Why are homeless people homeless?

This question has been on my mind for quite awhile and I got reminded of it by a thread in the pit.

I was not born and brought up in this part of the world and so my knowledge about the vagaries of life here is limited. I would like to know though, why there are homeless people in the US and Canada when there is government funded social security. Is it not true that people who do not have money can get support from the government so that their basic needs of food and shelter can be met? Isn’t that the purpose of social security?

Why do people sleep on the streets on cardboards when the government is supposed to provide for shelter? Why do they beg when food is available to them by the government?

Someone told me that it is because the government strives to find suitable jobs for these people but these guys do not want to work and prefer to live the life rather than work and make a living. I somehow can’t believe that to be applicable universally.

So what is the deal here?

I think you have the wrong idea of social security, it is not the governments purpose to provide food or shelter to those that do not have them.

Once you understand that, its probably not a stretch to figure out why there are homeless.

The majority of homeless people who do not avail themselves of social services are mentally ill or drug/alcohol addicts, or both.

We generally don’t lock up the crazies unless there is compelling proof that they are an immediate danger to themselves or others. Even if a mentally ill person wants treatment, there’s not a huge amount of resources dedicated to providing free treatment and drugs to uninsured people who aren’t dangerous.

I think the majority of your assumptions are incorrect.

Who do you mean by “these guys”? It’s an honest question. Because a huge chunk of the homeless are one-time homeless, and are quickly back on their feet, and you never see them (maybe they lost their job, maybe someone in the family needed medical assistance too costly to maintain their residence, maybe they were evicted, etc.). Many of those who are homeless that don’t fall under that category are single mothers with children, and I think you can guess why many of them may not be able to get a full time job.

If by “these guys” you actually mean the people you see on the street, you need to know that this is an incredibly small representation of all homeless (usually less than 10%). Most gov’t agencies use the term “chronically homeless” to describe them - a definition that assumes a number of qualifications. Many of these are afflicted with mental disorders, AIDS, drug addiction, etc. that prevent them from “just getting a job” (not your words, I know - but someone’s bound to say it).

I have met or known hundreds of past or present homeless people. We even have some on this board. It isn’t much about money or even shelter. Substance abuse or severe mental issues can cause a person to become completely dysfunctional and bounce from place to place or live on the street. There aren’t many other alternatives besides looking them up long-term in a psychiatric ward or prison and we don’t do that much these days unless there are other offenses involved.

The Boston area has a celebrity homeless person known as the Chili Guy which is humorous but it illustrates that there are just some people out there that live in a different reality and there isn’t necessarily anything anyone can do to fix it completely.

Listen to Soundboard entry #19 for example:


Correct. Back in the old days, individuals suffering from psychosis were mostly warehoused in institutions. Then neuroleptic drugs (e.g., Haldol) came along, and for the first time it was possible, in may cases, to treat the symptoms of psychosis with sufficient effectiveness to allow the person to function. So a plan was formulated to close the institutions and replace them with community services that would help the former inmates to transition back into society. What actually happened, basically, was that the institutions were closed, but the envisioned community services didn’t materialize. And unfortunately, most psychotics don’t realize they’re psychotic, so they don’t really feel like complying when somebody asks them to take a pill.

Or if they commit a crime, no matter how minor. Jails: The new warehouses for the mentally ill!

In California, at least, there is no government help for an able-bodied adult with no dependents. There are food banks, free clinics, shelters and other services, but it takes some work to find them. A single broke person cannot receive food stamps, welfare, or health care from the government.

Most of the crazy-drug addict homeless don’t have it together enough to find the services they need. And health care- particularly mental health care and drug rehab- may not be possible. The kinds of drug rehab clinics that homeless people can go to have months long waiting lists.

Social Security is not available to most people who are not disabled and of working age. You can’t just say, “Think I’ll stop working and start pulling Social Security!” You must be a certain age to draw SS, or you must be disabled (SSDI) or you must have other circumstances such that entitle you to SS (like you are a minor whose parent has died).

The government will support people who do not have enough money through programs like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly Food Stamps) and subsidized housing programs (HUD), but you must demonstrate need and there is still an expectation that you will be working or showing why you can’t. Other social services, such as shelters and food kitchens, are aimed more specifically towards the truly homeless, but most of them are run by private agencies, often religious (like the Salvation Army or the local Gospel Mission).

As others have said, many homeless Americans have substance abuse or mental health problems or both. They do not do well in filling out forms and taking direction. They often cannot hold down employment (and often do not want to), and will find themselves disqualified for government social services due to an inability or failure to comply with the necessary regulations.

No. Social Security is a safety net for persons unable to work to support themselves due to age – too old or too young – or disability.

Lots of reasons: Because they are mentally ill or addicted, and they cannot or will not comply with the rules of the shelters. (No disruptive behavior; no drugs.) Because they shelters are full. Because the shelters are stigmatizing. Because the shelters are gender-segregated, so you can’t stay with your SO or all your kids. Because sometimes the shelters are dangerous and often other people steal your stuff. The government by and large does not provide free meals. Missions and charities sometimes do, but they have their own rules, their own stigmas, and often have limited hours of service.

