The hardship of being homeless: Why help is needed

More than 550,000 people, including about 36,000 unaccompanied youth under the age of 25, are homeless in the United States on any given night and homelessness remains a widespread phenomenon. Why, despite the obvious wealth of developed western nations, is the prevalence of homelessness so high?

There are many reasons: loss of income or insufficient income, lack of affordable housing, eviction, poverty, marriage breakdown, domestic violence, mental and physical illness are, among others, common causes.

Racial and ethnic minorities are disproportionately affected by this problem. When compared to the total population, those who are homeless are more likely to be adult, male, African-American, unaccompanied/alone, and disabled.  More than 10% of adults living on the streets are veterans.  

Once in the streets, many speak of living in a vicious cycle of losing their ID to theft, homeless camps clearing by city ordinance, eviction, and other circumstance, and then struggling to get formal identification documents. They are then denied access to support services, which creates insurmountable obstacles for those trying to come out of homelessness.

Impact of mental illness

Many people experiencing homelessness often have serious mental illness, such as major depression, bipolar disorders, schizophrenia and psychosis, and issues with drug and alcohol abuse, likely to be both the cause and consequence of their condition. While approximately up to 6% of Americans are affected by a mental health condition, more than 20% of homeless people fall under this category.

Furthermore, about 45% of the U.S. homeless population has a history of mental health diagnoses. This doesn’t consider those living with mental health problems that have not been diagnosed or addressed by healthcare professionals.

Many of those living on the streets come from abusive families and have suffered neglectful, traumatizing experiences as a child. This can have long-lasting, negative effects on their neuro-biological development. Sadly, these fractured family dynamics also mean that these individuals are less likely to have family support when they fall on hard times, again compounding their risk of homelessness.

Social isolation and risk of incarceration

Life on the streets can be a demeaning, humiliating and, at times, dehumanizing experience. Clearly, living without material comforts is only one part of the plight. The mental struggle caused by isolation and abuse is often an even more difficult burden to bear.

Often, those living on the streets talk about their daily experiences of being ignored, overlooked, or even feared, by their fellow citizens.

Studies show that people who are homeless are more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators. Sleeping on the street with all their worldly possessions makes them extremely vulnerable to attacks. Rates of rape among homeless women stand at approximately 30%. Those with serious mental health conditions are even more likely to suffer abuse.

Unfortunately, these individuals are also at higher risk of incarceration. In fact, across the U.S., people with serious mental health issues are more likely to be jailed than to be hospitalized. 17.3% of prison inmates with severe mental illness were homeless prior to being arrested and 40% were homeless at one point in their lives, compared to 6% of undiagnosed inmates.

To complicate matters, homeless people are often targeted by a number of city ordinances, which prohibit behaviors such as obstructing sidewalks, loitering, panhandling, trespassing, camping, being in particular places after hours, sitting or lying in particular areas, wearing blankets, sleeping in public, storing belongings in public places, and so forth.

Under these laws, homeless people are regularly cycled through prisons and jails, which perpetuate abuse and discrimination.  Homelessness and incarceration increase the risk of each other causing a cycle of hardship and uncertainty.

Importance of education

It’s far less expensive to prevent homelessness and help people come out of homelessness than to maintain the status quo. There will never be a shortage of homeless people, if the conditions leading to homelessness won’t be addressed and solved.

Homelessness is the end result of many social ills including poverty, unaffordable housing, unemployment, untreated mental illness, domestic violence, lack of social safety nets, incarceration and family disintegration, among others.

It is of paramount importance to educate the public and spread awareness of this problem, its causes and its solutions.  This is an issue our society cannot afford to ignore.

Understanding the complexity of the problem will lead to a positive shift in attitudes and intentions toward homelessness, eventually resulting in increased support for changes in social, political and economic policies.

-By Dr. Fabrizia Faustinella, associate professor of family and community medicine at Baylor College of Medicine; writer, director and producer of ‘The Dark Side of the Moon,’ an educational film-documentary exploring homelessness

7 thoughts on “The hardship of being homeless: Why help is needed

  • I feel like homelessness is important and it needs to be said.

  • I’m homeless and there 2 things we struggle with and that’s using the bathroom….I mean seriously when every establishment closes their bathroom to people especially homeless that’s why they use the bathroom on the sidewalk or in a bush. Come on put a port o poddy on every few blocks or something. Oh my goodness I saw a plastic container someone was selling for 15.00$ . The other thing is obviously cell phones are free but they need to be charged and every establishment is blocking their outlets and porting stations are shut down. Come on help us out. Stop hindering us. People are going batt shit crazy because of the limitations set on us I’ve worked my whole life and paid taxes and unfortunately fell on hard times. No drugs or any kind of dependency. I don’t want to be here anymore. On the streets it horrific

    • Finally someone tells the truth. The programs and services they give are incomprehensible. They expect ever homeless person to get a free phone and free i.d. voucher to get a job and off the streets. Sounds simple. It’s NOT. FIRST there is no near location to get the voucher or assistance then we have no transportation and then we have to make sure where we going to sleep and what we going to eat each day and avoid getting trespassed and off arrested in the process then stay in shade to avoid heart strike or keep warm in winter and all while getting help by anyone having to fit their way of you don’t get to get the help. Finally the help takes you far away from your area where you have made friend alliances and are j known by community. Now you have to start all over at miles away from your home area. Makes everything so complicated and frustrating and takes much longer than normal to get anything done. It took me to replace my i.d. and social security card almost a year in the second year I was out here. It was unbelievable how things took days instead of hours. Still struggling but staying strong out here in the jungle. WE CAN BEAT THIS PEOPLE TOGETHER HELPING EACH OTHER IT’S THE BEST WAY, STAY SAFE FRIEND.

  • I work full time as a plumber and I have a decent income. Yet my income is not sufficient enough to pay rent on an apartment in Los Angeles county.

  • I live in Texas and I’m currently hooked through a divorce. I left my wife due to violence in the home. I am new to all of this change that I’m about to endure. I need advise and what to do to make it out there

    • I’m sorry to hear this. Utilize every available resource to you. Find the closest mission, homeless shelter, etc, and pray they have a bed. Comply with everything they tell you and if you use substances of any kind please get help with that immediately. Religious or not, contact some local churches and see what they may have to offer. Some of them run or support programs that involve a program and commitment to that program. Keep your head up and your hope alive. Know that you are loved, prayed for, and cared about by people you don’t even know– people like me. That’s the best I have for you right now other than my prayers. I have a homeless son and my heart goes out to you. God be with you and bless you in your quest to “get up”.

  • Get the basics and travel light. Get I bike and good size carriage. Get good walking shoes and socks. Water container. And a find a good place to keep important valuable and papers. A small storage. Check your unemployment benefits medical and food stamps. Then check if you qualify for SSI or retirement. Finally talk to friends and family before falling into the streets. Never be embarrassed, everyone can be in hardship at anytime. We all hope it isn’t us but at times can’t help it.
    Also look into rent assistance programs and rent vouchers before you loose your home and get apro Bono lawyer in town to help if possible. Get a free phone and mailing address asap.
    Save all the change you can will save you

    Good luck!!!


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