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Myths about the homeless

April 01, 2011 | Bangor Daily News

There are many myths and stereotypes about the "homeless". Myths and stereotypes come about due to misconceptions born of ignorance, overgeneralizations from a single experience, and poor access to the real facts. Since the homeless population is often called "the invisible population," it is understandable why these myths and stereotypes develop and why they persist. However, myths and stereotypes can be challenged by facts and broken down by those willing to take a fresh look at what they thought they knew. The following are some common homelessness myths, along with the facts that challenge them.

Myth 1: Homeless People Are Taking Advantage Of The System.

This myth assumes that all the homeless are on the dole, yet in fact, a relatively small percentage of homeless people receive government assistance. The largest part of government assistance includes either disability benefits in the form of Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, or welfare benefits in the form of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or TANF. What are the facts? Although over 40 percent of homeless persons are eligible for disability benefits, only 11 percent actually receive them. Most homeless families are eligible for welfare benefits but only 52 percent of them receive them. Moreover, when individuals do receive benefits, they rarely receive enough to afford housing. The current maximum TANF benefit for a single mother of two is 29 percent below federal poverty level. In 1998 a person on SSI had to spend an average of 69 percent of their monthly income just to rent a one-bedroom apartment.

Myth 2: Building housing or increasing services brings homeless people to the city (or Maine is a magnet state for the homeless):

This statement is a broad generalization that assumes only one reason why a homeless person may have arrived in the Bangor area. However, the reason some homeless persons move to new areas may be because they are searching for work, have family in the area, or have other reasons not related to services. A 1997 national study found that 75 percent of homeless people are still living in the city in which they became homeless. # In other words, these people had not come to the city "as a homeless person.

Yet it is rumored that the homeless are sent to Bangor specifically because of the housing or because of the availability of services found here. According to Michael Andrick, director of the Hope House shelter in Bangor, however, the vast majority of residents are from Maine.

Recent research tells us that fewer than 1 percent of all 2010 recipients of public benefits came to Maine from another state. From 2008 through July 2010, the number of aid recipients who left Maine each month was double the number who moved to Maine.

Mark Swan who runs the Preble Street Resource Center for the homeless in Portland has stated that those who do come from another state have a connection to Maine, or a family member, or a reason to be there other than services. He notes that about one third are from Portland, one third are from other places in Maine, and the rest have come from out of state. The number from out of state are seen as deceiving because some were born in Maine, left and lived in other states, and then came back to Maine years later and ended up being homeless.

Thomas McLaughlin from the University of New England has been has been compiling data for six years on this very subject. Of those that do come to Portland from other states, most of them come to Portland to find work. Many travel between Portland and Florida for seasonal jobs. The number of people that are receiving services that move out is almost double or triple than those people moving in. Also of note is that of the hundreds of people McLaughlin has researched, none have said they are here for social service benefits or to have someone find them a place to stay. Swan of Preble Street states the myth of Maine being a magnet for people in need of services is "the most pervasive myth that social services have to deal with, not only in Maine but all over the country.

Myth 3: Homeless people are different that I am. I could never become homeless.

It is easy to separate yourself from a population if you don’t see them. If they are invisible, the homeless are easy to ignore. The fact is that one bad circumstance or series of unlucky or unfortunate events can lead to homelessness. When you listen to the stories of the homeless, you soon realize that any one of us could become homeless in this society. Moreover, homelessness affects every area of the population. Many of the homeless are still working, but without a living wage they can’t afford rent. Even being educated is not a guarantee against becoming homeless. People with graduate degrees can and have become homeless. Homelessness does not discriminate. To learn more, go to http://invisiblepeople.tv/blog/ for some interviews with homeless individuals and hear their stories.

Looking at recent Maine data as provided by the non-profit Maine Equal Justice Partners, over 42,000 low-income households that rent pay more than half of their income towards housing costs. Many Maine families are at risk of losing their home. In the first eight months of 2010, there were 2,710 new foreclosure filings on Maine homes, with 271 new filings in August alone.

Myth 4: Nothing can be done.

There are real solutions and strategies for ending homelessness and many organizations are on the front lines in these efforts. As of last month, 7629 of the most vulnerable people who are homeless have been housed by Common Ground’s "100,000 Homes" and "Hospital to Home" campaigns. These national programs are addressing issues that present barriers to housing people. The majority of people helped in this way are maintaining their status as being housed chronically.

Myth 5: People choose or want to be homeless

According to the National Coalition to End Homelessness, the top five reasons of homelessness are: 1) lack of affordable housing, 2) lack of a living wage, 3) domestic violence, 4) medical bankruptcy, and 5) mental illness. None of these reasons are related to choice! They can happen to anyone.

Homeless people do not want to remain homeless. Some waiting for months and struggling with regulatory barrier after regulatory barrier lose hope. The "100,000 Homes Campaign" found that when people receive housing vouchers without red tape, they don’t turn down the opportunity to move into an apartment.

The solution to the problem of homelessness is to increase permanent housing, as is done with the "Housing First" model. With "Housing First", housing is provided before treatment services, regardless of substance abuse or mental health issues, and then treatment is added. According to Sam Tsemberis of Pathways to Housing, "Some people think when you give housing away that you’re actually enabling people as opposed to helping them get better. Our experience has been that the offer of housing first, and then treatment, actually has more effective results in reducing addiction and mental health symptoms, than trying to do it the other way. The other way works for some people, but it hasn’t worked for the people who are chronically homeless.

