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What Are the Problems of the Homeless?

Updated on July 17, 2013

Overview of the Issues Homeless People Face

Most of us can say we slept comfortably last night, had three or four solid meals, or woke up to our wife and kids' smiling faces. We hear this all the time. Some sort of broken connection between our lives and the lives of those living on the streets. That's not what we are talking about here.

Now, yes, it's true. There are shelters and some sort of subsidized housing in every major city to help house the homeless. There are thousands of soup kitchens and food pantries working to keep them fed. And there are even many organizations that help the homeless with job seeking, laundry, and counseling. Don't get me wrong, all of these things are wonderful. They really, truly are. However, we should not allow ourselves to be fooled into believing these things are nearly enough for our less fortunate neighbors.


I'm not here to tell you how many homeless people there are in the U.S. (too many), nor am I here to illicit your sympathy and action on their behalf. Instead, I would like to share some of what I've learned of the plight of the urban poor in our streets, the issues, dilemmas, and heartaches we fail to consider when we pass these human beings on the side of the road.

Source

Communication

With each passing year, our dependence on telecommunication deepens. The telephone and e-mail address have become the foundation of communication in the 21st century.

This brings along many issues for the average homeless person. Here are a few key problems that they are seeing:

1. Intra-family communication: Homeless families find it impossible to communicate with one another except with the use of cell phones. Imagine not being able to separate from your wife and kids to go to a job interview because you have no way of contacting them or knowing their whereabouts at any moment without extensive planning ahead and hoping they will be where you left them.


2. Face-to-face updates: Homeless individuals are often forced to plan their days around bus schedules and walking routes. Because they cannot reliably access an e-mail account to receive information from job services counselors, government agencies, etc., all information that they need must be obtained in person, at a specific time and date.


3. Employment: Most importantly, a reliable phone number is necessary for finding employment. Without a cell phone number, there is no way that a potential employer can contact a homeless person concerning an interview or job offer.

Sleep

Whenever we think of homeless persons' sleeping situations, we normally conjure up an image of a cardboard pallet in an alley or a tent in the woods. This is true for many--though you will find the ones sleeping in the open at night are exclusively younger, single males (homeless women would not imagine sleeping on the streets in the open and most within the homeless community discourage it sharply).

In many ways, sleep is the major source of daily concern and stress for the homeless.

First, there are few if any locations in a city that can provide safe sleep outdoors during the night. Thus, many homeless individuals choose to live in tents or shacks in the woods surrounding the city--creating a major transportation issue that can take up many meaningful hours of their day. If this is not an option, most are forced to sleep only during the day so that they will be protected by the general rush of people around them. They must rely on sleeping in a crowded area where they hope that a normal person would intervene if someone were to attack them.

Sleeping in public is heavily discouraged by law enforcement though and can also seriously hamper the individual's chances of creating a good reputation within the community, which many of the urban poor rely upon. Sleeping in public during the day can be an incredibly demeaning experience for anyone on the streets and can devastate a person's self-worth.

Another major issue with sleep is the homeless community's complete lack of it. Though sleeping during the day and in the woods can provide security for these men and women, the hours are never nearly enough. I have spoken to many people who say they only get two or three hours at a time if they are lucky. One woman I spoke with claims that she has had to teach herself to sleep very lightly so that she can wake up instantly if anyone approaches her. This lack of sleep plays tricks on the mind and slowly destroys the body.


(See the link above for some of the side-effects)

A bridge in Charlotte where many homeless have slept.
A bridge in Charlotte where many homeless have slept. | Source

Shelter Life

To rebut the issue of sleep deprivation, many might argue the presence of hundreds of homeless shelters all across the nation which take in many tens of thousands each night. However, many homeless people refuse to go to shelters because of the intense racism, violence, and crime that can occur there.


For many, the shelter is treated like a territory. For instance, here in Charlotte, certain homeless shelters consistently house a certain group of people over time, and, in many instances, the homeless individuals being served can begin to feel an amount of ownership over this shared space. This leads to many cases of violence and intimidation which can leave those staying for only a night or two afraid to ever return.

