A myth-busting Q&A on homelessness

It’s their own fault they’re homeless. They don’t want to get a job. They’re not willing to break the cycle.

These are some of the commonly held misconceptions about homelessness — an issue that is often misunderstood by the public. According to the State of Homelessness in Canada 2016 report by the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, 35,000 Canadians are homeless on any given night, and at least 235,000 Canadians experience homelessness in a year. While this unignorable issue is often associated with adult males, we’re seeing an uptick in women, families and youth experiencing homelessness, as well as older adults and seniors. Imagine a City talks to front-line workers and experts to bust some of these common myths.

Malika Favre art of white bench with black silhouette of homeless person on UNIGNORABLE colour

Myth #1: People experiencing homelessness choose to be homeless

Most people become homeless because of economic circumstances, such as unemployment or the inability to afford rising living costs, according to a Homeless in Canada report. “It’s degrading and stigmatizing to be homeless,” says Dr. Stephen Gaetz, director of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness. “There’s an incredible lack of safety, you’re more likely to be malnourished, you’re more likely to be a victim of crime, you’re more likely to be sexually assaulted, your health worsens, your mental health worsens. If you take a chronically homeless person [and] offer them housing with support, they’ll generally stay in housing.”

Myth #2: It’s their own fault they’re homeless

While it’s hard to pinpoint a “cause” of homelessness, most people end up experiencing homelessness because of poverty, according to the Homeless in Canada report. And poverty is affected by complex issues such as lifelong trauma, family breakdown or mental health issues, according to Alex Cheng, client services director with Blue Door Shelters, a United Way-supported agency in York Region that provides emergency housing for youth, families and adult men. “We see a lot of folks that have a mental health diagnosis or use substances to self-medicate, and those are all barriers for individuals who are homeless to move forward.”

Myth #3: They aren’t interested in being productive members of society

“We have seen in our setting, when we are able to provide supports to individuals and lower those barriers and connect them to community, they do want to get out of homelessness,” says Cheng. “But the reality is it’s a slow process. When you’re put in a position where you’ve been labelled for so long and your experience for the last few years or for the majority of [your life] has been trying to survive — and you don’t know anything but to survive — it becomes even harder to adjust to being integrated into the general community.”

Myth #4: They should just get a job

We sometimes hear that people experiencing homelessness should just “get a job.” They’re accused of being lazy or wanting to live off government assistance. “It’s hard to obtain and maintain a job when you don’t have stable housing,” says Gaetz. Employers look for applicants with a permanent address, high level of education and professional wardrobe. They tend to avoid applicants who have gaps in their work history, don’t have a permanent address or are living in a shelter.

Myth #5: Homeless youth are “delinquents” or addicts

When it comes to youth — particularly males — there’s often an assumption that they’ve ended up on the streets because they’re lazy, rebellious or on drugs. “The No. 1 reason is family conflict — and two-thirds of young people have experienced physical, sexual or emotional abuse. They leave for very good reasons,” says Gaetz.

“A large percentage are affected by family breakdowns and they’ve suffered a lot of trauma,” says Cheng. And at that age, finding independent housing is near impossible. “You’ve never had permanent employment; you probably haven’t finished high school. I don’t think people understand how vulnerable youth are. Youth need a different approach, they do need different supports, including some ways of rebuilding themselves.”

Myth #6: They’re taking advantage of the system

Not only is there a lack of low-income housing in the Greater Toronto Area, there are low vacancy rates, and anyone on disability or social assistance can’t afford market rent, says Cheng. If they’re not staying in a shelter, they’re renting a room (likely a shared room) and, even then, social assistance barely covers the cost. “Social assistance rates are such now … they would be spending upwards of almost 90 per cent of their income on rent,” says Cheng. “That’s just a recipe for disaster because they are being housed but they don’t have enough resources to even take care of themselves. You’re almost on a clock — you’re one small step away from losing your housing again.”

Myth #7: This would never happen to me

“Homelessness can happen to anyone,” says Cheng. “A lot of people are one paycheque away from being homeless. … We see that a lot with families — because of finances or job loss or extenuating circumstances, the entire family becomes homeless.”

The first step in tackling unignorable issues like homelessness, is understanding them. Acknowledging that these myths are, in fact, myths, can help to reduce stigma, increase empathy and move people out of homelessness.

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