 percent Native American, 1 percent Asian, .93 percent Dutch, and .07 percent pygmy headhunters from Sumatra, where the giant rats live.

10. Myth: Homeless people are lazy.

It’s not as easy being homeless as one might think. Maintaining personal security is hard work, protecting oneself from the police and other homeless. Finding food is hard work, and may require walking many miles and waiting in long lines to receive sustenance. Many spend more than eight hours a day searching for recyclable items they will turn in for a meager financial return. Others try holding signs at a busy intersections or freeway on ramp and off ramps, receiving as many insults as they do donations. Most homeless are looking for steady work, but find that it is difficult to come by for one who does not have an address or a daily shower. The homeless may actually work harder than the general population for the proportionate amount of return.

11. Myth: the International Brotherhood of the Indigent holds large blocks of voting stock in Monsanto and Exxon Mobil, two of the most reviled companies on the planet.

Fact: This isn't true at all. There isn’t even such an entity as the International Brotherhood of the Indigent.

Also, there is no truth to the rumor that the homeless will hold a general strike during the November election to protest income inequality. None whatsoever.

12. Myth: There are ample services for the homeless. 

Fact: It depends on the city as to what services are available. In Los Angeles, especially in the downtown area, there are many services available to the homeless. Permanent housing through agencies like SRHT and SRO. Temporary housing and meals through the various missions (Fred Jordan, Los Angeles, Union Rescue, Midnight, etc) and County jail, mental health services. Meals through the Seniors Center and Woman’s Center. Sometimes churches and ordinary citizens come to Skid Row and distribute food or meals regularly. Other cities provide few or no services for the homeless at all. Quite often the amount of services provided by a municipality are directly correlated to the attitude that municipality has toward it’s homeless population.

13. Homelessness does not effect woman, children, and families to any significant degree.

Fact: This is absolutely not true. In 2003, children under the age of 18 accounted for 39 percentage of the homeless population; 42 percent of these children were under the age of five (National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, 2004). This same study found that unaccompanied minors comprised 5 percent of the urban homeless population. This problem has only grown worse since the economic crisis of 2007/2008. Women and families represent the fastest growing groups of the homeless population nationally. Approximately half of the homeless population are families with kids. Families, single moms, and children make up the largest group of people experiencing homelessness in rural areas.

14. Myth: The homeless need to help themselves.

Fact: It is true that people need to be responsible for themselves. However those homeless who have mental health, and substance abuse issues require more help than others, if they’ll accept it. 
   It is also true that the state of the general economy has a direct corelation to the severity of the national homeless problem. As with the amount of crime in the nation, if the employment rate is low, and filled with living wage jobs that can fuel the growth of a viable middle class, there is less cause for a growth in the amount of crime and homelessness the nation experiences. The state of the general economy took a huge hit in the financial crisis of 2007/2008, said crisis being fueled by policies enacted or ignored in the nation’s capital, by the Congress and the Executive branch of the previous administration. The current administration is paralyzed by an obstructionist House of Representatives, the most obstructionist in the nation’s history. Those in Washington need to take responsibility, at least in part (and some would say a large part) for the national economy, and stop villainizing and penalizing those who require social services, such as the homeless (and women, the elderly, children, etc.). Congress helped create the current poverty and homeless levels, and have so far pushed the blame for those problems onto their victims. 
   It would go a long way to alleviate the problem of homelessness if those who helped create it took responsibility for it.

Update, Police stealing signs from homeless in Texas, here.

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