Kylyssa Shay was homeless for over a year in her youth; it lead her to become a homelessness activist. She thinks, feels, and has opinions.
What Causes Homelessness? Maybe It Isn't What You Think.
Many people feel that all homeless people are entirely to blame for their own miserable situations. Those same people tend to believe that under no circumstance could they find themselves without a home because they feel they are better than "those people" who have lost their homes. In reality, people from all walks of life can wind up on the street and almost no one is immune from the possibility.
I want to present a few reasons actual people become homeless, reasons often beyond their control or ability to deal with. By doing so, I hope to increase empathy towards those less fortunate. This is by no means an exhaustive list; please do not be offended if you know of something not mentioned on this page.
Most people become homeless due to circumstances that have overwhelmed them combined with the lack of a family support structure. Others, particularly teens, often lose their housing due to an actively hostile, perhaps even hazardous, abusive, or non-supportive family environment.
Average people without a good friend and family support structure can be overwhelmed by events such as domestic abuse, divorce, unemployment, or illness and find themselves without housing as well. There are many causes of homelessness and, while this page covers a few, there are almost as many causes as there are people with nowhere to live. If you've ever wondered why people become homeless, you've found the right place to learn some of the possible answers.
Lack of a Living Wage: Inadequate Wages Cause Homelessness
Many homeless people work. However, the minimum wage is often not up to the task of supporting a family.
In many areas, working full time for minimum wage does not earn enough to pay rent, utilities, and food. While people can combine their income to rent an apartment, they often run into snags such as discovering that the number of working adults required to cover rent and bills combined with their minor children will exceed the number of occupants allowed by their lease. Additionally, many apartment complexes run credit checks which can prevent people with poor credit from renting; things like unpaid medical bills can prevent working people from finding a place to rent.
When parents' beliefs clash with teens' beliefs, sexual orientation, or behaviors, this may result in teen homelessness.
While few will admit it, some parents only love their children conditionally and these parents may discard their children once they reach their teens. These parents hold their beliefs as more important than their own children. Often the beliefs in question are religious.
As many as 40% of homeless teenagers are LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender) when it is estimated that less than five percent of teens are gay, bisexual, or transgender. In my experience with LGBT homeless teens and young adults, they've come from families that refused to accept them or that began to actively abuse them after their orientation became known.
Perhaps it was a coincidence, but almost all of the gay and bisexual teens and young adults without homes that I've met came from religious fundamentalist homes—fundamentalist Christian, Jewish, and Muslim homes—where their parents' beliefs were anathema to homosexuality or difference of any kind.
I also encountered teens living on the street whose problem stemmed from other religious differences. Some teens and young adults I met suffered homelessness because they were somehow at odds with their parents' beliefs. In one case, the teenager had converted to Christianity from Islam, another teen was suspected of engaging in pre-marital sex which was in conflict with her parents' religious beliefs. A number of Pagan teens that I met were expelled from their Christian homes.
Some of these young people were brutally beaten, threatened with death, or thrown from their homes by force. Others were systematically abused—physically and emotionally—until they ran from their abusers, preferring homelessness to continued abuse.
This subject is practically taboo, the relationship between parental beliefs and teen and young adult homelessness. In fact, after including the concept on a couple of pages, I have received threats, death threats, and hate mail. It is true that child abandonment and abuse are counter to what the vast majority of religious people hold dear. But it is also true that a minority of religious people have a different view. While that minority may seem inconsequential it is anything but inconsequential to around 400,000 American teens and young adults each year.
Physical Illness or Injury
Injury or illness can result in job loss and debt or inability to work.
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Some people are on the streets due to injury or illness. Many of them had jobs and insurance but through the course of their medical problems, both were lost. Many people don't realize that even "good" medical insurance is not a guarantee of medical care. They are then devastated to find out that their insurance will not cover their medical expenses or treatment. They are also shocked when they lose their health insurance due to illness or injury.
Hospitalization quickly consumes savings and too many absences from work due to injury or illness will result in the loss of a job. Once a person has a significant gap in his or her employment history and a bad credit score due to unpaid bills, it becomes much more difficult for him or her to get a job even when completely recovered.
People in all stages of recovery from illness or injury lose their homes. Some never get well due to lack of treatment and are too ill to hold down a job. Others get well but get pulled down by their medical debt and illness or injury related job loss. And increasingly, medical bankruptcy can result in homelessness.
While many people in situations like these have strong friend and family support structures, many do not. They are the ones who fall through the cracks and find themselves living on the street due to illness, injury, or the resultant medical bills.
