The OCP Blog

Myths About Homelessness

In August I presented on myths about homelessness for a large turnout at the Mayor’s 2nd Forum on Homelessness. Flanked by Shannon Porter from Mercy House and John Whitfield from Blue Ridge Legal Services, we presented and then engaged the community in discussion. Here is some of what we covered.

Myth: People become homeless because of poor choices. The top five causes of homelessness are 1) lack of affordable housing, 2) lack of a living wage, 3) domestic violence, 4) medical bankruptcy, and 5) mental illness. None of these are related to making poor choices; they can happen to anyone. For example, veterans have a 50% higher risk for homelessness than non-veterans.

Myth:  Most people who are homeless have mental illness. Between 20% and 25% of people in homelessness are dealing with psychosocial disabilities. Only 20% of people in homelessness state that drug and alcohol problems caused their homelessness. This takes us back to the number one cause being affordable housing. Overall, 1/3 of homeless folks are families; in New York City, 40% of shelter residents are children; about 10% of college and community college students have been homeless in the last year.

Myth:  Homeless people are drifters. Many studies indicate that people do not migrate to other places to get services. To the extent that they do move, it’s to look for work or to live with family. Studies show that 75% (NC), 84% (CA), and 99% (NYC) of homeless persons are native to that area.

Myth:  Homeless persons are unemployed. They are lazy. If they just get a job, they will not be homeless. These myths are all tied together because declining wages have put housing out of reach for many workers. For example, a full-time minimum wage worker would have to work between 69 and 174 per week (depending on the state) to pay for a low-cost two-bedroom unit. Studies indicate employment rates of between 17% and 55% for individuals and homeless families.

Myth:  Stopping homelessness is too costly. Just the opposite. Homelessness has proven solutions and Harrisonburg has been working at these with its current 10-year plan: permanent supportive housing (for example, Commerce Village); targeted affordable housing assistance (our section 8 and public housing voucher systems, although these programs are woefully underfunded by the government); living wage jobs and support services like affordable childcare. These are proven to prevent and help people overcome homelessness. While they are policy decisions with real budget costs, they are smart choices. For example, one study in Florida demonstrated that spending $10,000 on housing saved $21,000 in costs related to dealing with people on the streets, including law enforcement, jails, hospitals, and other services.

Myth:  Homelessness will never end. The challenges are big. For example, the Rockingham-Harrisonburg Central Intake for people looking for housing received 650 unduplicated calls in July. While we frequently have new people falling in to homelessness, OCP and other programs have always been successful at helping people overcome the barriers to housing. Nearly every day we hear that this community member got a job, or that family got an apartment. We do end homelessness, one person and one family at a time.

Thanks for all you do to support our work at OCP!

Sam Nickels

Executive Director