What Homelessness Is Really Like

When you think of a homeless person, a certain stereotype comes to mind. A middle-aged to older man who's addicted to drugs and too lazy to get a job living on the streets. I'm not going to pretend that I never thought that, but everything changed when I became homeless.
09/05/2015 05:45 pm ET Updated Sep 05, 2016
Homeless man sleeping in sleeping bag on cardboard
Homeless man sleeping in sleeping bag on cardboard

Admit it: when you think of a homeless person, a certain stereotype comes to mind. A middle-aged to older man who's addicted to drugs and too lazy to get a job. You think it's their own fault that they're living on the streets.

I'm not going to pretend that I never thought that, but everything changed when I became homeless. In partnership with Gettysburg College and the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH), I took the "Homelessness Challenge". For 48 hours, I lived on the streets. I slept on the steps of a statue the first night, and in front of a Macy's the second. I had to beg for money so I could have a bit of water on a blisteringly hot day. I visited soup kitchens and parks where churches handed out sandwiches.

Of course, I didn't really experience homelessness. I knew that once the challenge was over, I had a fluffy, warm bed and air conditioning awaiting me. Still, being homeless leaves tons of boring, empty hours, so I filled those by making friends. I met numerous homeless people, many of whom I talked to for hours on end. NCH's rules are that I can only tell homeless people that I'm not homeless; everyone else has to stay convinced that I'm homeless.

Real homeless people weren't fooled by what was, in essence, just a scruffy college kid. I confessed, and everyone I met was excited that I'd taken the challenge. They told me their stories in the hopes that I could share the truth about homelessness in DC.

The Stories of the Homeless

One of the first people I met was Kevin. Kevin is chronically homeless, but don't try to stereotype him: he's not a drug addict, and he has a full-time job. He works forty hours a week, but he can't afford anywhere to live. The only apartments he could possibly afford are in a shadier section of DC, far from his work. He scoped out the apartments once, and refused to ever go back. There were drug deals going on and gang members hanging around, so Kevin decided he'd sleep on a park bench in the tourist section of DC rather than risk his life in those apartments.

You're going to protest. Kevin has a full-time job! There have to be plenty of apartments he can afford! Not so. Kevin works a minimum wage job. At the moment that's under $10, but DC has raised its minimum wage, so let's use the new figure: $10.10. If Kevin makes $10.10 and works for 40 hours a week, then Kevin earns $1,616 every month. Yet the average cost of an apartment in DC averages over $2,000. It's estimated that, with the rising cost of housing in the area, a living wage in DC would be $28. Kevin makes nowhere near that kind of money.

Another person we met was Joseph. A few years ago, he had cancer. He'd never been rich, but he certainly wasn't homeless when he was diagnosed. The doctor visits, the chemotherapy: he was quickly drained of all his money. Joseph started taking out loans to pay for everything, and when he couldn't earn enough money to pay them back, everything began to unravel. Joseph is homeless because now, he's found a job, but like Kevin, he can't afford an apartment. Even if he earned enough money, his credit score is ruined, so it's going to be tough for him to get off the streets.

Stereotypes vs Facts

I wasn't homeless the entire time I was in DC. I stayed at the Steinbruck Center at Luther Place for another couple of days, where I learned about homelessness and volunteered. The Experiential Learning Coordinator, Bianca Vazquez, gave lessons on all of the aspects of homelessness.

Ms. Vazquez destroyed some of the stereotypes surrounding homelessness with a simple, bullet-point list. She listed the top five most common reasons for homelessness in DC as lack of affordable housing, lack of living wage jobs, domestic violence, lack of affordable healthcare, and under- or unemployment. Drug addiction and mental illness, two common stereotypes, aren't even in the top five!

I met countless people, and not one of them was on the streets because of a drug addiction or mental illness. In fact, most of the people I met had steady jobs, and just couldn't afford to get off of the street.

I know something is nagging you. You're wondering, why can't they just stay in a homeless shelter? Every homeless person I encountered on the streets despised the shelters. They complained that the beds were infested with bugs, the food was subpar, and the staff were sometimes downright cruel. That isn't to say every shelter is that way, but one bad experience with a shelter can turn someone off from them forever.

How Do I Help? 

Is there anything you can do to make life better for a homeless person? Obviously, fighting for legislation to help them, or battling to repeal legislation that criminalizes homelessness, are  ways to help. Not everyone is an activist though, so there are some much simpler, more personal ways to do your part.

One thing I noticed when I panhandled, and that every single homeless person I spoke to was upset by, is that homeless people are dehumanized. When you sit on the side of the street, even if you're not asking for money, people will make a concerted effort to ignore you. It's like everyone signed a contract agreeing to pretend that you don't even exist. It's completely dehumanizing to pretend that another human being doesn't exist, and just validating a homeless person's existence can be enough. Not everyone is going to have time to sit down and have an hour long conversation, but it's enough just to look at them and say a word or two. Say "Hey, how are you?" or "Good morning!". Any acknowledgment is enough, really.

Another way you can help is probably the most obvious: volunteering. Food can be found in abundance in DC. If you sit in McPherson Square, three different churches will show up and hand out food, just twenty minutes apart. None of the homeless people I talked to had an issue feeding themselves: water, shelter, and clothes were some of the real challenges. If you find a way to fulfill these basic needs, you've done a lot of good.

Destroying the stereotypes that plague the homeless, and defeating homelessness for good, can't be done overnight. But every day that you do a little act of kindness for a homeless person, we're one step closer to ending homelessness.