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Christine Schanes

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Homelessness Myth #15: Just Pull Yourself Up By Your Bootstraps

Posted: 10/06/10 10:58 AM ET

"Why don't homeless people just pull themselves up by their own bootstraps?" What I believe some housed people mean by this question is that homeless people should be able to get themselves out of homelessness by themselves, through their own efforts. Of all the myths about homelessness, I feel that this myth indicates the least understanding about the situation in which homeless people find themselves.

Homelessness is a very complex issue. Actually, homelessness is the result of many factors that contribute to people becoming and staying homeless. Among these factors are lack of affordable housing, insufficient income, lack of jobs, mental and physical impairments, addictions, abuse, the foreclosure crisis, municipal ordinances and community attitudes.

Lack of affordable housing is the most obvious, yet the most challenging factor, in my opinion, in overcoming homelessness. There are not enough emergency shelters, transitional housing, permanent supportive housing or affordable housing in any major city to house the number of homeless people living in that city.

In the event that a homeless person receives some kind of federal or state support, these benefits are generally not sufficient to cover the cost of housing, food and necessities, such as medical care and medicine, in any major city.

But how about homeless people getting jobs that will allow them to pay for housing? Some homeless people do work, but cannot make and then save enough money for first and last month's rent, plus a security deposit, so that they can move into an apartment.

And then there is the credit check done by some potential landlords through which they eliminate people who have poor credit scores as potential tenants. Many homeless people, including most foreclosure victims, have poor credit scores and thus do not qualify for some housing.

Nearly everyone recognizes that there is a high unemployment rate in the United States. There are just not enough jobs to go around. Unemployed homeless people have the same challenges as housed people as they seek employment. However, homeless people often don't have the supportive environment and means, such as a home, clean clothes, job skills and transportation, essential to making a good impression for job interviews and securing jobs.

I asked several eminent professionals and unhoused people about their thoughts on the statement, "Homeless people should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps." I am very grateful to them for their comments that follow.

Ken Peters, Peer Liaison for San Diego County through Recovery Innovations of California: "I do feel the idea that homeless people with mental illness need only 'pull themselves up by their bootstraps' is ridiculous. Most of this community is so worn down by life they have little hope things can be any better. Many have been abandoned by friends and family and feel no one cares."

Stephen Carroll, M.S.W., Homeless/Transition Age Services Division Director, San Diego Youth Services: "Regarding 'bootstraps,' my thought is that 'to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps' implies that we are responsible first and foremost for the changes that we want to make or need to make in our lives.

But like most, if not all, of us, when we find ourselves literally pulling up our bootstraps, we need someone or something to lean on to help support us until we have succeeded. One is an American value, the other a human value. And in my opinion, each is complimentary of the other."

Roger, 26 years old, unhoused: "My belief is that we have to work as a team to do anything. We have to come together as a unit and [that way we'll] get 10 times as much done as we can by ourselves."

Clayton, 25 years old, unhoused: "You should always be ready to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps because you can only count on yourself. But, working as a team and taking guidance from elders are always a plus."

Sean, 19 years old, unhoused: "People need places to go where you can get a place to stay, where they can get a job."

Brooke, 21 years old, unhoused: "Do good deeds and you get good deeds."

Darcy, 21 years old, unhoused: "I think it's a community effort. We can help ourselves and yet, we need to work together."

Glorious, 23 years old, unhoused: "We have a lack of common spaces. Our world needs that right now. We're interdependent. To learn anything, we need teachers. Our experiences are shared."

Keoni, 28 years old, unhoused: "I've been on the road since I was 16 years old. I know how to get myself up. But I have to meet 'locals' [housed people] to get a job and a house."

People who have no homes have fallen upon hard times. They may experience a crisis state that envelops them and can feel overwhelming. They may need a respite, a time to gather their thoughts, reflect and make plans for the future. Perhaps counseling would help. Certainly, being outdoors day and night during a time of crisis is not conducive to recovery from the crisis.

In my opinion, we all need to help one another. Homeless people may need help to get out of homelessness. Through understanding and compassion, we can help our neighbors be they housed or unhoused.

I look forward to your comments. Thank you,
Christine