It’s not universally applicable. The generalization of the “voluntarily homeless” disregards the fact that sometimes people are not just unwilling, but unable, to meet even basic requirements for services due to mental illness or serious addiction. If you know that if you go the shelter you’ll be locked in for the night, and you’re worried that your high will wear off about 4 a.m., leaving you sick and out of your mind with the need for drugs, so you decide not to go – was that a “voluntary” decision or not? If they kick you out of the shelter because you shout and scare other residents due to a mental illness – was the action that got you ejected “voluntary” or not?

The deal is that the U.S. actually does very well, compared to much of the world, in providing through public and private means necessary social services for those who have the minimum skills to take advantage of them. Those who can’t conform their behavior to even that minimum extent may well be persistently homeless.

The best partial solution is better community-based substance abuse and mental health services at no or low cost. But historically there is relatively little support for such widespread services, and they are even more difficult to advocate for in this economy.

There are probably as many answers as there are homeless people, but I was intrigued by this story that I first heard on CBC Radio a couple of months ago. Traumatic brain injury common among homeless, study finds. I’m keeping an eye open for further studies.

Also, some homeless people would rather remain on the street than go to a homeless shelter because of a fear of contracting lice, bedbugs, being victimized by fellow patrons of the shelter, etc., etc. They are extremely vulnerable members of our society, and many have learned to be wary even of people who are trying to help.

I’ve never tried to apply for them, but this page at the CA dept. of Social Services doesn’t mention anything about needing dependents to qualify.

From my time in a homeless shelter:

We had a number of people who regularly availed themselves of our meal and shower services, but chose to live on the street or down by the river rather than move into the shelter. One man, Ed, has lived for years in a little camp by the river. He would come into the shelter several times a week to shower, and partook of all three meals nearly every day. He was also always willing to help out with chores when asked. But he consistently turned down invitations to move into the shelter full-time (he would occasionally stay in the dorm on a short-term basis if the winter got bitterly cold, but as soon as it was “warm” enough for him he’d move right back to his camp site). Ed was intelligent, well-spoken, well-read, and polite. But his problem was alcohol. He didn’t want to give it up, which he would have to do in order to live in the shelter. He was a Vietnam vet, and also a devout Catholic. Through talking with Ed over the course of eight years, I learned he had simply never been able to reconcile his Catholic upbringing with the things he’d had to do in 'Nam. He felt that his war actions were unforgivable, which is very emotionally painful for him, and so he continues to use alcohol to dull that pain. He acknowledges the rules of the shelter and doesn’t come around if he’s been drinking, and since he’s unwilling/unable to stop drinking, he politely declines offers to move in full-time.

I saw any number of guys who would manage to get hooked up with government help, including rent money, (or maybe they’d find a job) and then screw it up. Basically they’d stay sober/drug-free so they could live in the shelter, then as soon as they’d get the gov’t money they’d move into a low-rent apartment in town. Often within a month or two, they’d be back on the drugs or booze, spending their rent money on chemicals, and be right back on the street. Eventually they’d clean up so that they could move back into the shelter, and start the whole process over again - lather, rinse, repeat. These were some of the most frustrating and difficult-to-help people. The staff understood that helping these people was not a matter of getting them back on their feet as quickly as possible. “Quick” is not a good thing in cases like that. Many times, depending on the individual, if they obtained gov’t help or found a job they were encouraged to remain in the shelter in order to keep them in the supervised, clean & sober environment until they were truly prepared to get out on their own again and could remain clean & sober without constant supervision. Unfortunately, many of them would stay clean for 3-4 months in the shelter, believe themselves “cured”, and bop on out of there only to come crashing back down a couple months later.

Believe it or not, there are also some homeless people who use being broke and homeless as their way of staying clean & sober. These guys are willing and able to work (and are often the most cheerfully helpful guys in the shelter), but they’ve found they can’t trust themselves to not spend their money on drugs or alcohol. So they voluntarily stay broke and sober.

That is very interesting. In an odd way, it is actually rather admirable.

Very few people wake up and find themselves and their possessions on the street with no prior warning.

It takes up about three months to evict someone for non-payment of rent. We have to file papers, go to court, file more papers, wait for those papers to hit the sheriff, have the sheriff post the notice, and wait three days. At any time during that process, a person can come to us and pay the rent, go to court and get a stay, or apply to Social Services for emergency aid. If they don’t do anything to correct the situation in three months, that’s their problem.

I don’t know anything at all about “Ed” beyond what you’ve told me. It may be that everything happened exactly as he said.

On the other hand, some years back, journalist James Fallows did a piece on the homeless of Washington DC. Fallows found that, while a HUGE percentage of the homeless claimed to have been veterans (especially of the Viet Nam war), if he asked them where they’d served or what unit they’d belonged to, they’d usually give ridiculously implausible answers (almost like Eddie Murphy in “Trading Places” ).

Here in Scandinavia, the promised land of social security, where literally no-one has to lead a homeless existence (an apartment and money to live a decent, humble life is allotted to anyone), there still are hundreds of homeless men and women, much for the reasons stated above.