Myth #6: Homeless people are criminals.

Targeting this population as a group of individuals to be feared has no basis in fact. Homeless people are more likely to be victims of crimes (including hate crimes) than to become criminals. In fact from 1999-2010 there were a total of 1,074 reported acts of violence against the homeless population that resulted in 291 deaths. The crimes that the homeless do commit tend to be related to non-violent crimes, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless.

For every homeless person who commits an act of violence there are many peaceful homeless individuals just trying to survive and protect themselves from being harmed. For example, a study done by Johns Hopkins University found in reviewing arrest records in Baltimore that although homeless people were more likely to commit non-violent and nondestructive crimes, they were actually less likely to commit crimes against person or property. They found that for persons who were not homeless, 35 percent of crimes were crimes against property or person. For homeless individuals, on the other hand, only 25 percent of crimes committed were against person or property.

Myth#7: Helping the homeless infantalizes them or is a form of inappropriate "rescuing."

There is a big difference between helping the homeless and rescuing them. Stephen King said in a speech to Vassar College in 2001: "My own philosophy-partly formed as a young college graduate without a job waiting in line to get donated commodities for the kids-is by all means give a man a pole and teach him to fish, but people learn better with full bellies. Why not give him a fish to get started?’

Imagine being homeless with no resources at hand. You are left with a few belongings, if they are not stolen. You probably don’t have a car to go around looking for apartments or jobs. You are living at a homeless shelter. You apply for a job, but your only address is the shelter, and they recognize the address immediately. You obtain a "Trac Phone", but perhaps the shelter where you are staying limits the use of phones. Even if you could get access to a computer, your access may be severely limited. If you go to the public library to get on line, you may only stay on-line for one hour to apply for jobs that only have online applications. Clearly, the obstacles are such that even being a college graduate or someone with a significant skill set, you may not be able to get a job.

There is a big difference between helping someone and rescuing. We have all received help at some point in our lives, even if we don’t realize it.

Myth 8: It’s cheaper to let people remain homeless rather than spend money on housing.

Data from the state of Maine that shows we receive significant cost savings when we house individuals. A study completed in 2009 titled " A Review of Costs Associated with the Second Year of Permanent Supportive Housing for Formerly Homeless Adults with Disabilities" studied both urban and rural Maine. They found after individuals were housed, there was 50 percent reduction in service costs during the second year of housing placement. Also found as a result of housing was a 46 percent reduction in health care costs, a 49 percent reduction in emergency room costs, an 87 percent reduction in costs for incarceration, and a 53 percent reduction in ambulance transportation. Rural Maine also had significant cost savings. There was a 37 percent cost savings in service costs, a 54 percent reduction in mental health costs, a 15 percent reduction in emergency room costs, and a 91 percent reduction in incarceration costs. For rural Maine this was a $2,751 per person cost avoidance.

An Illinois study in 2009 tracked 177 individuals two years before and two years after they moved into supportive housing. They found that once they are in supportive homes, the cost of public services incurred by residents – such as inpatient mental-health care, nursing homes, and criminal justice – decreased by 39 percent. This change in the use of public services yielded a total overall cost savings of more than $850,000, yielding an average savings of $2,400 per year for each resident.

For much more detailed information, and information on other studies that have been completed, please check out Housing California: Fact Sheet Effective Cost-saving solutions to housing "Why Supportive Housing Works" through "Housing California."

Myth #9: Homeless people are lazy.

Facts: Imagine sleeping in a room with 30 other people. Some are snoring; some might be hearing voices and talking out loud. You don’t know any of them. Your bed isn’t very comfortable and you might have heard rumors about bed bugs. How well are you going to sleep? Then you have to get up the next day at 6am after 2 to 3 hours of broken sleep. No sleeping is allowed during the day at the shelter. You may go to the library to snooze for a short period of time. You walk around town looking for something productive to do, but you are so tired you have a hard time focusing. Depending on where you live, you might have to be constantly on guard of being harmed by others, or having your belongings stolen etc. You might apply to some jobs, but because you look disheveled and tired during the interview, they don’t hire you. In addition to all these obstacles, you might develop more illnesses from living in a shelter. The claim that homeless people don’t work is another myth. Many do work, but the wages are not a ‘living wage’ and they do not make enough to pay rent. A study done in Chicago found that 39 percent of homeless people interviewed had worked for some time during the previous month.

Myth #10: We take care of our veterans; very few of the homeless population are veterans.

Military veterans are 50 percent more likely to become homeless than other Americans. Based on the annual point in time survey, Veterans constitute just under eight percent of the total U.S. population and they account for 12 percent of the total homeless population and 16 percent of homeless adults on any given night.

For more information on homelessness, here are a few websites that are helpful:

100,000 homes campaign: http://100khomes.org/

Invisible People: http://invisiblepeople.tv/blog/

Pathways to housing: http://www.pathwaystohousing.org/

Information on the Vulnerability Index: http://www.commonground.org/?page_id=789

National Coalition to end homelessness: http://www.endhomelessness.org/

Meridith Bolster is a licensed clinical social worker at Penobscot Community Health Care’s Summer Street Health Center in Bangor.