For many people, homelessness is a confusing and frightening thing. The myths and stereotypes that surround it make it even more difficult to understand. We know that lots of people want to understand how something like homelessness can happen. We get calls and emails from people all the time, asking us some basic questions. So we asked the experts – our members, people currently or formerly homeless – to come up with answers!
Why are people homeless?
Lots of people talk about the individual reasons for homelessness—losing your home in a fire, losing your job and getting evicted, issues of substance abuse and mental illness. We talk about the systemic ones. Housing is very expensive, and there are not enough decent-paying jobs. The real issue is poverty—plenty of filthy-rich people have issues of substance abuse and mental illness, but they don’t become homeless because they aren’t poor. We agree with Peter Marcuse: “The housing crisis doesn’t exist because the system doesn’t work, it exists because that’s the way the system works.”
Why do people sleep in the streets and not in shelter?
Homeless shelters are expensive institutions where homeless people are warehoused at great cost to the taxpayer, often run like jails. Last year alone, the city spent a billion dollars on shelter. Many homeless people have had bad experiences in shelters, including assault and robbery and routine demeaning treatment from staff. Homeless people are often sent to shelters that are a two-hour subway ride from their place of employment or friends and family, and the shelters rarely provide Metrocards so that people can get to their jobs. As of right now, the city has no housing program to help homeless people, so many more people would rather maintain their independence on the street or in precarious housing situations than enter a shelter where they’ll be institutionalized and exploited.
How many homeless people are there?
Over 41,000 homeless people currently live in NYC shelters. Over 100,000 people spend some time in a shelter every year. The city estimates that 3,200 homeless people live on the street, although we think that their count is designed to give an unrealistically low number. But homelessness is much bigger than the folks who are on the streets or in the shelters. Over 280,000 households are living in overcrowded conditions due to the high cost of housing, and hundreds of thousands more are paying too much money for overcrowded, unsafe, and insecure housing! That’s all part of the housing crisis.
Why don’t homeless people just go back to school and get a good job?
Just like in the broader population, many people in the homeless community have graduated from high school and college, and some have advanced graduate degrees. Although access to quality education is a real issue in the low-income communities from which most homeless people come, the issue isn’t a lack of education—it’s the high cost of housing and the lack of decent-paying jobs in New York City.
What do you mean when you say vacant buildings should be turned into housing for homeless people?
In a public emergency, government has an obligation to take steps to help the people. Placing limits on the amount of time that a property can remain vacant would bring enough housing onto the market to lower the cost of housing for everyone. Most vacant property is not owned by struggling homeowners; it’s owned by real estate developers and city agencies and big banks that got taxpayer bail-outs. Currently, the city spends $36,000 a year to house one homeless person in a shelter, adding up to a total cost of $1 billion. If that money was spent renovating vacant property, and compensating landlords to take their property and add it to a community land trust, we could make a huge dent in the high cost of housing for all New Yorkers—including the homeless.
Aren’t people homeless because they want to be?
Some homeless people might choose to live on the street rather than a shelter, because they’ve had bad experiences in a shelter. Others might choose to enter shelter because they’re fleeing domestic violence, overcrowding, abusive landlords, etc. People choose the best of bad options. The bottom line is that housing is so expensive in New York City that lots of people make choices that result in homelessness, and that’s what we’re trying to change—instead of punishing them for the choices they’ve made.
Aren’t most homeless people alcoholic, drug addicted, and/or mentally ill?
Like in the general population, lots of homeless people have those issues. The homeless population might have slightly higher rates of substance abuse and mental illness because poverty exacerbates those conditions, and because the system takes advantage of them, but it’s not accurate to say that it’s true of the majority of homeless people. Again—we believe the systemic causes of homelessness are more in need of urgent change than the individual ones.
Doesn’t the city already offer a lot to homeless people?
They only offer what they think will keep us dependent on them. The shelter system is a joke that cost NYC taxpayers a billion dollars last year alone, and keeps homeless people trapped in a system of profit and exploitation. While homeless people are grateful for food and clothing donations, we need real changes that will lead to housing and jobs, and stop the cops from violating peoples’ rights.
Why do homeless people smell?
Not all homeless people smell, and plenty of people with homes do. Many homeless people don’t have access to a private bathroom where they can shower every day, or do laundry regularly. Homeless people are generally dealing with unimaginable pressure, and sometimes have to make tough choices like whether to sleep or bathe.
Why are you homeless?
The circumstances that led to an individual becoming homeless are personal, and lots of folks don’t feel comfortable sharing them. Lots of other folks do. The bottom line for us is that the individual causes of homelessness can’t be fixed by community organizing and activism. The systemic ones can.
Why don’t you just go get a job?
Lots of homeless people have jobs. The problem is, most jobs don’t pay well enough to afford the high cost of New York City housing.
Why does the city spend so much on shelter, and not housing?
They are trying to keep us divided and broken. They are also in bed with the people that have access to the vacant property. New York City is also under a court order to provide shelter to homeless people, as a result of the Callahan and McCain lawsuits that go back to the 1980’s. While that fight was heroic, and shelters have helped hundreds of thousands of people stay off the streets, we believe that it has not changed the systemic causes of homelessness, and that we need to address the runaway cost of housing. What homeless people need is housing, not shelter.
Should I give money to panhandlers?
That’s an individual decision; if you’ve got some money that you can spare, and someone is in desperate need, we say go for it. For us, the bottom line is this: asking the public for donations has been established by the Supreme Court as a constitutionally-protected exercise of the First Amendment right to free speech. Giving money to help out individuals in crisis is a good thing, but so is supporting work to create systemic change so that people won’t need to beg for money!
What can I do about homelessness?
You tell us! Whatever you bring to the table, that’s what we need. What talents and skills do you have? What life experience might be relevant? Come to our meetings, talk to our organizers and members, etc. We are always in need of financial support, but you should also check out What We Do to learn more about the policy demands our members have developed!
For homeless youth: why aren’t your parents or ACS taking care of you?
Many young people are homeless because they are LGBTQ, and their parents have thrown them out. Many more come from poor families that can’t afford to pay rent. Most youth leaving ACS foster care have nowhere to go, and become homeless.
What kinds of homeless people are there?
How many kinds of people are there? Homelessness can happen to anyone, but it is far more likely to hit people who are already impacted by institutional oppression like racism, gender bias, etc. 95% of the families in the city shelter system are Black or Latino, and single moms are the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population!