Home Commentary Challenging the Myths of Homelessness with Compassion and Truth

Challenging the Myths of Homelessness with Compassion and Truth

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By Josiah Haken, CEO, City Relief

I have spent over a decade learning about the homelessness landscape and working directly with those who experience it. In 2024, we are currently witnessing a ‘perfect storm’ of turmoil, encompassing the repercussions of a global pandemic, economic downturn, inflation, racism, an influx of asylum seekers with no plan for intake, and a nationwide mental health crisis.

Those most affected by these challenges are the individuals City Relief serves. In the United States, there are over 650,000 people experiencing homelessness. This includes more than 100,000 individuals in New York City public shelters and 10,000 in New Jersey public shelters. There are also thousands more residing in warehouse-style multi-bed facilities that are unsuitable for housing, or living on the streets. Today and in subsequent articles, I’m going to be breaking down the four most common myths or lies about homelessness that we tend to believe in Western society.

  1. The lie that all homeless folks are lazy
  2. The lie that all homeless folks are dangerous
  3. The lie that all homeless folks are addicts
  4. The lie that all homeless folks are mentally ill

These lies are discussed more comprehensively in my book, Neighbors With No Doors: The Truth About Homelessness, and How You Can Make a Difference. Let’s take a birds eye view about the first lie that I think is responsible for our collective mentality of acquiescence when it comes to homelessness: that homelessness is a result of laziness.

You may not immediately connect the dots on this particular stereotype because we often sugarcoat this lie with cliches like, “Why don’t they just get a job?” Or, “Why don’t they go into McDonald’s and apply for a position instead of holding the door and begging for handouts from strangers as they walk in?” This is often the same perspective that scrutinizes those in financial distress for utilizing government assistance programs like SNAP benefits (Food Stamps) and Medicaid (government-funded health insurance for low-income individuals).

The biggest problem with this collective assumption is that it doesn’t factor in the reality that many unhoused folks are already employed, and many of them actually work multiple jobs and long hours but still do not earn enough money to afford rent, groceries, phone bills, and other essentials. The cost of living is just too high for people making minimum wage or close to it.

Another problem with this stereotype is that in order to apply for most employment opportunities, one must submit an application (which often presupposes a physical address), have a social security card, and government issued identification. These logistical hurdles are often disqualifying right out of the gate. Then to make matters worse, how is someone supposed to get a job if they can’t get to the job? Or if they don’t have the funds to dress appropriately for the job? I know when I first started working in restaurants and coffee shops, I had to bring my own slip-proof shoes. I met a guy on the street who said he was offered a job on a construction site but he wouldn’t be allowed on the property without his own hard hat and steel-toed boots.

Instead of asking ourselves why people experiencing homelessness are not achieving self-sustainability, we should be asking our homeless neighbors what roadblocks exist that stop them from accessing employment opportunities in the first place.

One of my favorite quotes is from a man named Father Gregory Boyle, the founder of an organization called Homeboy Industries. In his book, Tattoos on the Heart, he says:

“Here is what we seek: a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.”

My prayer for all of us is that we can see our homeless neighbors as the resilient and creative survivalists that they are instead of the “lazy” and incompetent providers that we tend to assume they should be.

Josiah Haken is the CEO of City Relief, a Greater NYC-based mobile outreach offering people experiencing poverty and homelessness hot meals, supplies, and connections to resources for housing, employment, and health care.