When you think about homelessness, what image first comes to mind?
People experiencing homelessness have widely varied experiences, yet popular media depicts a single story of homelessness. The community of those experiencing homelessness is misrepresented and viewed as irresponsible, lazy, and dangerous. These portrayals form powerful assumptions that guide how the general public interacts with and reacts to homelessness. Stigmatizing an already marginalized community, misconceptions about homelessness allow society at large to ignore and dehumanize the people experiencing it. With over half a million people experiencing homelessness on a given night in the United States (a likely vast undercount), it continues to be imperative to tear down stigmas and stereotypes and intervene to end this epidemic.
Misconception #1: The most common misconception surrounding people experiencing homelessness is that their experience is a result of their own choices. Societal views on homelessness incorrectly assume one’s experience is an inevitable consequence of poor decision-making.
This is a highly harmful misconception—it implies that those experiencing homelessness aren’t worthy of support, prompting the general public to normalize discrimination and exclusion when interacting with them. People experiencing homelessness in turn internalize the blame placed upon them, exacerbating the negative effects of stigma on their self-esteem and well-being.
This misconception is also blatantly incorrect. Many people experience homelessness for reasons that are not within their control, including loss of job from economic downturn, car troubles, medical conditions or disabilities, family neglect or abuse, or family emergencies. Further economic issues, such as the lack of affordable housing, poverty, lack of employment opportunities, and low wages also contribute to homelessness. In the aftermath of COVID-19, with unique public health and economic challenges plaguing the general public, unexpected expenses left an overwhelming amount of individuals vulnerable to housing insecurity. The descent into homelessness usually tends to emerge from a culmination of economic circumstances and systemic barriers that make it difficult for individuals to pull themselves out on their own. Yet this misconception about homelessness limits the extent to which society supports their recovery, prompting a cycle of homelessness to form.
Misconception #2: The second most common misconception about people experiencing homelessness presupposes that they don’t want to work. Similar assumptions argue that people experiencing homelessness are lazy and raise the question: why can’t they “just get a job?”
In reality, getting a job is a challenge for most people these days—not only people experiencing homelessness. Yet it is estimated that about 43 percent of people experiencing homelessness are employed. Most of these individuals work minimum-wage jobs that barely cover basic living expenses. Many others are underemployed, meaning the hours they are assigned are too few to fund necessary expenses, like housing and bills. People experiencing homelessness still work, but wages and/or hours are insufficient for them to secure stable housing. This finding is especially relevant given recent rises in the cost of living all around the United States, while wages remain stagnant.
Moreover, those experiencing homelessness who are unemployed cannot easily obtain and maintain a job. People experiencing homelessness face many barriers to employment; address requirements, gaps in education and employment history, criminal charges for everyday necessities, lack of access to certain technologies, and systemic biases prevent or delay the process of achieving financial security and thus housing security. People experiencing homelessness are expected to maintain a job without steady access to a place to bathe, wash their clothes, or get nutritious food. The misconception that people experiencing homelessness don’t want to work disregards these challenges, causing negative perceptions about homelessness and employment.
Misconception #3: Have you ever heard a friend say that they “look homeless” when describing their disheveled appearance? The underlying misconception is that people experiencing housing insecurity all look a certain way.
In reality, one's appearance and condition are entirely independent of one another. The image that the media proliferates refers to those experiencing unsheltered homelessness. Manifesting a stereotype and misrepresentation of the population as a whole, however, because it does not take into account hidden homelessness. Hidden homelessness describes the condition of individuals who temporarily live with friends or relatives, or in their car, without a stable home. Due to generational poverty, family trauma, and stigma, youth experience hidden homelessness at disproportionately higher rates than adults. Unfortunately, the result is that these youth “blend in” and receive less support, resources, and empathy. Moreover, many times, eligibility requirements exclude them from assistance and housing services needed to break their cycle of homelessness. These individuals are also undercounted in national statistics on homelessness, which harms our ability to fully understand its scope, preventing optimally effective political action.
There is not a single look for homelessness. Your coworker, your classmate, or the person riding the train next to you every day could all be experiencing this struggle; and using language that promotes stereotypes can lead to implicit biases toward people experiencing homelessness. Implicit biases are incredibly harmful because they affect employment and educational opportunities, and they can be challenging to unlearn.
Misconception #4: The general public usually stays away from people experiencing homelessness, claiming they are dangerous and violent.
People who are facing housing insecurity are not more likely to break the law than a housed person…with one exception. Many cities across the United States impose anti-camping laws, intended to keep homelessness out of view. The laws vary by city and state, but tend to prohibit sitting, sleeping, storing property, and/or living within publicly-owned property. In this manner, the system operates to encourage interaction between people experiencing homelessness and the justice system; living outside, these people can confront citations or arrests for low-level offenses like loitering or sleeping in parks. Such frequent interactions with the justice system will trap people in a homelessness-jail cycle, rotating them in and out of jails and emergency public services like shelters, emergency rooms, and detox facilities. This cycle does nothing to help people access the housing and services they actually need, such as mental health or substance use treatment. All the while, this cycle only worsens the dangerous stereotypes perpetuated by the general public.
Tangentially, research has found that people experiencing homelessness are more likely to be victims of transgressions than their perpetrators. A study on adults experiencing homelessness in San Francisco found that one-third of cis-women, one-quarter of cis-men, and almost 40% of transgender participants experienced physical or sexual assault in the prior year. In addition, a study on women experiencing homelessness found that 18% had experienced sexual violence within the past six months. In 2019, California researchers followed participants facing housing insecurity for years and found that the violence persisted throughout their period of housing insecurity. Yet when people became housed, their risk of being attacked dropped by half.
Like most socioeconomic issues, homelessness is a complex problem with no simple solutions. Successfully understanding homelessness requires a deep dive into the nature of this issue, its extent, and its specific impacts on our communities. It is crucial to also examine the narratives and beliefs that surround homelessness, as these views typically indicate the manner in which our society intervenes, subconsciously or consciously. Misinformation and misconceptions surrounding this condition can dehumanize people experiencing homelessness and prevent effective policy changes to curb the problem.
What can you do to help?
Educate yourself! The more you learn about homelessness and how it is connected to the education, health care, foster care, and criminal justice systems, the better understanding you have to try and help end this problem.
Advocate for increased local, state, and federal funding to create job opportunities for people disconnected from school or work.
Reflect on biases you or your institution might hold about people experiencing homelessness and employment. Challenge stigmas and misconceptions that you may hear in your networks and encourage people to do more research.
Do not invalidate the experiences of others or judge others based on their appearance, especially in the context of homelessness.
Approaching homelessness with empathy and understanding can help our community stand together and innovate, imagining new ways to end homelessness. Grounding interactions in humanity and kindness will allow people to look past the negative narratives that surround this population. Moving forward, when you think and talk about homelessness, reflect on these misconceptions and make the effort to dismantle them. Only then can initiatives to end homelessness be supported and effectively implemented.