Racism is also rampant in many shelters with a certain race typically outnumbering all others by a substantial margin. In these cases, the minorities are often singled out and taken advantage of.

In other cases, people who bring too much stuff into the shelter often wake to find their belongings stolen, often including their ID and other necessary papers.

The number of shelters in your city may also be misleading. If there are 2,000 beds available in Charlotte every night, but only 500 are open to single women, the chances of getting a spot becomes very slim for some.

A Story of Life in the Shelter

I once heard a story of a young man who came to North Carolina from Nigeria. He fell on hard times while attending school here, lost his housing, and was planning to return home as soon as his education was finished. One morning after spending the night in the Men's shelter, he woke to find his ID, Passport, and Student Visa all stolen. Without the visa, he was forced to leave school and without the passport he is still unable to return home to his family.

Charlotte's beloved Larry "Chilly Willy" Major, who recently was killed by a car trying to cross the street
Charlotte's beloved Larry "Chilly Willy" Major, who recently was killed by a car trying to cross the street | Source

Security

Another major stress for the average homeless individual is security. Aside from the physical dangers present on the street, there are very many homeless out there who walk around with all of their possessions with them. From bus passes, to spare change, to pictures of family, all of these items are constantly at risk of being taken from the person. A few hours sleeping on a bench or grabbing three bags instead of four when transferring buses can result in a major loss/theft for anyone. Oftentimes, this loss can represent months and months of hard work and gifts from the community that they will never get back.

One of the Best Ideas for Ending Homelessness

A Story of (Potential) Loss

I know one vulnerably housed woman who barely sleeps at night worrying about her laptop. It was donated to her by a member of her church. She doesn't really understand how to use it, but it is her prized possession. She is living in a very large apartment building provided by the church that she shares with many of the women who used to abuse her in the Women's shelters years ago. She watches her suitcase every night when she falls asleep with no place to lock it up, assuming it will no longer be there in the morning. She spends much of her time thinking about the way that she will apologize and explain the theft to the church member who was nice enough to give her the laptop.

P.s. A little bit of her story is in the above video

Mental Health of the Homeless

Imagine an "unending day." You wake up, walk around looking for food. Then, you walk around begging for money. Then you walk around looking for more food. And more money. And a place to sleep. And a conversation. And you might find plenty and you might find none. But, one thing is sure, the hours continue rolling by, very slowly.

This is a reality for many homeless people. Many of the homeless individuals I have befriended speak of the "unending day" as an inescapable, debilitating part of life on the streets.

Now, try combining this eternal day with the stress of finding work, food and a place to sleep at night. Then, add on the constant worry over the protection of your belongings, the daily humiliation of begging on street corners in plain sight of hundreds of people, and an extreme lack of positive social interactions. Doesn't this sound like a recipe for a mental breakdown?


Scientists and Psychiatrists are telling us it is. 6% of fully-functioning, pleasantly housed citizens of the United States battle with severe mental illness without any of these worries on their plate. On the other hand, 24% of the homeless population is diagnosed with a severe mental illness.

It takes an incredible amount of internal vigor and positive self-awareness to remain sane after living on the streets for months, years, and even decades. I met a man who writes beautiful, beautiful poetry in his journal who has been living on Charlotte's streets for over twelve years. He has had his journals stolen before. All of his life's works, taken from him with no hope of being returned.

And do you know what he does?


Keeps on writing.

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    • CrisSp profile image

      CrisSp 3 years ago from Sky Is The Limit Adventure

      This is a great hub; one that is absolutely worth sharing and I am sharing it here and on FB page. I'd also like to invite you to join us here, where I am also posting your link: https://www.facebook.com/groups/294777667307474/

      You're a very good writer. Keep on writing!

    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 3 years ago from Central Florida

      This is the most informative article I've read on the homeless. You take the reader to the personal side of what a homeless person lives with each and every day. Most of America is judgemental of the homeless without knowing the circumstances that brought them there or recognizing the fortitude it takes to live that kind of life.

      Thank you for giving the homeless a voice. And thank you for speaking so eloquently on their behalf. Awesome hub!

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