Stereotypes about homelessness in the U.S. abound, including the reasons for homelessness and the demographics of those who are homeless. While there are a multitude of causes, the following five facts highlight significant factors that many are unaware of and also put a new light on those who are most affected by this persistent epidemic.
1. Over one-third of homeless people are children.
In fact, the average age of a homeless person in the U.S. is nine years old. While a good portion of the homeless under 18 are homeless in tandem with their parents or a single parent, this is not always the case.
Many homeless teens are turned out by their parents for various reasons, including for coming out. In fact, 20 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, another major cause for homelessness among LGBTQ youth is fleeing sexual assault, for which they are at an increased risk, specifically twice before the age of 12.
For these LGBTQ teens on the street without a family or support system, they are 7.4 times more likely to be the victims of sexual violence than heterosexual youth. Sadly, over half of LGBTQ youth, 62 percent, commit suicide; heterosexual youth have a suicide rate of 29 percent.
2. About half of homeless women and children are fleeing domestic abuse.
When homelessness is a better option than staying home, you know there’s something wrong. In a 2005 study, domestic violence was the leading cause of homelessness among women and children in half of the cities examined. According to the 2013 Thurston County Homeless Point-in-Time Census Report, an issue specifically affecting those fleeing domestic abuse is the inability to stay with friends or family, for fear that their attackers will find out where they are. To these women and children, the street is their safest place.
3. Most people are homeless for less than two months.
In fact, two-thirds of homeless are off the street within two months according to a 2007 report by the National Symposium on Homelessness Research. What this reveals is that the stereotype that most of the homeless want or choose to be homeless, or that they are too lazy to pull themselves out of their situation, is not backed by reality.
4. Up to 25 percent of homeless people are employed.
The general public: “Get a job.”
About one-quarter of homeless people: “I already did.”
What this statistic shows is that getting a job is only part of the battle of getting off the streets. The cost of being homeless is staggering, as writer William Bonnie noted after suddenly finding himself homeless in 2009 after his roommate’s rent checks bounced. Even though he never went without full-time income during his period of homelessness, it took him months before he could save up enough money to get into a new place, citing the surprising costs of getting his basic needs met without a home.
Not only does it cost money to make food without a kitchen, find a shower without a bathroom or pass the time without access to things like electricity, it takes up a lot of time — time that could be spent finding a job. See: opportunity cost.
5. Many people become addicts after becoming homeless, not before.
A common-held belief is that most homeless people are drug addicts or alcoholics. The statistics don’t lie; in a 2003 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration study, it was found that 38 percent of homeless were alcoholics, and 26 percent were addicted to other substances. However, something that many people don’t realize is that addiction often follows as a result of the despair and hopelessness that comes with homelessness. The study also stated that homeless people often feel social pressure to begin doing drugs in order to be accepted within the homeless community.
These five facts show that the causes of homelessness are complex and that it’s erroneous to write them off as laziness, personal choice or even the unintended consequence of personal choice. Less than six percent in the U.S. are homeless by choice. The sooner the real-life roots of homelessness are recognized, the sooner real-life solutions can be formulated and put into place.
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Emilie Rensink writes about social justice, activism and civil liberties. She’s been interviewed by alternative journalist pioneers such as Ben Swann and Dan Dicks for her work as an international co-organizer and media facilitator for the March Against Monsanto in 2013 and for exposing GOP corruption as a Ron Paul delegate in 2012. Her work has appeared on WeAreChange.org, the Reason.com blog, PunkRockLibertarians.com and more.