It’s 2 pm on a warm October day, and Corey Samuels is driving under bridges, roaming empty parking lots and visiting the local food shelters in Saint Paul. He’s looking for mattresses strung together from pieces of clothing, cars filled to the brim with personal belongings, and cardboard signs that ask help or any type of assistance.
A homeless outreach worker for Guild Incorporated, Samuels is on a mission to find people who are currently homeless, and to connect this population to a range of services that may be able to help.
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), in January 2018, nearly 553,000 people were counted as homeless in the United States, a statistic reflected in a slew of headlines such as “Homelessness rises for second year in a row…” and “Cleaner planet? Start with our filthy cities.”
In Minnesota alone, a study conducted by Wilder Research in October 2018 concluded that 10,233 people identified as homeless, a 10 percent increase from 2015.
Despite frequent news attention, many misconceptions persists about the people who experience homelessness and the reasons why they end up without shelter.
Myth 1: People become homeless because [fill in the blank with your stereotype of choice].
In the sitcom, Friends, one of the main characters in the show, Phoebe Buffay, had been homeless for several years. And to play to that narrative arc, she mugged and stole from many people – including her friend, Ross – in order to survive on the streets of New York.
Though the sitcom is ultimately a work of fiction, the media consistently misrepresents homeless men and women with a criminal background. If not bent on crime, then they’re often portrayed as violent, drug-addicted, lazy and uneducated.
Some of those experiences may place an individual at a greater risk of homelessness, but penchants for crime and drugs are not determining factors. People become homeless for myriad reasons; often, they simply encounter a stretch of bad luck.
In fact, 40 percent of American households are just one paycheck or a $400 emergency away from becoming “liquid asset poor” – not making ends meet for the next three months – and would have to find another way to fill in that financial gap.
Myth 2: Homelessness is an individual’s problem.
A show of hands here: How many of you have witnessed a friend or passing acquaintance make the comment, “If someone is homeless, then they must have made some poor life decisions.” But recent housing trends indicate that homelessness may not be so much an individual problem as it is a systemic issue:
- More than 25 percent of households in Minnesota pay more for housing than what they can afford.
- Minnesota’s top in-demand jobs do not pay enough to afford housing.
- The gap between housing costs and incomes continues to grow, with seniors and low-income families experiencing the most burdens.
- With a homeownership gap of 36 percent, Minnesota ranks as one of the worst states when it comes to racial disparities in home ownership. The nation’s average is 25 percent.
In addition, Minnesota’s homeless population reflects some starting trends that suggest that homelessness is often triggered by mental illness, physical health issues and the lasting impact of childhood trauma:
- Sixty-four percent of homeless Minnesotans have a serious mental illness, while 57 percent have a physical health condition.
Seventy-three percent of homeless adults in Minnesota have had at least one adverse childhood experience.
Between a lack of affordable housing, income inequality, housing discrimination, racial disparities and inadequate services, the root causes of homelessness stem from systemic issues that perpetuate the cycle.
Myth 3: Why don’t homeless people just get jobs?
After encountering a homeless man or woman in the street, you’ve inevitably heard a passerby mutter aloud or under their breath, “Just get a job.” Sounds like an easy solution, right? If everyone earned a living wage, then they could afford to rent an apartment and eventually save enough money to one day buy a home.
Not so fast. While that formula suggests the perfect solution, it’s riddled with complications.
Nearly one-third of homeless adults living in Minnesota are actually already employed – but with the cost of living rising faster than incomes, many have resorted to living in cars or being without a place to call home.
Others, who are currently unemployed and who are trying to enter the job field, face a number of obstacles, too. Imagine filling out a job application and facing immediate discrimination because you have no permanent address or phone number. On top of that, there’s no way to look presentable for a job – let alone an interview – without having access to washing facilities and clean water. Transportation can also be a barrier.
Myth 4: There’s always room at homeless shelters.
According to the Wilder Research study, the number of Minnesotans residing outside of shelter homes increased by 62 percent between 2015 and 2018. Often enough, shelters are overcrowded and cannot provide for more than its maximum occupancy. Some shelters may also have restrictions that can separate family members: some only offer beds to women; others only house adults, for example.
In addition, homeless shelters are designed to provide emergency services only temporarily – they’re not intended to be a form of permanent housing. While shelters definitely provide safety and protection, homeless men, women, children and families can’t strictly rely on them to fill their housing needs.
Subsidized housing is an alternative option. But according to the Wilder Research study, more than 50 percent of the homeless people interviewed are on a wait list for subsidized housing – and for those on the waitlist, 12 months is the average wait time.
All in all, the study suggests that the Twin Cities’ inventory of shelter and subsidized housing options does not meet the current demand.
Myth 5: Homelessness is only a problem in bigger cities.
Minneapolis and Saint Paul may not be counted among the nation’s top five cities in homeless rates – but the Twin Cities has seen a nine-percent rise in the number of people facing homelessness between 2015 and 2018.
But homelessness is not just a problem in the metro. Greater Minnesota actually saw a 13 percent increase between 2015 and 2018.
So how can you help?
Guild Incorporated’s Corey Samuels explains that, from his point of view, a wholesome, community approach is the best way to end homelessness – and that education and compassion can help all of us to address our own biases and social stigmas targeted at the people experiencing homelessness.
This story is a Twin Cities co-production with Guild Incorporated.
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