Homeless Shouldn't Mean Hopeless

Several years ago Teresa found herself homeless when she left her husband Ben because of his uncontrollable anger. She went to Los Angeles to start a new life, but had nowhere to go. It took her about six days to find a shelter to stay at. Shortly thereafter, Ben contacted Teresa wanting to work out their problems and reconcile. Reluctantly, after much thought and prayer, she decided to give her marriage another try. Unfortunately, Teresa was unable to return to the apartment where her husband was living because she had a falling out with the landlady. Ben, unemployed at the time, was at the mercy of the landlady’s decision to allow him to stay, but Teresa was not welcome. Ben received some financial assistance from his family, but not enough to move somewhere else where they could be together. He eventually found a job and worked on becoming more financially stable. Teresa moved back to where Ben was and stayed at a local shelter near him so they could work things out in their marriage. The shelter she stayed at kept her accountable for finding a job and a social worker helped her find a long-term shelter where she could work on getting back into society. Teresa searched relentlessly for employment, attended self-help groups at the shelter, and was able to share her story and her faith with the other homeless people. Teresa was given a new hairstyle so she could look for a job and to help her feel better about herself. They took her to pick up job applications as well as going back to turn them in. She finally got accepted into a long-term shelter, which helped her to stay on track. She did daily chores in order to continue living there, and she continued to work on bettering her life. Ben’s family eventually helped he and Teresa get back on their feet, and they were finally able to get back together again. She has since started a homeless ministry called “Hope for Those in Need” through her church. She has helped many homeless people, including a couple who were living in a wash get an apartment and they have lived a stable life for over a year. Being homeless changed her perspective on life, and now she is giving back to the community.


Homelessness is a problem that seems to be more prevalent today in our local community, as well as statewide and nationwide. There are homeless people of all ages, many different races, and are both male and female. One does not have to look too far or too hard to notice a homeless person lying on the side of the road or in a park, standing on the corner of an intersection holding up a sign saying they are hungry, or sitting at a storefront asking for a little change. It’s hard to know if they are really hungry, or if they will use the money to buy drugs or alcohol. It is terribly disconcerting to see so many homeless people on the streets, especially when it is cold, raining, with the temperatures dropping in the evening. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH), 549,928 people experienced homelessness in the United States in 2016. During that same year, approximately 1.5 million people entered into emergency shelters, transitional housing, or other homeless assistance programs. Homelessness is no respecter of persons and anyone could unexpectedly become homeless at any time. What are the solutions to homelessness?


There are many different factors to why people become homeless. In the article “Many Paths, One Destination–New Directions and Opportunities for Ending Homelessness,” Lisa Baker stated the many different causes of homelessness. There are two categories of homelessness: short-term and chronic homelessness. Short-term homelessness is due to an unforeseen circumstance like loss of a job, loss of housing without notice, domestic violence, unexpected injury and excessive medical bills. Chronic or long-term homelessness are in conjunction with mental and physical disabilities and/or substance abuse. Those people who fall into this category are Veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that have difficulty adjusting to civilian life, as well as those men, women and youth struggling with drug or alcohol addictions, some with a criminal history. Baker cited a report from the NAEH that thirty-three percent of the homeless population are veterans. Among homeless women, ninety-two percent have been a victim of physical or sexual assault. Thirty-six percent of the homeless are families and it is estimated that 50,000 children have spent six months on the street. Those at risk of becoming homeless are the “working poor” with a combination of the rise in housing costs and a change in wage patterns. They struggle with working an unstable job or more than one part-time job, and earn less without having employer-paid benefits (Baker, Ending Homelessness). One solution to end homelessness is called “Rapid Re-housing.” There is information on the NAEH website that explains the process for those in need of immediate housing and can end homelessness by quickly connecting people to a home and services (endhomelessness.org).


