Brighten the Corner Rejects Stereotypes
Homelessness affects over half a million people in America on any given day. Many housed people have fallen for harmful myths about people experiencing homelessness. These myths and stereotypes have hindered people from helping homeless individuals personally or through charities such as Brighten the Corner. In this blog, we will look at ten common myths and stereotypes about homelessness and describe how they are false and harmful.
Myth #1: “Homeless people are lazy and just don’t want to work.”
This is one of the most common stereotypes about homeless people. Around 25% of homeless people in the US are employed, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. Homeless people often face significant barriers to employment, such as a lack of ID (often due to theft of their wallets or backpacks while sleeping on the street), lack of access to transportation, limited job opportunities, discrimination against homeless people, and sometimes problems maintaining the level of hygiene or clothing needed for the job.
Being homeless is not a choice, and many people who are homeless want to work and regain stability in their lives. Homelessness is a multifaceted issue with many causes, including poverty, job loss, disabilities, domestic violence, family problems, discrimination, and sometimes mental illness or substance abuse. In our experience at Brighten the Corner, some of our homeless friends work part-time or even full-time in low-paying jobs that simply are not sufficient to save up for a first-month’s rent, last-month’s rent, and security deposit for an apartment, much less paying expensive rent every month. We do our best to help connect our homeless friends to resources that can help with those difficulties.
Myth #2: “Homeless people all look alike.”
This myth is false and harmful. It is related to a stereotype that homeless men are all dirty and unkempt and have long, matted gray hair or a long, scraggly gray or white beard. In reality, homeless people come from all walks of life. Many are young. About 40% are African Americans. Many are women. Some are well-educated and have held very responsible jobs.
Even though many homeless people lack convenient access to basic necessities like clean clothes or showers, most homeless people take pride in their appearance and do their best to maintain good hygiene. In fact, many of our homeless friends walk two miles each day to reach a charity center that offers a shower and laundry facilities.
Brighten the Corner provides hygiene items such as shaving kits, and one of our most popular programs provides free haircuts by professional barbers and hair stylists. We have found that a professional haircut can change the way other people view and treat homeless people, which in turn can improve the homeless person’s outlook on life.
Myth #3: “Homeless people are all alcoholics or drug addicts.”
While substance abuse is a problem for some people who are homeless, it is not the case for most of them. One study estimated that between 30-40% of homeless people may be struggling with alcohol abuse, while 10-15% are estimated to struggle with drug abuse; and the percentages are higher among those classified as “chronically homeless,” especially in certain parts of the country. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reported that about 38% of homeless people abused alcohol while 26% abused other drugs. By comparison, about 21% of Americans overall have an alcohol-use disorder and about 14% of Americans overall use drugs, according to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics.
Many housed people tend to assume that homelessness is caused by some type of addiction. Homelessness is actually a complex issue that is caused by many different factors. Substance abuse is often a symptom of homelessness, rather than the cause. Oftentimes, homelessness can lead to addiction due to the difficult conditions that come with living on the streets. The stress of having to find food, deal with health problems, and be away from loved ones can be incredibly difficult. In many cases, substance abuse is a form of self-medication to numb the stress and pain of living outdoors and being ostracized by society, or a form of self-medication for symptoms of mental illness that could well be caused by malnutrition such as deficiencies in Vitamin B-1, B-6, or B-12.
It is important to address substance abuse in homeless populations, but it is also important to recognize that not all homeless people struggle with addiction. And many of those who are struggling with substances actually want to get treatment. For example, Brighten the Corner recently helped a homeless man get into a ten-month residential drug rehab program; and we were happy to assist another man with entering alcohol detox treatment.
Myth #4: “Homeless people all suffer a mental illness.”
This is another harmful stereotype. People who experience homelessness can be prone to developing mental health issues as a result of their tough circumstances, which can include the stress of feeling threatened by the risk of violence, poor nutrition, a lack of shelter, and lack of human affection. While mental illness is a problem for some people who are homeless, it is not the case for the majority. A study in 2018 found that approximately 30-35% of people experiencing homelessness had a mental illness. It is estimated that about 26% of homeless adults have a serious mental illness, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. In some cases, it is possible that the symptoms may be caused by malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies.
It is important to address mental illness in homeless populations, but it is also important to recognize that not all homeless people suffer from mental illness. We treat all of our homeless friends with dignity, respect, and compassion; and we are glad to provide additional emotional support for those who may want it.
Myth #5: “Homeless people are homeless by choice.”
This is a harmful, erroneous stereotype. Homelessness is a complex issue that is caused by many different factors, such as poverty, job loss, lack of affordable housing, familial problems, and sometimes mental illness or substance abuse, or sometimes difficulties faced when thrown onto the streets after a term of incarceration, to name a few factors.
Homeless people often face significant barriers to accessing help, such as a lack of resources, lack of transportation, limited access to healthcare, and discrimination. We have not surveyed every homeless person in the nation, but we are confident that none of our homeless friends chose to be homeless.
Myth #6: “Homeless people are all unemployed;” and “they should just go get a job.”
Many homeless people actually have jobs. Most of those jobs are part-time; some are temporary or seasonal. Even those who hold “Will Work for Food” signs all day, are actually working, and it is hard work. Regardless of their work, they still cannot afford to pay for housing.
Homelessness is a complex issue that requires a multifaceted approach to solve. It is important to provide homeless people with access to affordable housing, healthcare, and support services to help them regain stability. At Brighten the Corner, we touch the lives of homeless people through friendship while providing necessities such as nutrition and clothing, and we offer to help them connect with resources that can provide opportunities for employment, shelter, or affordable housing. Employment is an essential part of getting out of homelessness, but it is not a guarantee of stability.
