Not and Naught

The homeless have a PR problem.

Nobody likes them.

Certainly, many don’t want to see these have-naughts where they live and work. And shop. But there is a sad irony to this: For many of us, the thin line between where you are today and a homeless tomorrow is a very thin one. Most are only one missed paycheck away from poverty. They could be you.

Much of what you think about the homeless is wrong.

The ugly statistics1:

  • Approximately 62% of Americans have no emergency savings. For them, a $1,000 emergency room visit or $500 car repair could be a lifestyle-ending event.
  • The Great Recession and its aftermath devastated most of us: 57% claim they had savings prior to the financial disaster that began in 2007.
  • To cover a $400 emergency, 48% said they would have to sell something or borrow the money. Four out of ten said they experienced a major unexpected expense in the last year2.
  • 40% of families claim that they are poorer today than they were before the recession of 2007.

The Reasons for Homelessness

Add substance abuse to the equation and your chances of becoming homeless rise. According to a 2007 study3, two-thirds of homeless people report that drugs/alcohol were a major reason for their homelessness; drug addiction being an even more significant cause for homelessness than mental illness. Many also succumb to substance abuse after becoming homeless.

Lest you think their substance abuse and homelessness came as a result of decrepit character or moral failings, there are many reasons why so many fall into life on the street. Aside from mental illness, there is physical disability, domestic violence, divorce, PTSD, and depression. The homeless are 13 times more likely to be the victims of violence than housed people. Nearly one-quarter of all homeless are children. A homeless child is 60% more likely to use drugs in their lifetime as compared to non-homeless children – 39% of the homeless are under the age of 18 and almost half of those are under the age of 55.

Some Myths About the Homeless

There are many myths about homelessness. That all homeless are jobless is one: The fact is about 45% of homeless adults had worked in the past 30 days. The homeless unemployment rate is only 14 percentage points lower than that for the general population6. What seems to be more significant as a precursor is a steep drop in income: A change in employment, a move to part time and non-standard conditions (independent contracting, temping, etc.), having to subsist on a low or minimum wage, and transitioning to a lower paying position can be a few of the reasons.

Another myth is that most homeless have a severe mental illness. Unfortunately, the minority of those with paranoia, delusions, and visible mental disorders tend to be what people think of when they imagine the homeless. The reality is about a quarter or less of the homeless population suffers from severe forms of mental illness as opposed to 6% of the general population.

And another is that people who are homelessness have been that way for a long time. Half the people that enter a homeless shelter will leave within 30 days, never to return. Fortunately, long-term homelessness is relatively rare. As an example, of the 2 million in the United States that were homeless in 2009, only about 112,000 of them fit the federal definition of “chronic homelessness,” according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Yet this is what people most often think of when they imagine the homeless. The addicted, antisocial, and disabled transient

The Problem in Portland

The problems of substance abuse and mental illness are even worse among Portland’s homeless population: About three-quarters are addicted to drugs or alcohol and half suffer from a mental illness of one kind or another, though many are undiagnosed. Dr. Paul Lewis – the Chief Health Officer of Multnomah, Washington, and Clackamas counties (an area that includes Portland) – argues that physical, mental, and chemical dependency issues can only be addressed when people have a safe place to live. Homelessness is, by and large, a problem of housing. Getting clean of drugs and alcohol and then only to remain on the streets is just not realistic. What is real is that homeless men and women in Multnomah Country, by a conservative estimate, are dying at a rate of more than one a week7. (The average age at time of death is 45.)

Portland’s homeless problem is particularly visible and acute for a major US city. In October of 2015, the city’s mayor declared homelessness a state of emergency.

Why are there so many homeless in Portland? For one thing, the city offers better services than other cities and is relatively more tolerant. Laws targeting the homeless are not as aggressively enforced. While the police have been aggressive on moving illegal campers, arrests are rare – in comparison, other Oregon cities are not so hands off. Among the steps Portland has taken are providing storage facilities for homeless people as well placing dumpsters and portable toilets in several locations across the city. Portland has (relatively) generous programs both public and private for addressing homelessness.

A Problem of Housing

Appropriate housing is becoming increasingly unavailable: Existing units for the poor are not being preserved and new units aren’t being built. (Developers see no profit motive.) In between, rents have skyrocketed. This pressure has caused waiting lists for public housing to close because the waits are too long. (In 2013, 3,000 households applied for 160 units at one public housing project.) And at the bottom step, shelters are overwhelmingly inadequate for the demand.

Then there’s the issue of mental illness: Across the US by 2010, the number of beds per capita in psychiatric hospitals had dropped to levels not seen since the 1850s8. Massive cuts to federal housing programs that began in the 80s are still having repercussions that are being felt today. Overall, appropriate institutional services are disappearing. Though the city of Portland and the county have allocated more funds to the problem, shelters are still at capacity and the situation seems only likely to get worse.

What recourse do people have but the streets?

What Can You Do?

Either we accept that part of our population is doomed to the streets or we make policy changes at the local, state, and federal level. You can call your congressman and sign petitions, and these are all fine, but there is something all of us can do right here, right now.

We need to stop treating the homeless like they are the other, unlike us. Look at them in the eyes and acknowledge them simply as human beings. Connectivity can be powerful and positive. As to whether you should give money or not, one homeless advocate suggests this approach: Give a cigarette or spare change only to the first person who asks in your day. It can allow you to feel like you’re doing a small something to help without have an existential or moral crisis as to how the recipient will abuse the largesse.

This much is undisputable: Demonizing the homeless or pretending they don’t exist will help no one.

If you or a loved one have an addiction to alcohol, contact BLVD Treatment Centers. At BLVD Treatment Centers we custom tailor our recovery programs within the safe and nurturing confines of our rehab treatment centers. Located throughout California, in Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego and in Portland, OR, our mission is to assess the severity of your addiction to help you achieve true recovery within 30 days. Call us now at 1-866.582.9844.


Portland & the Downward Spiral: Do Drugs Lead to Homelessness?