Homelessness is on the rise in cities across the country, although there are many aspects of it that are changing. Field workers and homeless advocates have had to switch gears to accommodate the new and evolving needs of the homeless. Here are 7 things you think about homeless people that are not actually true:
1. Homeless people all live on the streets or sleep in shelters.
People who are living in their cars is the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population, say homeless advocates and researchers. At least 30 percent of homeless people who aren't in shelters live in their vehicles, found Graham Pruss, lead researcher with the Vehicle Residency Research Program at Seattle University. Those living in cars tend to be the newly homeless, people who, as Neil Donovan, former
executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, once said "are still hanging on to the remnants of their housed life." The chronically homeless? They don't have cars.
The needs of the vehicular homeless are different from the needs of other homeless population segments. Principally, they need a safe place to park where they won't be harassed, Pruss said. Some churches and businesses have stepped up in this regard, allowing RV and van dwellers to park overnight in their parking lots as long as there are no fights, booze or drugs used. Some businesses say the overnighters provide security.
In San Diego, Calif., the Dreams for Change nonprofit runs the Safe Parking Program to give the vehicular homeless a safe place to rest, access resources and work toward stabilizing their lives. The group has on-site volunteers who oversee church and industrial area parking lots overnight to ensure order. Those who park there are screened carefully for criminal records and there is a zero tolerance for any disruptive behavior. Users of the lots say that it provides a kind of community for homeless families with children: the kids can make friends with other kids living there too.
Walmart stores used to be an under-the-radar leader in letting RVs park overnight free of charge. Company founder Sam Walton reckoned it was smart business back then since the campers would then patronize the store in the morning as they bought their day's groceries and supplies. But back then, the overnight campers were road-trippers, not folks who called their cars "home." Today, says Pruss, the choice about whether RVs may park overnight in the lot is left up to individual Walmart store managers and many don't encourage it. There is an app that lets people know which Walmarts still give the practice a thumbs up.
2. Homelessness is always related to mental illness and/or substance abuse.
Homelessness has always been about more than a lack of shelter. Traditionally, it's been accompanied by -- or a result of -- untreated mental illness and/or substance abuse. But those living in RVs, vans and cars are more likely doing so because of economic hardship, said Mark Horvath, founder of Invisible People and himself a homeless-shelter dweller for almost eight years. Moving into the car is frequently a logical first step for people who lose their homes or are evicted from their apartments. Possessions may be stored in public storage areas for a while, but if the money completely runs out, attempts are made to sell off goods.
3. Homeless individuals are fine with being homeless.
Much the same way that unemployed people see themselves as being "between jobs," some people who live in their vehicles say they are not homeless. Two van dwellers in Venice Beach, Calif., insisted they were living in the back of their pickup truck by choice. They proudly showed off the camper shell they had outfitted for less than $20. Another younger man in a parked RV about a mile away said he wasn't homeless but just "passing through" the area. He pointed to a van across the street and noted that "that guy" had been there longer than he had been. "Go knock on his door if you want to talk to somebody homeless," he said.
Accepting that you are homeless is a pretty hard pill to swallow, said Horvath. Maybe seeing yourself as "not homeless" is a good thing, added Pruss. When you stop believing that your current state is anything but temporary, the going gets a lot tougher, he said.
Being seen as homeless is something Keith, who has lived with his dog in a car for about a year, works hard to avoid. Keith, who allowed The Huffington Post to verify his identity and vet his story, insisted that we not use his name. He said his plight embarrasses him and he doesn't want people -- including his friends -- to know that he's homeless. He says if they did, it would impede his ability to ever find work in Los Angeles again.
Keith worked for 18 years in Hollywood as a director of photography on high-budget commercials. He worked so steadily and traveled so much for work that he was able to use his work-accrued airline miles to sleep at the Radisson LAX for the first few weeks after he lost his apartment. He chose the Radisson because it accepts pets and he takes his dog everywhere with him.
Keith, who is well-groomed and dresses neatly, blames his current situation on his failure to recognize looming changes in his profession. When the economy contracted, a lot of freelance commercial work dried up. Additionally, producers switched to hiring photographers who owned their own equipment to avoid the expense of having to rent it.
"I never bought equipment. I stopped getting calls," Keith explains simply. As a freelancer, he was used to dips in his work and always socked away money during the more fertile periods. But this time, the jobs just went away. He drained his savings and by the time he realized the permanence of his industry's evolution, he was out of money. He has one other regret: Given his current state, he wishes he had bought an RV before things got this far.
Keith has had one job interview in the past two years. It was for a $10 an hour sales job that he didn't get. He sells off his possessions on eBay for spending money and estimates that he is living on about $250 a month. His big expenses are gas, his gym membership, his car insurance and food for himself and his dog. He carries car insurance because all he owns is in his car. Plus, he said, you must have car insurance by law in California. Keith says he does not abuse alcohol or use drugs and has no history of mental illness. "I just need a job for a few months and then I'll have enough to get back into an apartment," he said. He is also investigating career retraining options.
4. They don't take care of themselves.
Joining a gym gives the homeless a place to shower and stay clean. Gyms that are open around the clock also give them a safe place to legally be. One of the biggest concerns of the homeless is staying safe.
Public libraries provide warmth in the winter, air conditioning in the summer, and free public bathrooms all year long. They are open to the public and no one will generally bother a homeless guy who is sitting in the corner reading a book. There are computers available to be used for free in job searches or checking emails. Homeless children use public libraries and their free computers to do homework. Libraries also provide free programs for both kids and adults.
5. They only want money and food.
Horvath does a lot of community outreach and has perfected his approach. He brings a backpack full of socks and asks if they'd like a pair. "Socks are gold," he says, when you are approaching a homeless person asking to speak with them. Knocking on car windows is like the old Fuller Brush salesman knocking on a front door, he said. "All you really want is to get your foot in the door. Once you get invited in, you've 'made the sale,'" he said.
What's being "sold" on his forays looking for homeless people are services: He is trying to get people off the streets and into programs to help get them back on their feet.
Why socks? we asked Horvath. "Unsure," he said. "But there is something about a brand new pair of clean socks that when you put them on, you feel better." Plus socks generally fit everybody.
6. Humans are the only ones who need help.
Pets often live with homeless people and they need help too. During the foreclosure crisis, people losing their houses often bumped up against landlords unwilling to rent to them with a pet. Homeless shelters don't generally welcome pets either. Speaking anecdotally, people who live in their cars seem to like pit bulls or pit bull mixes as a pet. Pitties have a reputation of being loyal to their owners, but not always so welcoming to strangers. With their strong jaws, they are a deterrent against those who might do you harm. A barking dog is also an early warning signal that someone is approaching your parked vehicle.
Between 5 percent to 10 percent of homeless people have cats or dogs as pets. In some places, that number is as high as 24 percent. Pets of the Homeless is a nonprofit volunteer organization that provides pet food and veterinary care to the pets of the homeless across the United States and Canada. They distribute pet food and volunteer veterinarians hold Wellness Clinics in areas where the homeless congregate, providing vaccines and other needed treatments.
7. They don't use the Internet.
Free WiFi is one of the things that make life bearable for the homeless. Every homeless person we met had a cell phone or tablet. It's their lifeline to civilization. From their phones, they can gain online access and apply for jobs, find out information about where to park and stay in touch with contacts through text, call or email. This makes parking areas near free WiFi primo spots. Libraries also generally offer free WiFi.
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