Debunking Myths about Homelessness

Thursday, June 20, 2024
On a single night in January 2023, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development collected nationwide data to determine there were roughly 650,000 unhoused individuals across the country – a 12% increase from the year prior. This reflects our lingering national inability to solve a decades-long crisis plaguing cities from New York to Seattle.

There are many factors that caused the American homeless rate to reach such great numbers, from inadequate social safety nets to inequitable access to health care and ever-rising housing prices.

Many also point the finger at the personal choices of those experiencing homelessness themselves, saying it is bad decisions, substance abuse or a lack of work ethic that led to a lack of permanent housing.

This simply isn’t true. There are other unfounded beliefs about this population that make it exceptionally challenging to advance effective policies to end homelessness. Let’s debunk some of the most common myths about our unhoused neighbors.

MYTH 1: The majority of the unhoused population abuse drugs and alcohol.

FACT: The rate of substance abuse among the unhoused population is similar to rates of abuse in the broader population. Substance abuse is rarely the sole cause of homelessness and is more often a symptom of it.

MYTH 2: Most people experiencing homelessness have a mental health disorder.

FACT: While rates of homelessness for people with severe mental health disorders is high, most Americans with these disorders do not experience homelessness. This demonstrates that simply having mental health issues does not cause homelessness. Studies have found that only 25-30% of unhoused individuals have a severe mental health disorder.

MYTH 3: People who are unhoused are dangerous and violent.

FACT: Not having a home doesn’t make someone more likely to commit a crime. Statistically, people experiencing homelessness are far more likely to be victims of violent crimes. Unhoused people are often targeted for their vulnerability, and this vulnerability is further exacerbated by media coverage that promotes this myth of violence as well as fear and suspicion.  

MYTH 4: Bad choices led to their homelessness.

FACT: The descent into homelessness is rarely the direct result of individual choices. For many, health issues, an accident, losing a job, or unmanageable debt leads to eviction and subsequent homelessness. More of us are only one crisis away from entering this cycle than we think.

MYTH 5: People who are unhoused are also unemployed; they just need to get a job.

FACT: A significant portion of unhoused people do have jobs; they just cannot afford to pay rent. Additionally, significant hurdles exist for those who are trying to find work, including applying to a job without a permanent address, clean clothes, and the stigma of being homeless, which makes them less desirable candidates in a competitive job market.
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