The next time you pass a homeless person on the street, try to envisage what really went wrong and why they ended up there. Dismissing all these people as failures, drop outs and drug addicts is grossly misleading. It is time to reflect on the real reasons for homelessness and look at individual stories to get a more rounded picture. Here are some facts and stories to help us do just that.
1. They are not all victims of poverty.
The main cause of homelessness in both the USA and the UK is poverty. But the homeless are not all drop-outs or professional failures. Did you know that almost 1 in 10 homeless persons in the USA are veterans? They had difficulties in adjusting to civilian life, had mental health problems or were suffering from PTSD. Los Angeles has the highest number of homeless veterans, now estimated at 6,300. Many US cities are now committed to ending homelessness and have ambitious projects to do so.
2. They may be female veterans who are at increased risk.
You may be shocked to know that the number of female veterans has actually doubled in the last few years, making them the fastest growing group of homeless in the USA. It is also disturbing to note that 1 in 5 women soldiers suffered sexual harassment or assault while serving the nation. The Department of Veterans Affairs now says that these women are four times more likely to end up with PTSD and/or with alcohol and drug addiction. The next homeless woman you see may have fought for your freedom and security.
3. They may be escaping war, disease and death.
Many homeless people have escaped catastrophes which are beyond our imagination. Take the story of Jimmy Thoronka from Sierra Leone who is now under arrest. He was a champion sprinter who took part in the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow last July. But just before he was due to return, he learned that his adoptive family had all died from Ebola. His own parents had been killed in a civil war some years ago. He decided to stay in Britain but his money and passport were stolen. He was just another homeless person who has become emaciated and ill, after a very hard winter on the streets of London. He will probably be deported although a crowd fund campaign has collected £10,000 which may go to securing a better future for him. There have, fortunately, been countless offers of help, accommodation and food. Jimmy is probably one of the luckier homeless people in the UK.
4. They may be homeless children.
We sometimes associate homelessness with the adult population. But the statistics tell another, rather harrowing story. Of the 600,000 homeless people on the USA streets every night, up to 25% of them are children or teenagers. They may be camping out in cars, parks, or other risky areas. The National Center for Homeless Education (NCHE) estimates that there are about 1 million homeless children who are attending public schools. This figure includes those waiting for adoption or who are in transitional accommodation which is why it is such a high figure.
5. They may be victims of domestic violence.
We sometimes think that many homeless women are on the streets because they have lost their job, partners or housing. But the statistics tell a different story. The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NCCHP) calculates that 90% of all homeless women are there as a result of domestic violence. It is heartbreaking to think that homelessness may be the only alternative when escaping from physical and sexual abuse.
6. They may be on the streets because of climate change.
Like it or not, climate change is responsible for some major natural disasters. The NASA website provides us with some startling figures for weather related disasters worldwide caused by global warming. The figures point to an increasing number of deadly storms. Inevitably, this results in staggering numbers of homeless people.
7. They may not have been able to pay their rent.
We sometimes imagine that homeless people made a choice to abandon everything and live a carefree life. In many cases, nothing could be further from the truth. It is when people on lower incomes have to fork out more than half their salary for renting miserable accommodation that financial disaster looms. This is another reason why so many people are homeless today. The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty estimates that the US needs 7 million low cost accommodation units to remedy this housing crisis.
8. They may be regarded as criminals in some states.
You might think that a homeless person would be assisted by the state or some local authorities. The reality is totally different. In some US states, authorities are cracking down on begging, homelessness, and loitering by making these criminal offences. According to one report, at least 18% of US cities now regard sleeping in the open as a crime. This number is increasing.
9. They may be desperately wanting to get back into society.
Perhaps we think that homeless people never really want or wanted to work. In many cases, this is not true as many people sought jobs without success and were forced into poverty. The story of Colin in London is a heartening one. He went from travelling the world as a freelance photographer to ending up with 56 p and a few clothes, including a top hat! He was determined not to look like a homeless person and sneaked into hotels to wash himself. Wearing a top hat certainly helped! Being clean helped him to maintain his morale. With help from a street outreach team, he was helped with a subsidy to find accommodation. He began to work in Spitalfields Market and soon he was running his own stall selling veteran clothing, including top hats, of course!
10. They may be talented people.
There is so much stigma attached to the homeless that it is difficult to overcome it. One campaign has started to show homeless people with placards revealing their many talents, skills and handicaps. Speaking several languages, biology graduates, recovering from open heart surgery, being born deaf, the range of stories is surprising. The next homeless person you meet may not have a placard telling you their life story, but why not give them the benefit of the doubt?
Featured photo credit: Homeless man on the street is being cold via shutterstock.com