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Common Stereotypes and Misconceptions About Homeless People

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.

Learn some common myths, misconceptions, and stereotypes about homeless people.

Learn some common myths, misconceptions, and stereotypes about homeless people.

Facts and Misconceptions About Homelessness

I have worked with homeless people in shelters, soup kitchens, and literacy and skill-teaching programs, serving them and others living in deep poverty. I was even living on the street myself many years ago. I also took teens and young adults into my home over the years after their parents discarded them for one reason or another. From these experiences, I have learned a lot about homeless people and what average Americans think about them.

There is a perception of homeless people in our society that is created and held up by a vast collection of myths and assumptions, most of which are wrong. These misconceptions are dangerous, and they seriously interfere with attempts to help those in need.

Some of these negative impressions are so ingrained into our society that even some people who are trying to help may believe some of them. Many of these incorrect representations make people who would otherwise want to help unwilling to help people they've come to believe do not deserve it. Here are just a few of those myths, misconceptions, stereotypes, and assumptions.

Stereotype: They Are All Criminals

Most homeless people are not criminals, and many of those who are technically criminals have only committed status crimes. Status crimes include getting arrested for loitering, sleeping in public, or trespassing. Those are called status crimes because they are impossible to avoid doing if one does not have a home.

This stereotype is one of the most harmful because it creates an unreasonable fear of homeless people because those who spread it can't or don't distinguish between people who got a ticket for sleeping on a bench and violent criminals. It makes many who would probably help people afraid to do so. It prevents people from getting hired or from renting a place to live. This misconception also makes it difficult for charitable organizations to open or expand facilities that provide services for the needy due to objections from nearby residents who fear for their safety.

Misconception: If a Teen Gets Kicked Out It's Always His Own Fault, and He Deserves to Live in Misery

Many teens have been discarded by their parents and usually for the most appalling reasons. Yes, some teens get kicked out for out-of-control behavior such as drug abuse and criminal activities, but their numbers are relatively small.

As many as a quarter of gay teens in America will be kicked out when their parents or guardians discover their sexual orientation. Sometimes teens are kicked out on the mere suspicion of a non-heterosexual orientation. Homosexual and bisexual teens account for up to 40% of the teen homeless population. Another group of teens particularly at risk of parental ejection are transgender teens.

Other reasons parents give for ejecting teens from home include suspected pre-marital sex, poor performance in school, teen pregnancy, and contact with a non-custodial parent. For others, expulsion from the home is just an extension of child abuse and domestic violence. In my experience, many teens are not so much kicked out as abandoned. The parents or parent leave home, never to return.

The term "runaway" is often applied to teens living on the street, but it's often applied incorrectly. The majority of teens and young adults living without permanent housing have either been kicked out or abandoned by their parents or guardians. Those who actually do leave home voluntarily are usually fleeing domestic violence, abuse, dangerous criminal activity, or drug-related activity.

Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, or Questioning and Homeless

Sadly, about one in four LGBT teens and young adults can expect to get kicked out or abused until they flee in the United States.

Even when the young people involved are minors and throwing them out is illegal, very few parents or guardians are prosecuted for neglect. They are throwing their kids out to get raped and otherwise harmed, and our society doesn't hold them accountable because this kind of prejudice often comes from deeply held personal beliefs. While I believe in freedom of religion, I believe that causing harm to another person or neglecting a minor is not protected behavior.

I am heartened by the recent recognition of this problem among moderate and liberal Christians. More and more Christian leaders are denouncing the abuse or abandonment of gay teens as something wrong that their religion does not support. Maybe social pressure will get some parents to stop their appalling behavior or at least make the legal system stop turning the other cheek when gay teens are neglected or abused.

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Stereotype: They Are All Drug Addicts and Winos

Many are neither drug addicts nor alcoholics. While close to half of adult homeless people in the United States currently struggle with addictions or have struggled with addictions in the past, many of them do not have and have not had a drug or alcohol problem.