It is my sincere hope that this reason for homelessness may disappear through effective health care reform. The health care bill that passed is not even close to what is needed. Medical bills are currently the leading cause of bankruptcy in America, and by a very large margin. Surprisingly, over half of those claiming medical bankruptcy either have or had medical insurance at the time their debt was incurred.
Sexual, Physical, and Emotional Abuse
Abuse can directly or indirectly result in the loss of housing.
Many of the homeless women, teens, and young adults I've met became so because they tried to escape an abusive situation. Some may argue that help is available but people in those situations might not have the access to such help or even know that it exists. Once they lose their homes, those types of help often become completely inaccessible to them.
Women and teens subjected to sexual, emotional, or physical abuse are at particular risk for homelessness. Many of them also do not realize that running away from their abusive situation may just get them out of the frying pan and into the fire, exposing them to other types of abuse by different people while living on the street.
This is a major cause of homelessness, especially among teens and women. Sometimes people find themselves in domestic abuse situations so frightening they can think of nothing but getting away.
Domestic abuse can also cause its victims to be evicted from their apartments in some states wherein landlords are either allowed or required to evict tenants who have called police to respond to domestic abuse situations.
Developmental Disorders and Mental Illness
Without a sound family support structure, people with developmental disorders or mental illnesses may lose their housing.
Lack of family support is a major issue for people with disorders such as autism or other mental or emotional issues, which make interpersonal relationships difficult. Once such people become teens or adults, their families will often step away, assuming that such problems evaporate or are cured with adulthood, sometimes resulting in homelessness.
With proper treatment, some children with autism or other developmental disorders can go on to lead independent and productive lives. But proper treatment can be a rarity, especially in the American health care insurance system which categorizes treatment of psychological and psychiatric disorders as elective.
Many in the American culture also do not recognize the reality or seriousness of mental illness. Mental and emotional disorders are seen as character defects which anyone can get over without outside assistance by using their own willpower. The insurance based health care system encourages this view because if not required to pay for treatment for mental, developmental, and emotional illnesses and disorders insurance companies save millions if not billions of dollars. Some American religious subcultures such as Scientologists, some Christian Fundamentalists fringe groups, and splinter groups from Christianity and other religions also encourage this view to keep mental and emotional well-being under their control. Thankfully, these attitudes seem to be slowly disappearing in most mainstream belief systems.
But developmental disorders and mental illnesses are real and they don't go away magically upon adulthood. Treatment is required for people suffering from developmental disorders and mental illnesses, and even then, not all sufferers are capable of becoming completely independent.
I fell into this category, a young adult with Asperger's, PTSD, and other emotional illnesses—untreated and left on my own without a family support structure to assist me or for me to rely on.
Is Homelessness a Choice?
Many people believe homelessness is always the result of poor choices, that people choose to be mentally ill, to be physically ill or disabled, to lose their jobs, or to become addicted to drugs. I believe that it is rarely a choice. What do you think?
A Note on Substance Abuse
Not all are substance abusers nor did all of those who are start out that way.
The stereotypical view of homeless people is that they are all substance abusers and became homeless due to their addictions. While I grant that surely it must be so in some cases, I say that it is in no way universally true.
The misery of homelessness itself drives many people into addictive behaviors. Ask yourself how many sexual assaults, how many beatings, how many humiliations, or how many nights sleeping cold and in pain—with no hope of escape—it would take before you had a drink to get yourself through the night?
I was fortunate in that I never permanently lost hope of getting into a home with a locking door. I didn't become addicted to anything, in part because I was so obsessed with getting a locking door to hide behind that I even begrudged myself money spent on food much less spent on things like drugs or alcohol.
Others are not always so lucky. They fall into the additional trap of addiction and become chronically homeless.
Have You Ever Been Homeless?
There Are Many Causes
Everyone has a different story.
There are probably as many individual reasons people are homeless as there are people without homes. While I have not, by any means, listed all the reasons people become homeless it is my hope that I've illuminated a few that you hadn't considered before.
It is my hope that this article has helped some to humanize people suffering in deep poverty in their own minds and to not blame them quite so much for their misfortune. It is my hope that you leave with the knowledge that the loss of a home is not just something that happens to addicts and bad people but that, in the wrong situation, it could happen to anyone.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
Questions & Answers
Question: Why would my 18 year old granddaughter choose homelessness so she could live with her boyfriend?
Answer: Perhaps her family won't allow your adult grandchild to date the man of her choice if she lives with them? Another common reason for young adults to choose homelessness over their parents' home is abuse, either physical, financial, or emotional.
© 2009 Kylyssa Shay