1. Understand Who The Homeless Are
The First--and most important--thing you can do to help the homeless is to
realize that the tired old stereotypes concerning them just are not true.
- Myth: They want to be homeless.
- Fact: Less than six percent of the homeless are that way by choice.
- Myth: They're to blame for being homeless.
- Fact: Most homeless are victims. Some have suffered from child
abuse or violence. Nearly one quarter are children. Many have lost their jobs.
All have lost their homes.
- Myth: They don't work.
- Fact: Many homeless people are among the working poor. A person
earning a minimum wage can't earn enough to support a family of three or pay
- Myth: They are mentally ill.
- Fact: About 25 percent of the homeless are estimated to be
emotionally disturbed. One percent may need long-term hospitalization; the
others can become self-sufficient with help.
- Myth: They are heavy drug users.
- Fact: Some homeless are substance abusers; research suggests one in
four. Many of these are included in the 25 percent who suffer from mental
- Myth: They are dangerous.
- Fact: Sometimes an encounter with the homeless may end in tragedy.
It is extremely rare, though. In general, the homeless are among the least
threatening group in our society. If anything, they are the victims of crimes,
not the perpetrators
- Most homeless people are not drunks or drug abusers or former mental
patients. Most are able or willing to work. They are not the perpetual social
problem many people believe they are. So who are they?
- One out of four homeless is employed full- or part-time, according to the
United States Conference of Mayors. The arithmetic is simple and frightening:
a person who works fourty hours a week at the 1992 Federal minimum wage of
$4.25 per hour grosses about $700 a month, takes home less than $600-- and is
a prime candidate for homelessness.
- I meet such people at a shelter run by my synagogue in Westfield, New
Jersey. Two neatly dressed sisters in their thirties arrived one evening. One
was a full-time sales clerk at Bloomingdale's; her sister was seeking a job.
Two rent increases in a year had eaten their savings and caused them to fall
behind in rent. Consequently, they were evicted. By using the Temple's
hospitality program, they hoped to save enough for first and last month's rent
and a security deposit for an apartment.
- One quarter of the homeless are war veterans, most of them from the
Vietnam conflict. Do you remember Ron Kovic's story in the film, Born on
the Fourth of July? It dramatized the fact that the veterans of that war
were abandoned and discouraged, even dishonored, and in Ron's case wound up on
our streets, some of them disable, others mentally traumatized by their war
experiences, others simply unable to find work.
- One out of four homeless people is a child. The fastest growing homeless
group in the United States is families with children. Their number nearly
doubled between 1984 and 1989, and continues to do so.
- Even more appalling, many homeless children are alone. They may be
runaways who left home because there is no money for food, because they are
victims of rape, incest, or violence or because one or both of their parents
is in emotional turmoil. Some are "throwaways" whose parents tellthem to leave
home, or won't allow them to return once they leave.
- I was shocked to learn that in Washington, D.C., when a soup kitchen,
Martha's Kitchen, was opened to serve destitute children, within three weeks
they were serving thirty children a day.
- Elderly people on fixed incomes don't fit the traditional image of
homeless folk. But the fact is that a senior citizen who receives $450 a month
in benefits and pays $350 for rent can't survive in any U.S. city. However,
Social Security, Medicare, and other senior-oriented programs provide a safety
net for many of the elderly, making their numbers disproportionally less among
the homeless than other minorities. Although the elderly are not as likely to
be found in shelters, it is true that some are afraid to go to shelters, or
even a soup kitchen. Others are living in poverty, not homeless, but often
homebound and without proper heating, water, or other amenities.
- Thirty-two thousand people with AIDS and their dependents were homeless in
1989. By 1995 over 100,000 AIDS related sufferers are projected to jointheir
- The number who are homeless for at least one night during the year is
probably over three million.
- The majority of homeless are male; the largest proportion are single men.
- Illegal immigrants are swelling the ranks of the homeless.
- One child in five lives below the poverty line, making children the
poorest age group in the United States, which accounts for the growing
percentage of children who are homeless.
- Many homeless people have completed high school; some have attended
college and even graduate school.
- The homeless are found not only in cities, but in small towns, rural
areas, and affluent suburbs.
- Millions are among the hidden homeless--people who are one crisis away
from losing their homes. They may be doubled or tripled up in housing or 48
hours from eviction or about to leave a hospital with nowhere to go.