What about those who experience long-term homelessness? In the article, “Risk Factors for Long-Term Homelessness” Carol Caton examined the long-term risk factors for homelessness among newly homeless men and women who were admitted to New York City shelters in 2001 and 2002. They interviewed 377 individuals that entered the shelter in 6-month intervals and these people were monitored for 18 months. During this time frame, they conducted standardized assessments and analyzed psychiatric diagnosis, symptoms, and coping skills along with social and family history. They analyzed the association between baseline assessments and duration of homelessness. They discovered that eighty-one percent of participants returned to community housing during the follow-up period; the median duration of homelessness was 190 days. Caton stated that by identifying the risk factors of long-term homelessness, it can aid in the efforts of reducing the duration of stay in homeless shelters and develop effective means of preventive interventions. The solution to long-term homelessness is prevention, such as assisting people at risk to retain existing housing or to obtain more appropriate housing. There are caring and compassionate people that offer resources to help the homeless get back on their feet and back into housing.

However, homelessness remains a prevailing public health issue in the United States. James G. Hodge, Jr. mentions in the article “Homelessness and the Public’s Health: Legal Responses,” there have been years of legal and policy interventions offering short and long-term solutions. He noted that in 2002, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) began working with localities and states to create ten-year plans to end homelessness. There has been a positive outcome as a result. Over the last six years alone, USICH reported a thirty-three percent reduction of veteran homelessness, twenty-one percent reduction of individuals experiencing chronic homelessness, and a fifty-three percent reduction in unsheltered homelessness among families. Although much progress has been made in ending homelessness, there still remains a great need to improve access to comprehensive health care, housing, and support services for the homeless population. The solution is to prioritize permanent and supportive housing over emergency shelters. Hodge concluded that “opportunities to expand health care and housing access can divert affected persons from criminalization, and address homelessness crises.” Through government and community involvement, this will reduce the number of homeless individuals.

The problem with many homeless individuals are having a past involvement with the criminal justice system. According to Greg Greenberg Ph.D. and Robert A. Rosenheck, M.D. in the article “Jail Incarceration, Homelessness, and Mental Health: A National Study,” little has been addressed on determining the risk factors of homelessness among those who have been incarcerated, compared with the general population.

“Some researchers have reported that the criminal activities of homeless individuals are predominantly minor crimes that directly result from their efforts to survive on limited resources—for example, breaking into buildings or stealing. Although such crimes may reflect survival strategies it is also likely that people who have been incarcerated for crimes in the past are at greater risk of homelessness after they have completed their sentences” (Greenberg, Rosenheck).

They also noted that sociodemographic characteristics of homeless individuals who are male, single, young, poor, from a minority ethnic group, or poorly educated—may also be associated with both homelessness and the risk of involvement with the criminal justice system. Tammy Bradshaw-Scott, Ph.D., a forensic psychologist for the County of San Bernardino agrees that little has been addressed to getting to the root of the problem of those who are homeless with a past criminal record. Dr. Bradshaw stated in an interview, “As a (forensic) psychologist who works with the homeless population, more resources are not the answer. What is needed is to get to the underlying problem–drug and alcohol addiction and abuse.” She mentioned that this is the primary problem among the majority of the homeless. The secondary problem is mental illness. What these homeless individuals are doing is self-medicating to cope with their situation. Instead of trying to rehabilitate them after they are released from jail, she says the solution is to rehabilitate while they are still incarcerated. “Send a psychiatrist into the jails and prisons to identify the problem, start the inmate on psychopharmacological medication to deal with any mental illness,” Dr. Bradshaw continued. Rehabilitation would be more effective during incarceration. Then upon being released, there would be a smooth transition into a recovery program. She has been told by many of her patients that with all the free resources; food, clothing, housing and a free phone, there is no reason for them to stop using drugs, or to get a job. They know how to work the system. There is no incentive to get back into the norms of society. Dr. Bradshaw knows what it is like to be homeless and hungry on the streets. She was a troubled teen runaway at the age of fifteen. She mentioned that when she was hungry, sleeping on the balcony of a church, that was a good incentive to do what it took to get off the streets. She said that there were no resources available then like they are today. She would like to see stricter guidelines to the resources given, contingent on their sobriety and contribution to earn them. This also gives them self-worth. She points out the obvious, “What is the incentive if there are no consequences?” They would most likely want to stay clean and be willing to be a part of society once again.