However, many people do voluntarily move out when they can no longer pay rent because they don’t want the legal trouble, hassle, blotted record etc. I’ve moved out of several apartments because the rent and my income weren’t compatible. And I would have kept moving down right till I got to the streets if thats what it took. The idea of “I’m just going to not pay rent and stay here till the police force me out” isn’t one I (or most decent people) would ever have.

We had a lockout this month where the woman did not pay her rent for four months. When we took her to court, she got two stays, and tried to get us to agree to accept welfare, telling them that only her and her son were living in the apartment. Since we knew that wasn’t true and did not want to get sucked into a case of welfare fraud, we refused and notified welfare of what was going on.

After we did everything by the books and got her locked up, the family broke the lock and went back into the apartment. She now has a criminal record, ha ha ha!

Asking “why are homeless people homeless” is like asking “why are violent people violent”. There are a lot of stories out there, and while certainly there are some commonalities there is not a “one size fits all” explanation.
I’ve been homeless.

In 1984, I had a job, low-paying but sufficient for me to pay the rent on my little apartment in New Mexico and buy food and gasoline, etc. I was also at that time 25 years old, a chronic misfit socially, had only a High School diploma (having dropped out or been pushed out of college on two attempts at a university education), and I had a history of having major problems finding and keeping a job, current job beside the point. Some of the getting / keeping jobs problem was interwoven with the being-a-misfit problem. Oh, and the being-a-misfit problem was manifested, among other ways, by me having a psychiatric track record.

In the late summer of that year, the boss started having me clock out early; and then saying “you dont need to come in tomorrow, things are light”; so my hours were shrinking. I did the math and realized if I paid next month’s rent it would probably be the last month I’d be able to afford to do so. Coincidentally, my tax refund came in so I had a one-shot-deal check to add to my net worth, and so I gave notice and took my money and converted it to traveler’s checks and stuffed clothes and other things into a backpack and emigrated to New York City. When you don’t fit in, a big city is attractive because you’ll be able to find others like yourself, maybe entire side of town populated with them.

I had some contact people who had said “if you ever come to New York look me up” but by and large I did not “land” well; I had my backpack stolen, and although I got my travelers’ checks replaced, I set out each day to find an unfurnished room to rent but New York was having a low-income housing crisis and I had not done my homework and therefore night after night had nowhere to sleep. Applied to jobs frenetically, and there were employment agencies all along 14th street back then and I was sent to a couple of stay-away institutions to work either in the kitchen as kitchen help or as an aide / attendant to seniors, but it kept going awry. I lost one job my first day at a snooty boys’ boarding school via opening a door in search of a wastebasket into which to toss a used tissue, and walked in on a board meeting. Lost one job on about the third day when the operator of a senior center’s treatment of some low-paying 86 etc year old residents put some contemptuous expression on my face which he caught.

Eventually the money ran out and I moved from “job-seeking / room-seeking guy with money in pocket who just happens to have no home yet” to no-kidding homeless person.
Ask someone else who has been there and you’ll hear a different story. Don’t try to attribute it all to ‘mental illness’, or for that matter to the scarcity of low-income housing or the outsourcing of jobs or lack of initiative to get out or insufficient educational opportunities, or any other single cause. There are some large-scale factors that are major contributors to the phenomenon, but it’s often a confluence of circumstances.

As you can see, my situation could be blithely categorized & dismissed as “another homeless mentally ill person”. But sweeping me up and shooting me up with Prolixin would not have been a solution to my problem. (School was. I got into college, and, via opting for the college dorms, out of the homeless-shelter system, and got my BA and MA and MSW and eventually became a tax-paying self-sufficient formerly homeless gainfully employed schizophrenic dude. Of course I am now jobless as many of us are and am therefore on a trajectory that could land me on the streets once again).

In Ed’s case, at least, it was true. He had the papers to prove it (I think he was even an officer), and was receiving some kind of Vietnam veteran’s benefits, which he used to buy his booze (as far as I know he didn’t panhandle).

But I know what you’re saying. One day I was riding in the shelter’s van on a trip to the grocery store (I worked in the shelter’s kitchen) to pick up some needed items, and we spotted a guy standing near the parking lot entrance holding a sign with something like “Homeless Vietnam Veteran - Please Help!” on it. He was dressed in camo fatigues and everything. It was also plain that unless he simply hadn’t aged, he wasn’t much older than me, and I was eight years old when we withdrew from 'Nam :rolleyes: If that guy had been smart his sign would have said “Gulf War Veteran”. He (and I) was the right age for that. Maybe he couldn’t find any desert camo at the Army Surplus store.

That was how I moved out of my apartment and into the shelter. In my 20s I got myself in arrears on my debts (student loans and credit cards), mainly due to preferring to spend my money on beer rather than pay my bills. I’d pay my rent, and then spend the rest of my paycheck on beer. About a year and a half after I quit drinking, all those bad debts started to catch up with me and a couple wage garnishments left me with no money for rent (actually I had enough to pay either the rent or the electric bill, but I figured one was no good without the other). So I just packed up and moved out. I had the good fortune that my stepfather was the Director of the local men’s shelter, so I was able to just move straight in there without needing to jump through too many hoops.