Three myths about homelessness

One of my many frustrations about homelessness is that housed people don’t seem to understand the urgency and immediacy of it. Case workers’ casual attitude about it can cost you survival and safety. I can’t imagine they would treat their own situation the same way, if it were them. It’s a kind of negligence that’s hard to accept when you’re homeless.

When houseless people get a little help, they’ll usually relax for a minute, gain a little hope. But forward progress always seems to be as transient as the other aspects of our houseless lives. 

You might ask yourself, why would desperate people be critical? Saying no, questioning anything, asking for more or something different always seems to generate a response born out of fundamental misunderstandings about what it’s like to experience homelessness.

Myth number one: Some people just want to be homeless.

Nobody wants to be homeless. Nobody. 

Individual needs vary, but that’s it. People may not want to go to shelters because of poor conditions, crowds, sickness, lack of sleep, lack of safety, lack of autonomy, having half your stuff thrown away just to be accepted in, as well as a lack of electricity for proper heating or cooling with weather. Case work is an empty promise that no institution serving the homeless seems to fulfill. Basic needs, like sleep, are ignored. You will likely exit a shelter mentally and physically worse than when you arrived. 

If you are brave enough to exercise your free speech on any of these matters or others, there’s a high risk of generating an “incident.” This will promptly force you to exit, or be arrested, or deemed “uncooperative” and forced into a mental facility, sedated and drugged, most likely with courts and law enforcement pencil-whipping your compliance. This doesn’t happen because people are ungrateful or don’t know what’s best for them.

Myth number two: Homeless people are lazy. 

Every day of being homeless is work. You barely have time for anything else aside from tending to your survival. Being homeless and holding onto a traditional job, if you’re able to acquire one, is very difficult for a variety of reasons. Despite this, many homeless people are employed. It’s just not enough to lift you out of being homeless. I’ve personally held five jobs and several volunteer positions in a year and a half of homelessness. I also entered houselessness with significant savings from a job, and it didn’t keep me housed. 

The assumption is that if it doesn’t work out, something’s wrong with you, not the other way around. It should have worked out for me and my kids. 

That brings us to myth number three: Domestic violence is easy to escape and the system is fair. 

I left a violent partner with three kids and did the “right” thing by seeking help through the shelter system, where we were granted a restraining order. I had no history of substance abuse, nor criminal record. My financial history proves that even while under great personal strain at times, I managed, was independent, responsible and resilient. I networked and was creative, and organized with others. 

We were displaced in November 2020. By the end of May 2021, I was finishing up my eight-year-old’s school year of home and remote schooling. I had work lined up, a nice sliding scale home daycare for my two youngest, summer program options for my eight year old, a new community of friends for all of us and was able to look at housing options again for us. 

But the domestic violence system failed us. A variety of government shutdowns and system failures negatively impacted us. And domestic abuse is its own beast: Once you leave, the abuser will continue to pursue you. Not happy with the court rulings, mine persisted. 

The domestic violence shelter system is critical, because I don’t have the money to wage a legal fight and stay housed at the same time. I had no open Child Protective Services cases, and I’d never been found guilty of child neglect or abuse.  But my former partner illegally surveilled and stalked me. We were harassed with dozens of anonymous complaints to CPS hotlines and calls to police wherever we went. In the end, my former partner decided to rely on political favors with a local court commissioner.

Despite numerous declarations from our local community and friends, a restraining order still in effect, and a report from the law enforcement officer on site that he could find no evidence of abuse or neglect, my children were taken from me in May 2021. I won safety and support for my children as we faced continued domestic violence. I miss them every day.

Lori Smith is a vendor with Street Sense Media.

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We believe ending homelessness begins with listening to the stories of those who have experienced it.