Myth #7: “Homeless people are all single adults.”
This is not true. There are many homeless teenagers who live independently on the street. And couples or families with children make up a significant proportion of the homeless population. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, around 40% of homeless people are families with children.
Although most of our homeless friends are single men, several others are married and/or have children, and many of those men want to reconnect with their wife or children who may live in another state or may be in a local temporarily shelter. Several of our homeless friends are women, including some with children. Among other services, we seek to reconnect homeless people to their family.
Myth #8: “Homeless people all have a criminal record.”
This stereotype is harmful and mistaken. Many homeless people are arrested on minor allegations such as loitering, trespassing, panhandling, or having an open container of beer. But homelessness is not a crime, and the majority of homeless people do not have a criminal record. According to a study of homelessness in Los Angeles, only about 11% of homeless people report having been arrested at least once while homeless.
Homeless people themselves are often the victims of crime, including theft, robbery, assault, battery, or other violence. It is important to treat homeless people with dignity and respect rather than perpetuating harmful stereotypes. Most homeless people are law-abiding, upstanding citizens who are doing their best to survive from day to day.
Myth #9: “Homeless people are all uneducated” or “homelessness is caused by a lack of education.”
This is an erroneous stereotype. While education is an essential part of getting out of homelessness, it is not a guarantee of stability. Many homeless people have advanced degrees but still cannot afford housing due to circumstances like job loss, medical bills, or family crisis. Of course some homeless people may not have done well in school, or may not have graduated from high school–and Brighten the Corner wants to help them learn to read better and obtain a GED. On the other hand, many homeless people have college degrees or even graduate degrees or have attended graduate school.
For example, one of our homeless friends holds a college degree in theology; another holds a master’s degree in business administration; yet another earned a seminary degree; others have extensive education in information technology. One of our friends is a registered nurse and was homeless for several months. Homeless people come from all backgrounds and may have different levels of education, including college degrees; but that does not prevent homelessness.
Myth #10: “Homeless people don’t pay taxes and they are a burden on the economy” or “they receive more than their fair share of government assistance.”
This is a harmful and mistaken stereotype. Many of our homeless friends work and pay taxes. For example, several hold part-time or even full-time jobs in the restaurant industry. Another is a security guard. Some are day laborers. One works to help homeless people get free cell phone service through a government plan. One was working as a nurse while sleeping in her car or in a small tent pitched downtown. We could mention several other examples, and all of them contribute to the economy.
Providing housing and support services to homeless people can actually save money for American society in the long run by reducing the costs of emergency services and healthcare. Some homeless people may receive government assistance such as disability benefits, but this assistance is often not enough to meet their basic needs much less support any kind of housing. Further, homeless people often receive less assistance than others receive, because they have difficulties in applying for benefits due to a lack of ID, lack of an address, lack of familiarity with the application process, lack of help in filling out forms, or lack of access to a bank account. It is also important to recognize that homelessness is a societal issue that requires a collective response.
Bonus: Myth #11: “Homeless people don’t actually want help,” and “each one is a ‘hopeless case.’”
Okay, we mentioned that we would discuss ten common myths, but here’s a bonus eleventh one (and we could have mentioned several more). This stereotype is false and harmful. Many people who are homeless definitely want help and are willing to work towards getting back on their feet. At Brighten the Corner, we have met many of them. Homeless people often face significant barriers to accessing help, such as a lack of resources, limited access to healthcare, and discrimination. It is amazing what some of our homeless friends have been through, and how tenacious they are in trying to get reestablished. (A case in point is one of our friends, an army veteran, who saved up his disability checks for several years to have enough for a down-payment on a van where he can sleep instead of sleeping on the sidewalk outdoors. Although he is still unhoused, he has made a significant step towards getting back on his feet.)
It is important to provide homeless individuals with the resources and support they need to regain stability in their lives. With the right support and resources, many homeless people are able to transition out of homelessness and regain stability. We have seen it happen. (And for anyone who thinks that any unhoused individual is a “hopeless case,” we recommend you watch the movie “2nd Greatest” about a homeless man, Jude Moran, whom almost everyone deemed to be hopelessly stuck in homelessness and alcoholism. Watch it all the way to the end!) We do our best to help connect homeless individuals and families to needed resources while providing friendship, encouragement, a listening ear, and support with daily necessities. Brighten the Corner has been instrumental in helping multiple people get off the street.
At Brighten the Corner, we don’t fall for stereotypes about homeless people. We hope you won’t either. These myths about homelessness are harmful. They create barriers that prevent homeless people from getting the help they need and often discourage housed people from offering help. Homelessness is a complex issue that requires a multifaceted approach to solve. Brighten the Corner provides homeless individuals with the resources and support they need to regain stability in their lives. We believe in giving people a hand up.
Probably the best resource we provide is the friendship—and encouragement, hope, and kindness—that we share in our weekly visits. We restore our friends’ sense of dignity and belonging by learning their names and greeting them by name each week with a handshake or hug, listening to their stories, and showing that we care with no strings attached. We also seek to get rid of myths and stereotypes that get in the way of helping vulnerable individuals, including racial stereotypes. Brighten the Corner wants to raise awareness about the realities of homelessness and encourage more people to get involved in our mission. Your donations can make a significant difference in the lives of homeless individuals and families, and we thank you for your support.
Brighten the Corner is helping to create a world where everyone has access to the basic necessities of life, including shelter, food, and security—and where economic exploitation, sexual exploitation, victimization, and discrimination are no longer tolerated. If you want to do something about homelessness but don’t feel that you are in a position to get involved directly, you can still play an important role by supporting the work of Brighten the Corner. Together, we can make a difference and create a brighter future for all. Everyone can do something to help. Brighten the corner where you are!