West Valley Community Services works closely with our communities’ unhoused residents, who are a part of the more than 160,000 homeless folks currently living in California. Oftentimes, thinking about homelessness can cause discomfort and initiate a range of negative associations, many of which are based on stereotype and bias instead of fact. These misassumptions about homelessness place an additional burden on this already vulnerable population.
With over 48 years of experience working with unhoused clients, we at West Valley Community Services want to dismantle some of the common misassumptions about the unhoused population and provide perspective and a deeper understanding of homelessness.
1. Homelessness is a choice.
Homelessness has many causes – poverty, job loss, death of a loved one, medical debt, foster care, the carceral system, disability, domestic violence, divorce, and other instances of bad circumstance. At West Valley Community Services, we serve clients that come to us after a multitude of unfortunate events. For example, an individual gets a bad case of COVID and has to take a month off of work. Their partner then has to stay home to take care of the whole family. This couple suddenly goes from two incomes to no income and faces a growing stack of medical bills. Eviction and food insecurity– two things they had never faced before – are now knocking at their door. While this story may sound unlikely, we see variations of it at West Valley Community Services every day.
Systemic issues like institutionalized racism also contribute to homelessness, and according to the National Coalition on Ending Homelessness, “most minority groups in the United States experience homelessness at higher rates than whites, and therefore, make up a disproportionate share of the homeless population (1).”
There are also cases where homelessness is caused by substance abuse; however, it’s important to recognize that this is not the only trigger. As humans, we all make bad decisions from time-to-time. So why do some people bounce back and others end up living on the street? In many cases it is a safety net (a support system of people, resources, savings, and other tools) that prevents individuals who make bad choices from falling into homelessness. So while two individuals may engage in similar habits of substance abuse, the person without a safety net may become homeless while the other person may not.
The reality is that no one wants to live on the street. Such a life is cold, gruesome, and scary. It can be dangerous and lonely. If someone appears to be choosing this lifestyle, this choice is often the outcome of years of struggle. If this person were offered their own place to live, a place that is clean, safe, and dignified, nine times out of ten they would take it. Homelessness as a choice is the rare exception to the rule, not the norm.
2. Most people experiencing homelessness are substance users.
It may seem to be common to associate drug use with homelessness. Before making assumptions about this situation, two important caveats should be kept in mind:
First, those using drugs are more visible. They are louder, more nonconforming, and more likely to live near others who are also using, amplifying their visibility.
Second, most people are not using drugs at the time they become unhoused. In fact, the 2019 Santa Clara County Homeless Census and Survey found that alcohol or drug abuse was the primary cause of homelessness for only 22% of the county’s unhoused. The most common cause was job loss (30%), with other primary causes including divorce/separation/breakup, eviction, argument with family or a friend, and incarceration. Furthermore, while the majority of unhoused folks are not using, substance abuse often begins as a result of homelessness. On a freezing night, or when feeling absolutely hopeless, substances become very appealing, and are often used as a survival or escape method from the harsh realities of living in a car or on the street. A UCSF study found rates of sexual and physical assault toward the unhoused were as much as 40 times higher than the general population, which can also cause people to resort to drug use to cope (2). Homelessness can also cause the body to experience significant physical pain, and getting real help can be very difficult. Substance abuse is one way to deal with this chronic pain.
3. All people experiencing homelessness have mental health issues.
Many people experiencing homelessness do struggle with mental health issues. Unfortunately, these community members are often viewed as beyond redemption. The reality is, we so often see mental health issues amongst the unhoused because communities lack the services to help them. When suffering from severe mental health issues, people are usually not in a place to ask for help, or they don’t have access to services that can help address the mental health challenges they are facing. This is not their fault. It is our job as a community to make mental health support accessible to those who need it.
Similar to the misassumptions about drug use, not all homeless individuals have mental health issues, but those struggling with mental health issues are more visible, making mental health conditions seem more common than they are.
Additionally, mental health issues can also develop as a result of being homeless. Unstable housing and living in a car or on the streets can trigger mental health issues.
4. Homelessness isn’t my problem/my city’s problem.
Homelessness is a textbook example of a collective action problem. It exists because of failures by our cities, counties, states, and country to create systems that provide genuine support for people and ensure there is enough housing for everyone. Our neighbors and community members are sleeping outside in the rain, in extreme heat and cold, and in dehumanizing conditions because our society has allowed this problem to develop and advance. It is a collective problem calling for a collective solution. If each city in the Bay Area decided to build enough affordable housing for the folks that need it, we could rapidly end homelessness and focus our resources on secondary efforts, such as addressing the mental health issues within the population.
