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Christine Schanes Headshot

Homelessness Myth #14: They Choose to Be Homeless

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No one truly chooses to be homeless.

Certainly, the nearly 50 percent of homeless people who are women and children don't choose homelessness over being housed.

Further, the 25 percent to 40 percent of homeless people who are reportedly veterans would presumably prefer to re-establish the lives that they had before their military service rather than choose to become homeless.

Finally, we know that 35 percent to 45 percent of all homeless people suffer from some kind of mental illness. If some homeless people are mentally ill, do they really have the mental capacity and ability to choose being housed over being homeless?

This morning my homeless friend, Jerry, asked me what I was up to today. When I told him that I intended to write an article about the myth that homeless people actually choose homelessness over being housed, he said, rather matter-of-factly, "I choose to be homeless."

"Really," I replied. Then I did something which upon reflection, I wish that I had not done. I asked Jerry to think about the life of the young person we saw getting out of his vehicle.

Motioning toward the young person, I said to Jerry, "If right now I were to give you the choice to exchange your lifestyle for his lifestyle with an apartment, refrigerator, bathroom, TV and car, would you do it?"

Jerry was silent. He didn't respond. He just kept looking down.

I knew I had touched a nerve and possibly brought to his mind a lifestyle that is not an option for Jerry, not a choice for him. At this moment, there is no way that Jerry can have a housed lifestyle and he knows it.

Why?

Because there is no room in the homeless shelters for the numbers of people who need a bed.

Because most, if not all, homeless shelters require that their clients be clean and sober before they can be admitted to their program.

Because there are limited, if any, programs to help a homeless person get clean and sober while they are on the street. There are insufficient rehabilitative programs of any kind for the numbers of homeless people living on the street or in shelters.

Not long ago, a homeless friend, Nicky, said to me, "I choose to be homeless."

"Really," I said. "Do you choose living in the cold, the trash food, the lack of a real bed or apartment?"

"No, those are the bad things about being homeless. I don't choose those."

"You do realize that if you choose to be homeless that these things are a natural consequence of your choice?"

"Yes, but those are not the things that I choose," he said.

In my opinion, one choice from two or more options is only a true choice when the consequences of the choices are equal or nearly equal. The choice between living in a home or living on the streets is an unequal choice because of their unequal consequences.

Homeless people living on the street have no bathroom facilities, limited clean food, and unconventional sleeping conditions. Often, the unsheltered homeless people eat "trash food" to stave off their hunger. Clothing appropriate for the weather is sometimes a luxury. Warm blankets, unsheltered people's basic necessity, spread on the ground or on cement, even over cardboard, are no substitute for a real bed inside an apartment or shelter.

And we have not even discussed the safety issue. When we housed people are indoors we lock the doors against possible intruders.

How can homeless people protect themselves from someone, housed or unhoused, who wishes them harm? Often, homeless people stay awake in the night, sleep in well-lit areas or sleep in hidden places so as to keep themselves safe. But, there are no locks outside. There are not even doors which can be locked.

The answer: provide services for homeless people where they are. For example, create programs that are for unsheltered people who have not yet kicked drug or alcohol addictions. Have programs for people who live outside but who have mental illnesses. Meet the people where they are mentally and physically.

Why wait and demand that homeless people become clean and sober on their own so that they can get into a shelter, when they will come to find out that there is no available bed in any shelter?

Help unsheltered homeless people become clean and sober through services and shelter programs designed for people recovering from additions.

I'm sorry that I raised the thought of a housed lifestyle for my friend, Jerry. I raised unreasonable expectations for my friend and for what purpose -- just to make a point? I won't do that again to Jerry or any other unhoused person.

I look forward to your comments.

Thank you,
Christine

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