But not all homeless people have a drug or alcohol addiction, like Teresa who was mentioned in the introduction. Will Sarvis wrote an article “The Homelessness Muddle Revisited” of his account of being “homeless” for eight years while he traveled cross-country on hitchhiking adventures (about 9,000 miles worth), although he never really considered himself to be homeless. He had an abusive father that kicked him out of the home at age fifteen (he said he was happy to leave). He slept “wherever” during his eight-year journey. He mentioned that in 1990, Robert C. Ellickson wrote an article called “The Homelessness Muddle,” in which the author described the complex homeless demographic, contradictions in perception of homelessness and policy, and how certain policies were unsuited to specific realities of homelessness. Sarvis states that the “muddle” definitely continues, and if anything, it has become more complex. He continues to say that homeless people can fall into often-overlapping categories of substance abusers, “throwaway children” from broken homes, veterans, lazy people, women escaping domestic abuse, “voluntary homeless” (as he was when cross-country hitchhiking), and people suffering from mental illness. Sarvis addressed the key question about homeless people, “are people doing their part in their current circumstances, with their current set of limitations and abilities?” If so, he continued, “then they deserve the support and aid of any decent society, especially if they find themselves in circumstances that were not of their making.” He stressed that we as a society need to have compassion for the homeless. “Compassion means to ‘suffer with,’ and thus empathize, if not sympathize, with our fellow humans in their time of need and sorrow.” Undeniably, there is a great deal of suffering among the homeless.

homeless-addictionHe also suggested to never give money directly to the homeless–but, rather, to homeless services–this at least “ends the direct funding of substance abuse, which in itself so often helps perpetuate homelessness, unemployment, and unintended side effects like depression and a low sense of self-worth” (Homeless Muddle Revisited). Dr. Bradshaw confirmed the same point about pan-handlers. She said that when you give them cash, they do not buy food with it, because they have their EBT cards. They will use the money to buy drugs or alcohol. She suggested that instead of cash, give them a food card, or a bag with hygiene products, and snacks instead. She agreed to give money to the homeless services. We can help the homeless in many other ways, by donating money directly to the homeless shelters and organizations as well as donating our time serving. There are many outreaches that need volunteers. It begins with compassion, as Sarvis pointed out.


There are many communities conducting outreaches to the homeless and they are having a positive result. In the article “Will Work for Solutions” by Derek Prall, discussed many programs implemented to help the homeless. In Broward County, near Fort Lauderdale, Florida, there is a Homeless Outreach Initiative founded by Sherriff Scott Israel. He says that “homeless individuals are not problem people, they are people with problems.” Initially, the officers attend two hours of crisis intervention training. Then if they so desire, they can go through further training, forty hours of advanced education on the homelessness issue, including causation, prevention, needs-assessment, continuity of care and legal issues. Also, in Santa Barbra County, California, Steve Lavagnino, chairman of the county board of supervisors is working to help the homeless, specifically, homeless veterans with its “Stand Down” event. Stand Downs help veterans in distress, many of whom are homeless. Lavagnino describes Santa Barbara’s annual event as a collaboration between private and public community service providers to help veterans get back on their feet. The event aims to solve root problems and connect veterans with the resources they need to get help for their individual situations. “The Stand Down has changed its focus to ‘Let’s get these guys reconnected into the community,'” says Lavagnino. “It’s not a hand out it’s a hand up, we’re putting our hand out there wanting to help pull them up.” The outreach is held annually in the Santa Maria Fair Park. The event provides food, clothing and hygiene products as well as connecting vets to services including: employment agencies, secondary schooling, PTSD screenings, drug and alcohol abuse programs, Health and Human Services and governmental assistance programs. Last year’s event helped about 500 area veterans, says Lavagnino. About 125 of the veterans were homeless. The Stand Down uses zero tax dollars and is funded through donations, grants and volunteers (Prall). That is a great way to help those in need and help put an end to homelessness.

