America’s Homeless: 5 Disproved Myths
“Five Myths about America’s Homelessness” by Dennis Culhane was an extremely thought provoking piece published in the Washington Post on July 11, 2010. As the title suggests, Culhane argued against five common myths relating to homelessness. These myths were:
- Homelessness is usually a long-term condition
- Most of the homeless have a severe mental illness
- Homeless people don’t work
- Shelters are a humane solution to homelessness
- These poor you will always have with you
Culhane uses shocking statistics to disprove the first myth. He claims that in 2009 there were about 2 million people homeless at some point, but only a fraction (about 112,000) were chronically homeless. He defines “homeless” as someone who stays overnight in a shelter or in a place not meant for human habitation and “chronic homelessness” as someone who has been continuously homeless for a year or more, or are experiencing their fourth (or higher) episode of homelessness in 3 years.
As far as mental illness, Culhane claims that only about 13-15% of homeless people have serious mental illness. The statistic is much higher for chronically homeless single adults, which is not surprising to me.
Culhane’s response to the myth that the homeless don’t work is also very interesting. He uses statistics from a 2002 study conducted by the Urban Institute. It seems like the study might be slightly outdated, but hopefully for the sake of accuracy the numbers have not changed too much. The study claimed that “45 percent of homeless adults had worked in the past 30 days- only 14 percentage points lower than the employment rate for the general population last month.” He also discusses the idea of “off the books” work that the homeless do that was not included in the statistics.
Homeless shelters were built and are run with the best of intentions. However, they are not necessarily the best solution for this epidemic. In their attempt to help as many people as possible, they have become overcrowded and unsafe. The homeless are forced to stand in long lines for food, beds, and even toothpaste. Theft and violence are commonplace. Culhane suggests that the resources used to build and run homeless shelters would do more good if they were being used to promote permanent housing for the homeless.
Culhane explains that originally, researchers and policymakers thought the best way to end homelessness would be to help the homeless with their issues like substance abuse and illness. It is now clear that this is not the most effective solution. Research shows that if the homeless simply have a permanent home, they are much more likely to overcome their issues with substance abuse and serious illness.
The last sentence of the article talks about the cost of hospitalization, arrests, and shelter stays versus the cost of small apartments with subsidized rent for the homeless. Though Culhane doesn’t go into much detail, I think that this point is extremely important. Governments would save a ton of money on things like hospitalization, prison stays, shelter stays, and arrests if they were willing to give the homeless another chance at life in a decent apartment. With a little support and a little hope, a second chance could save a lot of lives (and a lot of money).