Today’s blog airs more on the serious than light-hearted side. During my senior year in college, I had to volunteer for a local non-profit organization as part of a class requirement. Daily Planet, a Richmond-based outreach resource for the homeless, was my assigned organization that forever changed my viewpoint on being homeless. That learning experience helped to dispel many misnomers I had about the issue.
In today’s society, there is a perception about homeless people that is sustained by a collection of myths and assumptions, a majority of which are wrong. These misconceptions seriously hinder the attempts to help those in need. However, after the mortgage crisis in 2008, it seems that many people’s views have changed because thousands of Americans were made homeless due to the crisis.
Here are the most common misconceptions about the homeless:
- Are All Criminals or Drug Addicts
Most homeless people are arrested for status crimes. These are crimes that include loitering, sleeping in public, or trespassing. The National Coalition for Homelessness (NCH) 2009 report stated that 39% of homeless people depend upon alcohol and 26% “abuse other drugs.” While close to half of homeless adults in the United States struggle with addictions or have struggled with them in the past, many don’t have a substance abuse problem.
- Are All Mentally Ill
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 20 to 25% of the U.S. homeless population suffers from some form of severe mental illness while only 6% of Americans are severely mentally ill.  In a 2008 survey performed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, 25 cities were asked for the three largest causes of homelessness in their communities. Mental illness was the third largest cause of homelessness for single adults (mentioned by nearly half of the cities). For homeless families, mental illness was mentioned by 12% of cities as one of the top 3 causes of homelessness.
- Are All Too Lazy to Work
The movie The Pursuit of Happyness is a prime example that homeless people aren’t lazy. Although this biographical film highlighted the highs and lows of Chris Gardner’s struggle while employed, the stigma of laziness still seems to be stamped on homelessness. 44% of the homeless who have jobs can’t escape it and climbing out of homelessness is virtually impossible without a job. For those with limited skills, job opportunities that pay a living wage are very hard to come by. In addition, many have obstacles such as limited transportation and access to educational and training programs.
- It’s Due to Poor Choices
There are two trends largely responsible for the rise in homelessness over the past 20-25 years: a growing shortage of affordable rental housing and a coinciding increase in poverty.  NHC found that home foreclosure, poverty, eroding work opportunities, decline in public assistance, domestic violence, mental disorders, and addiction disorders are the leading causes of homelessness. Many of these factors are not by choice which dispels the myth that one chooses to be homeless.
Figure 1 shows the population breakdown of the number of people in families with children making up 37%, a total of 236,181 people in 77,186 family households. Of the individuals, 17% is chronically homeless (107,148 people) and 46% is non-chronically homeless (292,688). 
FACTS about Homelessness*:
- Homeless people commit less violent crimes than housed people.
- Many women and children are living without homes.
- Families constitute a large and growing percentage of the homeless population.
- Homeless people do work, and a relatively small percentage of them receive government assistance.
- According to the Urban Institute, about 28% of homeless people have more than a high school education.
*National Law Center On Homelessness and Poverty: Myths and Facts about Homelessness
Figure 2 shows the ethnicity affected by homelessness, National Coalition for the Homeless July 2009.
For more information on homelessness and how you can fight against it and its stereotypes: National Coalition for the Homeless
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1National Institute of Mental Health, 2009
2Long, Rio, & Rosen, 2007
3Statistics used from Homelessness Research Institute January 2012 report.