This is a harmful stereotype because it closes many doors for people without homes. Employers and landlords that believe this are unlikely to hire or rent to them. Even some homeless shelters are hampered by this misconception. Some of them require substance abuse counseling for all who use their services, even those without addictions, taking up valuable time that people could use to seek employment or to work odd jobs.

Fact: Many Women and Children Are Living Without Homes

Forget about the idea that all people who have lost their homes are drug-addicted criminals. Most homeless people are normal, decent people like Cecilia and her children. Most have fallen on difficult times and need a safe place to stay and help getting back on their feet.

Misconception: They Are All Mentally Ill

Only about a quarter of all homeless Americans are severely mentally ill. Those who are mentally ill are mainly ill in ways completely harmless to anyone but themselves. There's also some question as to whether or not those people who are mentally ill or emotionally disturbed became mentally ill as a consequence of trauma, violence, and other stresses experienced while living without adequate shelter.

This belief about homeless people is dangerous because it, again, creates fear and leads to suggestions that they should all be rounded up and institutionalized instead of helped. While mental illness does cause people to fail at independent living, it should be treated rather than feared. Anything that portrays an entire class of people as dangerous and out of control is harmful.

The Mental Illness Connection

Stereotype: They Are All Too Lazy to Work

I can't count the number of times I've encountered this statement. It pops up almost every time I have a conversation about charity work, and people start to go on about the topic of "the undeserving poor" or people they think don't deserve help. The major reason people claim poor people don't deserve to be helped is that they are too lazy to help themselves.

While almost half of all adult homeless people in America are unemployed, it doesn't indicate laziness. Many of them lost their jobs through no fault of their own - through corporate downsizing or due to injury, illness, old age, or disability.

Those well enough and young enough to work have many high barriers to gaining employment. They may be putting in dozens of applications a day but never get a bite due to the prejudice created by the strong and commonly held negative beliefs about homeless people.

Those with jobs are often underemployed or don't earn enough to afford rent or to qualify to rent. Another issue is that even if a person works full time, he or she may earn enough to afford an apartment but find themselves unable to rent one because of the income requirements many complexes have. Many rental properties require renters to make three times as much as the rent costs. Getting a co-signer can help, but the co-signer usually has to have a good credit rating and an income, that if combined with the renter's, equals at least five times the price of the rent.

  • Why Don't Homeless People Just Get Jobs?
    Have you wondered why people living on the street don't just get jobs and stop being homeless? This page explains why it isn't that simple.
  • Some Reasons People Become Homeless
    Have you ever wondered why people become homeless? This article explains just a few of the most common causes of home loss for people living in the United States. Some of them may surprise you.
  • Why Homeless People Don't Use Shelters
    Why do homeless people seem to avoid using emergency shelters? Read this page to learn some of the reasons homeless people can't or won't use shelters.

Misconception: It Is Always the Result of Poor Choices

Since many people lose their homes due to disability, illness or injury, mental illness, learning disability or other mental impairment, parental abandonment, old age, and corporate downsizing the answer to this myth is a definitive no. No one chooses to become disabled, sick, or injured. No one chooses to become mentally ill or to be born learning disabled. No one chooses to be born to abusive or dogmatic parents. No one chooses to lose a job through corporate downsizing.

Here's a sobering thought for you - over the course of a year about 1.5 million of America's children experience a period of homelessness. Do you think those children made bad choices?

Misconception: It Is Freedom and a Life of Leisure

Many people seem to think that being homeless is the result of a choice to be free from the pressures of a nine-to-five job and the stress of paying bills. In reality, many people still work and pay bills with the added stresses of humiliation, fear of violence, and worries about where to sleep at night. Even those men, women, and children who don't work or pay bills feel the stresses of insecurity, sleep deprivation, lack of cleanliness, and the ever-present danger of violence.

People without homes are constantly on the move, getting rousted by police or threatened by civilians. They don't get to participate in the leisure activities that homed people do. If you see a homeless person sleeping on a lawn looking peaceful, it doesn't mean it's like he's on vacation. He's just getting a few minutes or hours of sleep and has nowhere else to do it.

Homelessness is not a carefree existence; it is a miserable one.

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.

© 2010 Kylyssa Shay

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