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There are hundreds of reasons why a person or a family could become homeless. From financial insecurity to health woes, homelessness is often a result of several factors coming together to create a situation where people must make difficult choices between food, shelter, and health. Here is a glimpse at three broad factors leading to homelessness:

  1. One Bump Away

If you are poor, you are essentially an illness, an accident, or a paycheck away from living on the streets. – National Coalition for the Homeless

Although wealthier than people in many countries, poverty is not something we are unfamiliar with in the United States. I made the case that the minimum wage is not a living wage and clearly leaves people in poverty. Poverty and homelessness are inextricably linked, and often people in poverty are only one incident from becoming homeless.

Think about it – you need not even be considered impoverished. You could be doing fairly well, with a job that allows you to live a decent life. Things might be tight sand you do not have a lot of savings, but you always get by and you are never seriously in need of assistance. Suddenly unexpected tragedy occurs: you lose your job or maybe you sustain a serious injury. Some people are lucky enough to have insurance and support networks to smooth over this difficult time, but what if you don’t? What happens when the money stops coming in but the bills keep piling up? Would you choose to keep your home and go hungry, or would you like to continue eating but live on the streets. There are choices real people make.

2. Bad Public Policy

I already touched on minimum wage, but other public policies contribute to the abundance of homelessness. For instance, programs like TANF have been the target of political attempts to reduce social security and/or control budget deficits. Often cuts cripple the effectiveness of these programs and even when cuts do not occur inflation eventually decreases the real value of assistance.

Likewise, low-income housing is not providing enough living space for poor families and individuals. While price ceilings and government subsidies are the ugly face of affordable housing, larger policy goals create the structure supporting unaffordable housing. Zoning regulations and development goals strongly influence property values and community development. Uninspired laissez-faire policies and tremendous loopholes allow companies to export jobs and horde profits at the executive level, reducing wages and increasing unemployment at all socioeconomic levels. And of course there is health care – I don’t think anyone needs an explanation on how the mess that is healthcare and insurance could contribute to homelessness.

3. Mental Illness, Substance Abuse, and Domestic Abuse

Mental illness is a factor in homelessness, not  because the mentally ill are unable to live normal lives but because they often cannot receive the assistance they need to do so. Things like routine treatment and simple household assistance would greatly increase the ability for many mentally ill people to live independent lives.

Substance abuse is both a cause and a product of homelessness. Substance abuse alone is unlikely to cause someone to become homeless – many well-off people are alcoholics and junkies. It is when addiction is combined with poverty, job loss,or other factors that homelessness becomes a serious threat.

Domestic abuse is unlikely to be the first thing that comes to mind when we consider reasons for homelessness. Women and children are the most likely to be victims of domestic abuse, but men too experience it. Victims living in poor conditions with little resources may have to choose between continuing to live in an abusive situation or fleeing to the streets.

The point here is this: there are many causes of homelessness, not all of which are immediately the fault of the person who s homeless. For sure, many times homelessness can be avoided by hard work and determination – but when this occurs we do not hear about it. Those people continue living their lives and they do not end up a statistic. We do not see them in the street. The people we see are those who, for whatever reason, did not or could not overcome these challenges.

The homeless in America have many stories. The next time you find yourself making a judgement about a homeless person, ask yourself: what is their story?

More information:

National Coalition for the Homeless

National Alliance to End Homelessness

U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)

The Homeless Guy blog