Why Do People Become Homeless?
There is a belief that people only lose their homes because of their own poor decisions and had opportunities to reverse course. Worse is the stereotype that people who experience homelessness not only chose to but choose to remain that way. The truth is far more complex.
Homelessness is heavily stereotyped in the public imagination. Many people see homelessness as a problem of individuals. There is a belief that people only lose their homes because of their own poor decisions and had opportunities to reverse course. Worse is the stereotype that people who experience homelessness not only chose to but choose to remain that way. The truth is far more complex.
The most significant factor determining whether an individual or family will experience homelessness is whether they can afford housing in their area. Housing is considered affordable when it is paid for with less than one-third of the household's income. Over the past thirty years, wages have stagnated, but housing costs have increased. Even worse, an insufficient number of housing developments are created with lower-income renters in mind. In fact, no state has adequate rental housing for the lowest-income renters. This means that too many Americans, through no fault of their own, live in housing they cannot afford. One additional stressor can be all it takes for a housed individual or family to lose their home.
Many stressors that lead to homelessness take the form of emergencies. These emergencies run the gamut from job loss to sickness to car trouble. A single emergency may be enough to put an impoverished household at risk of homelessness (especially given how many people experiencing poverty also live in unaffordable housing). Furthermore, a string of emergencies can financially devastate any household. Less than half of all Americans have sufficient savings to cover a $1,000 emergency. While some people are able to rely either on credit or help from family or friends to cover emergency costs, emergencies can pile up beyond what savings, credit, and informal community support can cover. Anyone can find themselves in a situation where due to nothing but bad luck, their rent or mortgage has become completely unaffordable and they lose their home.
Emergencies are not the only kind of stressor that can lead to homelessness. In many cases, housing is affordable only because of multiple incomes, as with roommates or partnerships. This means that the end of a relationship can mean a loss of housing. The forms this loss can take are myriad. Couples break up or divorce. Parents kick their children out. Someone dies.
One particularly complex issue related to homelessness is domestic abuse. In cases of domestic abuse, it is not uncommon for the abuser to make the person (or people) they abuse dependent upon them for housing. In fact, 92% of women experiencing homelessness experienced domestic abuse at some point in their lives. Leaving an abusive situation is hard enough, and made harder when leaving can mean homelessness.
One thing I hope you'll notice about these stressors--emergencies and ended relationships--is that for all of their varied forms, none of them are easily predictable or preventable. Perhaps the most pernicious myth of homelessness is the belief that it "couldn't happen to me." But that's not true. It can happen to anyone. People experiencing homelessness are the experts on their situations and deserve to be understood as more than stereotypes.