The First–and most important–thing you can do to help the homeless is to realize that the
tired old stereotypes concerning them just are not true.
Myth: They want to be homeless.
Fact: Less than six percent of the homeless are that way by choice.
Myth: They’re to blame for being homeless.
Fact: Most homeless are victims.
Some have suffered from child abuse or violence.
Nearly one quarter are children. Many have lost their jobs. All have lost their homes.
Myth: They don’t work.
Fact: Many homeless people are among the working poor.
A person earning a minimum wage can’t earn enough to support a family of three or pay inner-city rent.
Myth: They are mentally ill.
Fact: About 25 percent of the homeless are estimated to be emotionally disturbed. One percent may need long-term hospitalization; the others can become self-sufficient with help.
Myth: They are heavy drug users.
Fact: Some homeless are substance abusers; research suggests one in four.
Many of these are included in the 25 percent who suffer from mental illness.
Myth: They are dangerous.
Fact: Sometimes an encounter with the homeless may end in tragedy. It is extremely rare, though. In general, the homeless are among the least threatening group in our society. If anything, they are the victims of crimes, not the perpetrators.
Most homeless people are not drunks or drug abusers or former mental patients. Most are able or willing to work. They are not the perpetual social problem many people believethey are. So who are they?
One out of four homeless is employed full- or part-time, according to the United States Conference of Mayors. The arithmetic is simple and frightening: a person who works forty hours a week at the 1992 Federal minimum wage of $4.25 per hour grosses about $700 a month, takes home less than $600– and is a prime candidate for homelessness.
I meet such people at a shelter run by my synagogue in Westfield, New Jersey. Two
neatly dressed sisters in their thirties arrived one evening. One was a full-time sales clerk at Bloomingdale’s; her sister was seeking a job. Two rent increases in a year had eaten their savings and caused them to fall behind in rent. Consequently, they were evicted. By using the Temple’s hospitality program, they hoped to save enough for first and last month’s rent and a security deposit for an apartment.
Disabled vets. One quarter of the homeless are war veterans, most of them from the Vietnam conflict. Do you remember Ron Kovic’s story in the film, Born on the Fourth of July? It dramatized the fact that the veterans of that war were abandoned and discouraged, even dishonored, and in Ron’s case wound up on our streets, some of them disable, others mentally traumatized by their war experiences, others simply unable to find work.
Children. One out of four homeless people is a child. The fastest growing homeless group in the United States is families with children.
Their number nearly doubled between 1984 and 1989, and continues to do so. Even more appalling, many homeless children are alone. They may be runaways who left home because there is no money for food, because they are victims of rape, incest, or violence or because one or both of their parents is in emotional turmoil. Some are “throwaways” whose parents tellthem to leave home, or won’t allow them to return once they leave. I was shocked to learn that in Washington, D.C.
, when a soup kitchen, Martha’s Kitchen, was opened to serve destitute children, within three weeks they were serving thirty children a day.
Elderly people on fixed incomes don’t fit the traditional image of homeless folk. But the fact is that a senior citizen who receives $450 a month in benefits and pays $350 for rent can’t survive in any U.S. city. However, Social Security, Medicare, and other senior-oriented programs provide a safety net for many of the elderly, making their numbers disproportional less among the homeless than other minorities.
Although the elderly are not as likely to be found in shelters, it is true that some are afraid to go to shelters, or even a soup kitchen. Others .