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Homeless myths diminish them, and us

By RICHARD T SHIREMAN
Published March 28, 2007


Countless times since I began doing outreach work with the homeless, I've heard people say something like, "We should help the truly homeless, but we shouldn't help those who choose to be homeless." The speaker has said or implied that a significant percentage of the people who live on our streets do so by choice. These people are often referred to as vagrants, bums or transients. Regardless of the appellation applied to them, apparently many people believe that this population does not deserve any, or any more, help.

In a recent letter to the editor, the writer divided our homeless population into three categories:

1. Those who are genuinely down on their luck and trying to get back on their feet.

2. Those who suffer from mental disorders but won't take their medication.

3. The majority, who have no intention of getting out of their homelessness.

His third category, this "majority, who have no intention of getting out of their homelessness," is a fallacy. After working with this population for the past 14 months, I must conclude that the idea of a significant percentage of our homeless population being homeless by choice is a myth. A destructive, denigrating and cruel myth.

My partner and I have worked with hundreds of homeless individuals. We have been privileged to hear their stories, hopes, fears, frustrations and pleas for assistance. We have met only one individual we thought might be homeless by choice. If we were to include with him the few people who would not speak with us or said that they didn't want our help, the sum would be less than 2 percent of our total contacts. Of course, that is assuming that not wanting to talk with the Outreach Team equates with being homeless by choice.

The reality is that many people who appear to be lazy and irresponsible are suffering from serious, life-threatening addictions, have a mental illness, have been scarred by trauma or abuse in their past, or have some combination of these conditions. Oftentimes the "vagrants" or "bums" that are being decried as people unworthy of our compassion are the homeless alcoholics that populate our streets.

Many people believe that these people live and behave the way they do because they freely choose this lifestyle. There is nothing free about their "choice" to live this way. In fact, many of the seriously ill alcoholics (who generate most of the complaints and police calls related to homelessness in our community) are aware of the fact that they are dying on our streets. They are profoundly ashamed of their behavior. They're depressed. They hate going to jail repeatedly. They hate being verbally abused, beat up and robbed. They hate being looked upon as subhuman. They hate being too cold, too hot, wet, and regularly feasted upon by fire ants, spiders and mosquitoes. Most have sought help many times for their addictions. They have had periods of sobriety.

Of those who haunt the environs of downtown St. Petersburg, many have responded to the offers of the Outreach Team to go to detox or some other treatment facility. Unfortunately, it is the nature of addiction that the vast majority of people relapse. The homeless addict, with little or no resources and virtually no support network, relapses back to the street, back to "vagrancy."

Even those who do not suffer from a life-threatening addiction or serious mental illness often are handicapped in ways that make it hard to describe their decisions as "free." Because of things that have happened to them, things that have been done to them, they lack the emotional and/or rational wherewithal to make free, informed decisions. Abuse, neglect, dysfunctional families and insufficient education are just some of the factors that account for many lacking the life skills that are required in order to make truly free, healthy decisions. When you consider that homelessness is a condition that robs one of self-esteem, motivation, hope and trust, it is not at all surprising that these people have difficulty making the choices that we think are appropriate for them.

I am not suggesting that we should ignore or condone illegal, destructive or unhealthy behavior. I am saying that we should not embrace this myth simply because it allows us to ease our moral burden by relegating a significant portion of our homeless population to the "Deserves No Help" category. These sufferers need our help and compassion.

Surely, this community has the compassion, resources, patience and integrity to continue reaching out to all of our homeless people. I believe that after a little thought and discussion, we will conclude that we must reject this convenient and destructive myth.

Richard T. Shireman is an outreach specialist with Operation PAR Inc. and a member of the St. Petersburg Homeless Outreach Team.