What does a homeless person look like?

I have written several times before about helping people who are impoverished or homeless. As a volunteer for an agency who helps homeless families, I often surprise people when I tell them that the homeless families we help have jobs, sometimes more than one. People have a mental image of a the chronic homeless man who they may find panhandling. What is ironic, the chronic homeless are only a small percentage of homeless people and, in fact, some panhandlers are not homeless at all and entrepreneurial minded folks. Yet, make no mistake, we should help the chronic homeless because it is the right thing to do, but it is also more cost-effective to provide direct services than to jail them.

But, the people I am writing about today are acute homeless people who have lost their home due to the loss of a job, a medical care emergency, reduced hours at work, the loss of a healthcare, domestic violence, a substance abuse issue, etc. It should be noted on the latter issue, homeless people have no greater propensity toward substance abuse than housed people. The people are living paycheck to paycheck like 47% of Americans. It only took an event like the loss of a job to push them out of their house. I wrote about some of these issues in “American Winter clearly defines what poverty looks like” which can be found with the following link. https://musingsofanoldfart.wordpress.com/2013/03/23/american-winter-clearly-defines-that-what-poverty-looks-like/.

The homeless families we help look like the folks in the “American Winter” documentary. For example, a homeless family may look like:

a mother with two children who is working as a teacher assistant making $11/ hour and a nowhere to be found father;

– a father and mother with three children, where the dad lost his bank job and is working at a fast food restaurant making $7.25/ hour and the mom is working $9/ hour as a receptionist;

– a mother of three children who is the victim of domestic violence and has gotten a new job as a Sales Associate for a clothing store making $8.50/ hour; and

– a teen mother who has one child out-of-wedlock as she did not have access to birth control and the boy she loved pressured her into intercourse without protection; she is now working a customer service representative job making $10/ hour.

To support these pictures, a few statistics might help.

– 40% of all homeless in the US are mothers with children, the fastest growing segment.

– 75% of homeless children never graduate high school.

– 90% of homeless children suffer extreme stress and worry about the bad things happening to their family.

What can be done? Key factors into homelessness are lack of education, lack of skills training, lack of affordable healthcare, unmanageable family size, no or an exhausted network of friends/ family, too much debt and a low minimum wage. We need to continue and increase funding in our community college programs to enable homeless adults to get GEDs, (for non-Americans this is a high school equivalency degree), develop skills and go to college. We need to identify and keep the homeless kids in schools. If we break the cycle, then the child benefits and the community benefits.

We need to increase the minimum wage as these jobs perpetuate poverty at the level it is. A living wage for one person in my area is $9.67/ hour and living wage for a mother with one child is $17.68/ hour. We need to help people by paying it forward. Connect people in jobs with better job opportunities. We need to continue forward with the Affordable Care Act and the states who have not expanded Medicaid need to do so. In not so doing, you are harming your most fragile citizens. And, we need to make birth control and education (you can get pregnant on the first time, how to say no, you must use a condom, e.g.) more accessible to manage family size before the mother is ready.

We need to help people climb the ladders out of poverty. Don’t do for them what they can do for themselves, unless it is truly an emergency such as they have just been evicted or a husband has beaten his wife and kids for the last time and they need a place to go. Once the emergency subsides, help them climb a ladder. Our program matches housing subsidy dollars based on the ability of the family to pay rent, but they also must work with a social worker and a team of volunteers to gain help with mentoring, budgeting, and making better decisions. They must save funds while in the shelter before moving to their own apartment. They must buy their holiday presents (on a discounted basis) so they can keep their dignity while sharing the holiday experience like we all do. They must attend classes called “Bridges Out of Poverty” so they can make better decisions, ask more questions, and use their dollars more wisely. If they save enough, we also help them with an interest free loan to buy a donated car. A 0% loan versus a 23% loan on a car, makes a huge difference.

Homeless people look like you and me. Their kids look like our kids. They have the same dreams, but don’t have the same opportunities. They don’t have or have exhausted their network to help them get jobs (or their network is in the same boat). And, as a minister in my town once said, “if we help these homeless kids, you have no idea how much intellectual capital resides in them which we can nurture.” Let’s give them a helping hand. We may be helping  someone become a robotics engineer or biologist. If you find that amusing, last year’s Intel Science winner was a homeless girl who conducted an interesting marine biology experiment. Let me close by saying, if you help people in need by helping them help themselves, the psychic income to you is huge. You will feel like you are doing something very important – and, you are.

15 thoughts on “What does a homeless person look like?

  1. “Homeless people look like you and me.. Their kids look like our kids.”

    Wouldn’t it be great to do a sleek photoshoot (with some of the homeless) that’s so good that the images go viral..there would have to be a theme, something unique that showcases those beautiful people… only to send a follow-up that shows those well-dressed people in their real (homeless) lives… then an appeal for all of us to stop and really look at the people they pass on any given day. that’s the other part, no one looks at anyone anymore. they’re wearing blinders.

    • This would be a great photo shoot. There is a great documentary that was made locally called “Souls of our Neighbors.” One of our kids was initially living with her mom and dad in a tent camp in the woods. She had two siblings. In addition to going to school, this homeless girl was VOLUNTEERING at a food pantry for impoverished and homeless people. People in need give a higher portion of their income to others than the well-to-do.

      • i often say, ‘there are two choices, and one is right…’

        the photo shoot idea is going to incubate, but that would be a great creative challenge as well.

        i already know the first one i would photograph here in jama.. then i think of another.. and another.. and…. yes, we sometimes see the locals in photo shoots, but they never show the flip side of where they return when the glitz and puffs are gone. z

      • maybe one of these days we can do that! i have really good friends who live at lake norman, and they are forever begging me to come stay. he’s like a brother, so if i can find a way to split myself in several places, but it’s hard to go to nc when my family in the deep south is patiently waiting their turn!

        as simple as my life is, it is still complicated!

      • i walked to town today and love that special time for abstract thoughts.. i remembered my friend john urbano who is now freelance but once was a fashion/music industry photographer. he did an amazing book and documentary about the people of a certain barrio in panama city panama. john would be a perfect person to take on a project like that.

        i will write him soon and get his feedback. he’s an amazing, kind and sensitive person.

      • More generous, yes. Happiness does require that some basic needs are met, otherwise the stress and misfortune can overwhelm. I do find that the group is very devout. When our church volunteers mentor them, we ask them to sign a statement to not witness. But, what we found is the family witnesses to the volunteers through their faith which is all they have.

  2. This is great. I’m impressed with the work you do, and I know you don’t do it to impress, but to make a difference. That makes it all the more wonderful. Sorry it took me so long to comment. I have had this one in my email inbox for a while just waiting for a chance to read it.

    • Emily, many thanks. I appreciate your reading my intent correctly. If this ever comes off as self-serving, let me know as that is not my intent. There are too many preformed judgments about homeless people. I still can’t convince some about the adults, but I try to win them over to at least save the children. Take care, BTG

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