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Op-Ed: How stereotypes and social stigmas made my experience with homelessness even more difficult

This article was written by Kabrien Johnson, alumna of Breaktime, with an introduction written by Helen He.


“I feel like the hardest part of being homeless is the stereotype and standard that is set for being homeless. I can’t tell a job that I’m homeless because that won’t look good for hiring.”

This is a quote from Kabrien Johnson (“KJ”), a 19-year-old young adult who was part of Breaktime’s Double Impact Initiative program this past fall. She shared this statement with the Breaktime Blog in an interview last month, highlighting how the hardest part of experiencing homelessness for her was oftentimes not the homelessness itself, but rather the stereotypes and social stigmas surrounding it. KJ experienced homelessness starting from the age of 17 — but as of this month, January 2021, she is proud to share that she has found stable housing and a full-time job in Missouri.

In the piece below, KJ reflects on her experiences and some of the hurdles she faced as she transitioned out of homelessness. She writes about the stereotypes she faced, and how these false perceptions caused and exacerbated many of the challenges she experienced. Scroll down to read the Breaktime Blog’s first ever piece written by a program alumnus.

Stereotype 1: People think that it’s your fault if you are homeless.

One stereotype I feel like I faced during my time experiencing homelessness was the idea that I deserved to be in the living situation I was in. When discussing the matter of homelessness to other peers, you might get picked at for the reason of your situation. It mostly goes down as if they're blaming you for being homeless, or them feeling like they have reason to think that this type of lifestyle is what you deserve. They may act as if you should continue to be in that position without help, or these beliefs may give them an excuse to not give a helping hand even when they are able to. In this way, these stereotypes blaming people experiencing homelessness for their own situations closes doors for more opportunities to get back on your feet.

This stereotype is unfair because, like all things, life will happen, and the only real control we have is how we choose to continue to react after these events. Let's say there is a really bad storm one night causing one of the electric poles to fall in your yard, starting a wildfire over your house. As a result, you lose your house with all your valuables, forcing you to turn to living out of your car or a hotel. And to make things worse, finding a new place after this can be a lengthy process, which makes it even harder to get out of this cycle. In this case, it wasn't anyone's fault that you came to experience homelessness because the problem was created due to natural causes. I know many of my peers faced situations like these, becoming homeless as a result of things completely out of their own control or responsibility, so it’s unfair to assume that people in this situation deserve to be there.

The people I have come across who believe in this stereotype have made it challenging for me to find help, due to their idea of what was right or wrong for the reason behind me being homeless. This made me waste more time on proving to others that I deserved the help, instead of using that time and energy to actually further help myself. I would let people disrespect me and put me in unsafe living spaces because their idea was that I deserved to be treated like that and because in their eyes I was the one at fault.

I know many of my peers faced situations like these, becoming homeless as a result of things completely out of their own control or responsibility, so it’s unfair to assume that people in this situation deserve to be there.

Because I knew this was a common perception across people in society, I tried not to tell employers that I was homeless any time I applied for a job. Most job applications require some type of address to put down to see if you're able to travel, know how close you live to the job site, and/or record where to mail your pay subs too. Since I was homeless, though, I often had to go around asking if I could use someone else’s address for this job application since I didn’t have a place of my own or really anywhere permanent to stay. It got to points where I couldn’t apply for jobs because I was living in a hotel or just couldn’t lie on the application. This set me back a little in finding a job to get more on my feet. During interviews at times I would hesitate on telling them my previous work experience, in case they would call those places to see if I was reliable in showing up to work on time. This was a risk for me because, for some jobs I had while I was homeless, I sometimes would not be able to arrive on time because it was hard for me to find a ride or because I was staying temporarily with someone that lived too far from work. I was sometimes late not because I was unmotivated or unwilling to show up, but because I was physically unable to make it there. And now that I am no longer experiencing homelessness, I find that I can be much more stable with my job, and am proud to be a very consistent worker.

Stereotype 2: People think that the solution to overcoming homelessness is simple—as easy as just walking into a shelter.

Another stereotype that posed challenges for me was the assumption that going to any shelter would help me or that any homeless shelter is available to the homeless. I found that many people assume that, just because you can enter yourself into a shelter, the problem of being homeless will be an easy solution, like getting a shot to prevent the flu. They think these programs are just a walk in and out process for the situation, and that the only real problem to overcoming homelessness is just getting into any of the programs. I’ve even met some people who assume that the shelters have housing waiting for you for free almost without any real worries.

In reality, though, this was far from the truth. Like most things that are accessible through government assistance, all shelters have some type of requirement or verification needed in order to be admitted. These shelters will ask you demographic questions to get to know your placement in their programs, such as age, type of schooling you have gone through, and sometimes any causes of you leaving the last place you resided in. This gives shelters the option to not place you depending on what is being put down in the application process and what people are able to take into their type of care. As a report by the Continuums of Care to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated, there are around 18,471 people living without a home in Massachusetts every day. Other states with significantly high numbers include California, New York, and Florida. Due to the population of those needing housing being so high, shelters have limited ability and capacity to help all of these people. And even if someone is able to get in, they are often then placed on yet another long waiting list to be advanced to next steps of care.

To help combat this harmful stereotype, I believe that we need to better support the shelters in helping out those in need.

I myself have experienced many challenges as a result of this stereotype. For a while, these assumptions from the people around me led me to believe that it was true. But if you put yourself in any shelter with the idea that they’re going to help you right away just by walking in and telling them your situation, you’ll soon realize that it’s false. You might not be able to get in at all because you weren’t informed of all the paperwork you’d need to even apply, making yourself unprepared for what is required. This causes the process of finding a shelter to be longer, which gives more opportunity for others that were prepared to get more ahead of you on the waiting list. Some shelters may ask you to have a paper copy of your birth certificate on hand, which you may not have due to moving around a lot or just because you believed others who told you wouldn’t need anything to get in.

To help combat this harmful stereotype, I believe that we need to better support the shelters in helping out those in need. Most people don’t realize how helpful it is to donate your old clothes to shelters, for example, rather than throw them out — especially with work attire, which can allow people living in the shelters to have something nice to wear to job interviews. Also, most shelters are supported through our tax dollars that we pay to the government. Many people don’t realize how much their taxes can better help the communities around them and better support people with the things they need, like being able to buy house items for when a homeless person is on the path to finding stable housing. Having extra support just getting homeless people into shelters would also be very impactful.

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