In fact, homelessness is not just an ethical problem; it also impacts us all financially. The 2015 study, Home Not Found: The Cost of Homelessness in Silicon Valley(3), found that Santa Clara County spends $520 million per year providing services for the unhoused. For the chronically homeless, the average pre-housing public cost per individual was $62,473, while the average post-housing cost was $19,767 – resulting in an average annual cost savings of $42,706. Imagine what we could do if we had those additional resources to enhance our communities while we were ending homelessness.
5. Homeless folks should just get a job.
It is incredibly difficult to obtain and maintain a job while experiencing homelessness. Unhoused individuals typically lack access to showers, clean clothes, a mirror, a hairbrush, cosmetics, and other toiletries we typically use when preparing for work, making it more difficult to hold a job. Aside from that, they face additional hurdles in the process of applying for a job, such as the lack of a home address for the application. These individuals are also often extremely exhausted, and typically expend their energy just trying to survive. This is the vicious cycle that accompanies homelessness – you have no money, so you cannot afford a home. In order to make money, you need a job, but you cannot get a job until you have a home.
6. Homeless people refuse shelter and services anyway
With regard to this misconception, we ask that you put yourself in the shoes of an unhoused individual. While shelters seem like the obvious solution, they unfortunately do not always meet the minimum standard of living for health and well-being. From violence to unsanitary conditions, a review of shelters in Southern California found that some have rodents and maggots, toxic and unsafe conditions, and do not protect individuals from violence or sexual assault(4). Unfortunately, violence and abuse in homeless shelters is not uncommon and is particularly devastating to this vulnerable population.
Aside from poor shelter conditions, some folks do not feel safe or at ease sleeping in a room with others, and they prefer the privacy of a tent over sleeping in a crowded shelter. Furthermore, many shelters have strict hours, with entry by 8 p.m. and departure by 7 a.m. the next day. These shelters are not options for those who have work schedules that end after the curfew, and actually decrease the quality of life for many folks residing there. While shelters provide somewhere to sleep, what is this person to do during the day, and how can they have more possessions than what fits in a backpack?
In terms of refusal of other services, it is psychologically taxing to keep trying when you have been invariably knocked down. Many people have been unhoused for years and years, and at some point they run out of energy and hope. They have been promised housing, social security, and any number of services dozens of times, only to have them fall through. Eventually, it becomes easier to refuse services than it is to try again and hold onto hope.
7. We will never solve homelessness.
This will be true if we do not seek to understand the problems that homeless individuals face instead of casting judgment and jumping to conclusions.
Indeed, homelessness is a huge challenge, and it can leave all of us– from the unhoused, to service providers, to community members– feeling hopeless and overwhelmed.
But it is important to remember that we can defeat this communal problem, and we must overcome this human rights issue. We can solve homelessness. It is a matter of priorities, resources, compassion, and money. There are proven solutions to homelessness. The best one is rather obvious: housing. In addition, we need to invest in mental health services, temporary shelters that are safe and dignified, accessible rehabilitation centers, and services for people with disabilities.
Hopefully, this post has helped shed some light on homelessness. Now it’s time to take action with what you’ve learned, and here are some things you can do:
Have a conversation with a person experiencing homelessness. The problem often seems unwieldy until you actually speak with someone directly affected by it. Talking with someone who is unhoused will give you a better understanding of the experience and will give you an opportunity to learn about the problem firsthand. You will likely be surprised by the similarity of this conversation to one you may have with a stranger you meet in the grocery store, or are introduced to at a gathering. (Ensure that both you and the individual are psychologically comfortable to engage in the conversation before approaching.)
Speak with neighbors, friends, and family about the stigma surrounding homelessness. These conversations can be uncomfortable, but they are critical to dismantling assumptions and providing a broader perspective on the issue.
Support affordable housing in your community. Share this blog post with others so that they can learn more about the myths and realities of affordable housing. Housing is the most direct and effective solution to homelessness. We must not rely on other cities to build this much-needed housing. We all have to do our part, and you can help make sure your community does, too.
We hope you will join us, be a voice of understanding, empathy, and insight, and be a force for ending homelessness in your community!