A question that has often been brought up here amongst the comments is the question of choice. Are homeless people who appear to be homeless by choice less deserving of compassion or assistance than others? If they do indeed choose this lifestyle why should anyone interfere, why should anyone go out of their way or put their hands in their pockets to help them?
Rarely does anyone ever choose to become homeless. I won’t deny the existence of a tiny minority of Robinson Crusoe types that put on their backpacks and drop out of society, favoring a simple lifestyle of woodland living. Some people do this for a relatively short period, more like an extended camping trip but there are very, very few indeed that maintain this lifestyle for a protracted amount of time. Of the remaining ninety-nine percent the reasons for becoming homeless are many and varied but whatever the initial cause of their homelessness and despite all the programs and shelters and missions that are available today some do appear to remain homeless by choice. If you actually ask homeless people why with all the services available do they prefer to stay on the streets, some will even tell you that they choose to be homeless. But do they really? The reality is a lack of suitable alternatives.
The following are some of the main reasons why homeless people choose homelessness over the available services:
Many homeless people avoid using shelter services for fear that their personal safety could be compromised. Whilst most shelters take precautions where practical they are often run, through necessity, on skeleton staff levels of volunteers who are likely not professionally qualified to deal with violent conduct and as such cannot guarantee personal safety. There may well be violent offenders, addicts and mentally imbalanced individuals sharing the room in which you would be expected to sleep.
2. Personal belongings
Homeless people travel light. They own very little and you can be sure that the few things they do possess and carry are either necessary for their survival or they consider the items very precious. They protect the few belongings that they do have tenaciously. Most shelters do not have secure storage available which means that personal belongings can be left lying around and vulnerable to theft.
Homeless people are socially excluded. If they are spoken to at all by the general population it is more often than not to be jeered at. Sometimes they can go weeks, months or even years without speaking to a single soul. This isolation can be one of the most difficult aspects homeless people have to deal with. Many would rather share what little food they can gather with a dog in exchange for the companionship they provide than be completely alone. It is not hard to understand why they would be reluctant to give this up but very few shelters or state supported accommodation programs make provisions for pets.
4. Health Hazards
Death and homelessness go hand in hand. The average age at death of a homeless person in America can be as low as 41 years depending on the state you live in. Homeless people often have difficulty in accessing medical care. Poor diet and exposure to the elements can mean that a relatively minor injury or disease could prove fatal. The risk of picking up an infection is massively increased when using shelter services.
Shelter living effectively means being told what time you have to go to bed, what time you have to get up, what you are going to eat and what time you are going to eat it at. It likely also means limited availability as to what times you are able to use washing facilities. In essence your freedom is restricted and your life no longer your own.
6. Daytime Hours
Most shelters are nighttime only. This means that come the morning (and it is usually very early) you have just a short time to get your gear together before being turned back out onto the streets. It matters not whether it might be rain, sleet, snow or hail, you have to leave and you may not return prior to the time allotted for opening the following evening. If you show up late, no matter what the reason may be, this will usually result in missing your spot for that night. That is, of course, if there were any beds left available in the first place.
Although the common held stereotypical myth that all homeless people are addicts and alcoholics is not true, there is a significant proportion that do suffer from alcoholism and/or substance abuse issues. There are also a great number of them trying desperately to kick these habits. In order to have a realistic chance of breaking the cycle it is necessary to avoid associating with other addicts wherever possible and staying away from places where they are likely to hangout. For many, this means staying away from shelters.
People need personal space. Staying in a shelter means sharing a dormitory, sharing a meal room and sharing bathroom facilities with fifty or so other residents. Ever tried sleeping in a room full of fifty other people all chatting, laughing, coughing, snoring and breaking wind? It is worth remembering that some of these emergency ’shelters’ consist of no more than a mattress on a church floor. It may be warmer than the streets but it doesn’t necessarily mean you will be able to get more sleep.
9. Intrusion and Anonymity
Many state programs require a very intrusive application process. It can mean disclosing highly personal and potentially embarrassing information. Personal history, family background, police and medical records and financial history are all fair game. There are many reasons why anybody would prefer to keep certain things quiet. Some maybe sinister but others can be tragic. It is widely believed that a significant proportion of missing persons are homeless people.
10. Required Religion
A large percentage of homeless shelters have a religious affiliation. Not all but many of those that do have one impose a requirement to attend religious services in order for a person to be granted access to their food and shelter facilities. This can, of course, be offensive to some and particularly those who belong to an ethnic minority, which tend to be over-represented amongst the homeless population.
This is not intended in any way to be an attack on the services offered by rescue missions and shelters. In fact, I strongly believe that they do a fantastic job of providing an invaluable service with very limited resources. The truth is that they do their best to fill a huge void caused largely by societal and political shortcomings and the homelessness situation would be very much worse than it already is were it not for their efforts. Unfortunately though they cannot realistically be expected to provide an effective solution with the available finances and other resources at their disposal.
Do homeless people ever really choose to be homeless? No, not really. Still not convinced? Well next time you see a homeless person sleeping on the streets try dangling the keys to your nice plush suburban home under his or her nose. Inform them that the central heating is fired up, the fridge is fully stocked and there is fresh linen. Tell them Fido is welcome, they can have their friends over and they can come and go as they please. I can guarantee their will be a dozen proverbial shopping carts parked in your driveway come lunchtime.