11/30/2012 05:03 pm ET Updated Jan 30, 2013

What It's Like to Tell People You're Homeless

Homeless. To many that word might as well be a scarlet "H" stamped across your forehead once you end up in it but as I often tell people, it is an experience, not a personality trait. Yes, it's hard to tell people you're homeless but it's even harder to pretend that you're not. Sooner or later, people will find out and that's one of the reasons I choose to be honest about it. Not everyone "out here" is a drug addict, a criminal or mentally ill. Granted, there are people out here who fit that description but most of the homeless people I meet are abandoned youth, runaways, seniors on fixed incomes, vets with terminal illnesses and people like me, single parents trying to live on less than a living wage.

Ask yourself, how long you would last out here without any help before you'd turn to addiction or crime? That's another reality I've watched happen to people after they discover that there's no such thing as immediate "emergency housing," since most shelters and housing programs have incredibly long waiting lists. If you're under the age of 18, you may not be old to enough to apply for food stamps or to a local food bank as they have age requirements to qualify for help, not to mention the fact that not many landlords will rent to a teenager even if they have a job.

I understand all too well what it's like to tell someone that you're homeless. You run the risk of being stigmatized by other people's preconceived notions and you certainly don't want to tell a potential employer that you live out of a car, or worse, under a bridge! Then there's dealing with "know it alls" who think they know what's best for homeless people even though they've never been homeless themselves. Somehow being judgmental compensates for being out of touch with day to day living that doesn't match up with ideas that won't work in an urban setting. You can't "live off the land" in the city due to quality of living ordinances designed to penalize homeless people. If the destitute could move out to the country, they would still have a hard time because there are laws regarding camping year round not to mention extreme weather conditions and nimby's who simply don't want homeless people in their town or near their homes.

On a personal level, telling people you're homeless can be emotionally devastating but it's not the end of the world as long as you don't give up on yourself. What other people think isn't as important as what you tell yourself and out here; it helps your mental survival to stay positive about the future. Of course it's not easy trying to build your life back up but it's worth the effort. I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now if I had decided to give up on life a few years ago.

Like a lot of other advocates, I chose to get involved with helping homeless people because of what I saw happening to them on a daily basis. I've seen what it's like to try to navigate through a system that doesn't provide housing options outside of packed shelters and each shelter system is different! There's domestic violence shelters, youth shelters, family shelters, shelters for recovering addicts, single adult shelters, etc., but they have a common denominator in every one: waiting lists and time limits! If you are not able to get back on your feet within 90 days or so, guess what? You're back out on the streets and have to repeat the same revolving door practices to get shelter again. Add to this other problems like theft, crime, lice, bedbugs or scabies and you'll see why many people avoid the shelter systems altogether. I know there are good shelter and transitional housing programs out there but the truth is, they're hard to get into and there aren't enough of them to go around.

A word of advice to those considering becoming an advocate for the poor: learn to expect apathy because the moment you start speaking in the language of uncomfortable truths, many of your friends, family and other peers may suddenly become deaf. THAT'S what it's like to tell people you're homeless.