homelessness-actionAs mentioned earlier, there are various ways to help the homeless population. One way is through a government funded program called “Housing First” through HUD. This offers permanent, affordable housing as quickly as possible for individuals and families experiencing homelessness, or at risk of becoming homeless. To prevent returning to homelessness, supportive services and connections to community-based supports are provided so that people will be able to keep their housing. Housing provides a stable foundation from which a person or family can access needed services and supports to begin the recovery process and pursue personal goals (Baker, Ending Homelessness). There are solutions end homelessness. According to National Alliance to End Homelessness, they encourage the homeless to seek help with the many organizations like the Salvation Army, United Way Help Line (2-1-1), U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Homeless Assistance, National Coalition for the Homeless’ Directory of Homeless Advocacy and Service Organizations. HUD serves over 1 million people through emergency, transitional, and permanent housing programs each year. An end to homelessness means that every community will have a comprehensive response in place that ensures homelessness is prevented whenever possible, or if it can’t be prevented, it is a rare, brief, and non-recurring experience (HUD). There are also countless non-profit organizations in each community that offer shelter, food and clothing for the homeless, resources to get them the help that they need to get back on their feet. The homeless need more than just a handout, they need a hand up. Support financially and volunteer at local shelters and non-profit organizations to help end homelessness. Keep small bags in your vehicle filled with dried snacks, personal hygiene items and a food card to hand out instead of giving straight cash. The man or woman on the streets will appreciate the thoughtfulness. Together, individually and as a community, we can help, and it starts with compassion for those in need.

Works Cited

Baker, Lisa A., et al. “Many Paths, One Destination–New Directions and Opportunities for Ending Homelessness: Part One of a Two-Part Series.” Journal of Housing & Community Development, vol. 73, no. 2, Mar/Apr2016, p. 6. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com login.aspx?direct=true&db=f5h&AN=114457113&site=ehost-live. Accessed 4 August      2017.

Caton, Carol L. M., et al. “Risk Factors for Long-Term Homelessness: Findings from a        Longitudinal Study of First-Time Homeless Single Adults.” American Journal of Public Health 95.10 (2005): 1753-759. Web.ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/full/10.2105 AJPH.2005.063321. Accessed 5 August 2017.

Greenberg, Greg A. Ph.D., Rosenheck, Robert A. M.D. “Jail Incarceration, Homelessness, and      Mental Health: A National Study.” Psychiatric Services, Volume 59, Issue 2, February,        2008, Volume 59 Number 2, pp. 170-177, ps.psychiatryonline.org/doi/full/10.1176/ps.2008.59.2.170. Accessed 3 Aug. 2017.

“Homeless Assistance/U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).” Homeless Assistance/U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), portal.hud.gov/hudportal/HUDsrc=%2Fprogram_offices%2Fcomm_planning%2Fhomeless. Accessed 7 Aug. 2017.

“Homelessness in America.” National Alliance to End Homelessness, endhomelessness.org/homelessness-in-america. Accessed 7 Aug. 2017.

Hodge Jr., James G., et al. “Homelessness and the Public’s Health: Legal Responses.” Journal of   Law, Medicine & Ethics, vol. 45, 2017 Supplement, pp. 28-32. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1177/1073110517703314.

“Opening Doors.” Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness,www.usich.gov/opening-doors. Accessed 7 Aug. 2017.

Prall, Derek. “Will Work for Solutions.” American City & County, Dec. 2016, pp. 4-7. EBSCOhost,search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=120554989&site=ehost-live.

Sarvis, Will. “The Homelessness Muddle Revisited.” Urban Lawyer, vol. 49, no. 2, Spring 2017, pp. 317-354. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=123361547&site=ehost-live.

Personal interview on Monday, July 31, 2017 with Tammy Bradshaw-Scott, Ph.D., Forensic Psychologist with the County of San Bernardino.

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