When we ask this question, we are usually asking behind it the question, “How do we end homelessness?” Because we believe that if we know what causes homelessness, then we can just reverse the process and voila! Homelessness is taken care of. However, this discounts the fact that once a person is homeless for a period of time, they change. Almost no one wants to be homeless, but everyone, in a given situation, adapts to their environment.
Even so, this doesn’t mean that the cause of homelessness isn’t an important questions. It tells us the kind of person who is likely to be homeless—apart from just a person with a low income—and it gives us an idea of how to prevent homelessness, possibly, which is key if, in the end, we wish no one to become homeless.
To answer the issue of what causes homelessness, we would have to do something more than simply interview every homeless person and ask them how they became homeless. We need to pay attention to the stories of the homeless and make a determination of the common elements. If we see the elements that all homeless people have in common, then we might have a deeper understanding of this problem.
a. Loss of housing
Of course, a person becomes homeless when they lose their housing. That seems obvious. So the cause of homelessness is inadequate housing. But how do people lose their housing? Many in apartments lose it because they weren’t able to pay their rent within thirty days. In an age of managed apartments instead of dealing directly with an owner, renters are seen as debtors instead of people. They are given a notice which the renters are obligated to fulfill. Perhaps the renter might appeal, but they would often rather be looking for ways to pay the rent instead of spending time in court.
The other issue is inadequate housing for people with particular difficulties. If someone has a severe mental illness, one which, perhaps, occasionally causes them to tear out the walls of their apartment, or if someone has a social dysfunction, like an addiction, then even if the rent is guaranteed, they may not be able to stay in housing which has close quarters with others. Since low income or subsidized housing is often put together, that means that those who have difficulties are often housed on top of one another, which increase the difficulty of housing even those with a mild dysfunction. In this way, loss of housing is often due to a disconnect with other people rather than simply the lack of four walls and a roof.
b. Labor difficulties
Almost everyone who is homeless have problems either obtaining or keeping a job. In order to have housing, one must be independently wealthy, have multiple incomes, have a regular social security check or be able to obtain and keep a forty hour a week job. Thus, if one is single and a forty an hour a week job either isn’t available to one or one is unable to keep that job, then housing isn’t possible. Many people on the street are hard working, but they can’t find enough work. Many people have social or mental issues that do not allow them to work forty hours a week. Some can find work, but their personal issues don’t allow them to keep a job for more than a month or two. The basic standard of a forty hours a week job isn’t always possible, and any little disaster for a minimum wage earner can tip the balance and push them on the street. Work isn’t always easy.
c. Lack of community
However, we note that many people who are mentally ill or jobless often do not become homeless. This is not because they are smarter than others, but usually because they have family or friends that help them in the tough times. They have friends who will drive them around and help them figure out the system when depressed. They have family that will keep them until they get on their feet. Those who are homeless often tell of broken ties with family, or having been deeply hurt by those they loved. Often they are people who are released from prison and no one will help them get back on their feet. Or they have such severe social problems that no one feels adequate to the task of helping them. Thus it is that the homeless are the outcast—because they already were before they even became homeless.
d. The Gauntlet of Getting Help
It has often been mentioned that many of the mentally ill are homeless because of a lack of funding from the government. This is true, but it is changing. Social security, for the most part, assists anyone who can prove that they are mentally unable to hold down a job. However, to go through this, the mentally ill person, who qualifies, must first fill out the large amount of paperwork, and keep all the appointments they give them. The mentally ill person must wait for a year until the paperwork is processed. And then the mentally ill person will be denied. In the first stage of the process, almost every mentally ill person is denied for disability. At this point, many people who are on the street and mentally ill decides that it is too difficult—if they haven’t already. But perhaps they decide to appeal. If they do, they will need to find a lawyer who will take their case (every town has at least one firm who specializes in disability cases), if they can find them. And then they need to sit in court before a judge while many witnesses—some of them are their friends and family—tell the judge that the person being examined that day is a societal failure and cannot do the minimum of what our society asks of them—to keep a job. Perhaps after that they will obtain assistance from the government. Is it no wonder that many mentally ill people—even those with severe disabilities—choose to stay on the street rather than run through that gauntlet?
Most programs—whether for the mentally ill or for those in prison or for those with addictions—are long and difficult. One will end up on the street while going through them.
e. Fear and Disgust
The main thing that will send someone on the street, however, is the “normal” peoples attitudes toward those who become homeless, even before they get on the street. A felon will have a difficult time finding housing or a job of any kind after they get out of prison. And if they fail in either of these basics, it is considered “their due”. The same for anyone who has a sex tag, even if they were only convicted of a misdemeanor. It is assumed that they are a pedophile or a rapist, even if they are not, and so they will be punished as such. Some people welcome former addicts, but just as many refuse to have anything to do with them. It is so easy to be judged in our society and so many people are willing to hold others accountable for a crime they don’t even know, that living becomes difficult.
It looks like unless something changes in society, homelessness is here to stay.