The Realities of Homelessness

By Zachary Davis, ShowerUp Nashville Volunteer

People experiencing homelessness face a gauntlet of day-to-day challenges. From theft to public alienation to rejection from prospective employers, these problems are dehumanizing and cruel. Even worse, the public discourse surrounding their troubles is disconnected from reality. Fortunately, the more we educate ourselves about the challenges the unhoused face, the more we can start to change the narrative. Here are three common misconceptions about those experiencing homelessness, with testimony from individuals who have lived through the uncertainties of being without shelter.

 

The correlation between drug use and homelessness is misunderstood.

People often hold negative stereotypes of the unhoused, such as assuming an individual has forsaken bills or other expenses to fuel a drug addiction. This preconceived notion is false, as Karla, an unhoused woman in San Diego, talks about in an interview on the “Invisible People” YouTube channel. She recalls that most addicts she knows take substances as a survival mechanism—a way to stay awake and keep from being assaulted or stolen from. Manda, an interviewee experiencing homelessness in Seattle, describes drugs as a way that the unhoused distort the harsh reality of living on the streets. While drugs and homelessness are often correlated, the reality is that causation is far less common. People often use drugs to cope with their situation instead of the public belief that substances led them to that place.

 

Unhoused people have the same human needs as anyone else.

In the U.S., there is a common culture of hostility toward those experiencing homelessness. While walking down the street or stopping at a red light, eye contact with the unhoused is often avoided, which has a profoundly dehumanizing effect on them. In a PortlandUGM video, Bill Russell explains that this isolation is the polar opposite of their emotional needs. The tendency to perceive unhoused people as unsafe is ill-founded, and Russell suggests that “look[ing] and learn[ing] a name” will instead be a step toward empowering those seeking shelter. Later in the video, Barb, another unhoused individual, asks that people not be afraid of those experiencing homelessness. “Don’t judge us; we’re just like any other people,” she explains. If more people took the time to interact with someone on the street, a public culture of avoidance would not exist.

 

It is difficult to get and maintain a job while living on the streets.

A common assumption about people without stable housing is that laziness is a factor in their situation. When listening to accounts from the unhoused, a contrary picture is painted. Mona, a Los Angeles woman who was left without a home after a fire, explains that it is nearly impossible to prepare for job interviews when living outdoors. Obstacles like a lack of showers, toiletries, and mirrors make presenting oneself as a qualified job candidate an insurmountable task. Without steady income, homelessness becomes a vicious cycle trapping its victims inside. Additional factors like lack of transportation, sleep quality, and poor nutrition can feed this cycle as well.

 

Homelessness is not a choice—it is a dynamic.

Usually, no single event causes people to lose housing; rather, it is a set of circumstances that sets the process in motion. However, once a tipping point is reached, it is difficult to turn the situation around. Fortunately, organizations like ShowerUp and others provide hope with resources and personal connections. Still, the reality is that important public policy and community efforts are directly affected by the perceptions surrounding homelessness. Perpetuating myths about the unhoused causes negative perceptions, and understanding the flaws in these beliefs is necessary to affect wider change. The next time you encounter an unhoused person, consider offering a smile, a “hello,” or ask them their name. This simple gesture flips the narrative and maybe just what someone needs to make it through their day!