Homelessness Facts & Myths

(Taken from: "Get a job!" Eight myths and misconceptions about people who are homeless PHILLIP HOZER, A MEMBER OF VOICES FROM THE STREET: The Toronto Homelessness Speakers Bureau, spoke with homeless people at the Parkdale Activity and Recreation Centre in Toronto.)

These myths and misconceptions are based on recurring themes that emerged through the discussions.

1. Myth: People become homeless because they are lazy.

Fact: There are many reasons why people become homeless. The homeless community includes teenagers who have been kicked out of home or who are running away from abusive parents and women escaping abusive relationships and fearing for their safety and that of their children. It includes the working poor who live in their cars or in shelters. It includes people who cannot work for health reasons. Being homeless is not easy--homeless people often spend their days trying to find a place to stay, access services or find enough food. It takes an enormous amount of creativity, energy and persistence to survive.

2. Myth: People who are homeless should just "get a job."

Fact: It is very difficult, if not impossible, for homeless people to get meaningful employment without a fixed address and access to a telephone. Many potential employers hear "no fixed address" or "homeless" and right away buy into the stigma and misconceptions surrounding homelessness, so they won't offer work. Others won't or can't hire someone they can't easily get in touch with via a phone call. When homeless people are offered work, it is often dangerous manual labour and very low paying, making financial security impossible.

3. Myth: Many services exist for homeless people.

Fact: Services are indeed available, but accessing them is difficult. Many homeless people have no idea what is available or whom to contact. Often, no one is guiding them through the system--they are left alone to navigate the maze themselves. Housing providers are often spread throughout the city; yet homeless people often have difficulty with transportation. Even when they know who to call, that contact is often unavailable. And because they don't have easy access to a telephone, homeless people often can't call back, or the potential employer can't contact them. The situation is made more confusing and frustrating by the application process to get housing. The applicant might have to give the same information over and over. We need a standardized application process for all housing providers. They need to share this information with one another so clients do not need to go from place to place, filling out the same information. Housing providers need to work with other service providers so potential clients know what options are available.

4. Myth: Homeless people are drunks/addicts/crazy people who can't be helped.

Fact: Homeless people with substance abuse or mental health issues do not represent everyone who is homeless. Many of these people are in treatment of some sort and are trying to improve their lives. But any significant recovery is impossible without a safe, stable home life. As a result, many who successfully complete treatment relapse. Stability at home is often overlooked by service providers who deal with substance abuse or mental health issues. Much more must be done in this area to make recovery possible and long lasting. Stability in housing is critical in the success of any treatment model.

5.  Myth: It is easy to identify homeless people.

Fact: There are many people you would never suspect are homeless--they often look and act like the average person. These people often have a hard time getting the help they need because they fear the stigma attached to homelessness or they are turned away by service providers because they do not look as though they need help. Often, these "hidden homeless" fall through the cracks until their situation worsens to the point where they develop serious mental health or addiction issues.

6. Myth: Homeless people are not capable of leading productive lives.

Fact: Many homeless people have been teachers, lawyers, accountants, and so on, who were, at some point in their lives, well-respected members of society. Then there are the working poor, who are living in their cars or on someone's couch, but who do work. Everyone is capable of making a contribution to society, but many people lack the opportunity to prove themselves, due to the stigma attached to homelessness.

7. Myth: Service providers are trained to deal with homelessness, so they are the experts.

Fact: Although service providers are trained and usually mean well, they often don't really understand the issues and problems homeless people deal with every day. It's hard to call someone an expert on homelessness unless they have experienced the crisis firsthand. This is what we would like to see--homeless people included in the policymaking process so services can be more appropriate and effective.

8. Myth: Homeless people are not my responsibility.

Fact: Homeless people are part of the community. And everyone is responsible for the community where they live. If we start a healthy dialogue between members of the community, together we can build the kind of community in which we all want to live. Please join us in making our community a better place.

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