The Stigmas of Homelessness

Homelessness: What we know and what we may think we know

Once a year, a census is taken of the homeless population within the United States. On any given night in 2012, at least 633,700 individuals in the United States found themselves without a home. Of these individuals, 62 percent lived in some form of emergency or transitional housing, while the remaining 38 percent remained unsheltered. There are many reasons for the increasing numbers of those who experience homelessness, but many of these assumptions are clouded by our own misconceptions.

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  The McKinney-Vento Act provides the following definition for homelessness,

“An individual who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence; and a person who has a nighttime residence that is  (a) supervised publicly or privately operated shelter designed to provide temporary living accommodations (including welfare hotels, congregate shelters, and transitional housing for the mentally ill); (b) an institution that provides a temporary residence for individuals intended to be institutionalized; or (c) a public or private place not designed for, not ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings.”

imagesFrequently, many assumptions of the causes of homelessness lead to stigma and prejudice. People experiencing homelessness include anyone who-

  • Has experienced Domestic violence, sexual assault and/or other dangerous or life threatening conditions in a housing situation that he or she is leaving
  • Is an unaccompanied youth who is homeless
  • Has at some point lacked independent permanent housing for a long period of time; has moved frequently; and is likely to continue doing so as a result of physical disability, mental disorder, addiction, personal choice, or other barrier[1]

Statistics as of 2012 show that of all homeless individuals, an estimated 44,000 are enrolled in a public school; 13,157 of these individuals are in high school. The average age of a person experiencing homelessness in Massachusetts is 8 years old.[2] As of 2002, 3% of homeless individuals are over the age of 60, 8% have been recently discharged from detox, and 6% were incarcerated at one time in their lives.[3]  It is still important to realize that addiction, incarceration, and poverty do not always lead to homelessness.

Homelessness continues to be a multi-faceted issue with numerous causal factors. In many ways, our own misconceptions about the causes of homelessness can lead to the elongation of these prejudices that set the population who is homeless apart from us.

What can we do?

As part of our vision for the Homelessness and Housing issue area for 2013, we as coordinators want to reduce the stigma associated with homelessness. You may be asking yourself, “But how?” Many ways you can reduce stigmas associated with addiction, mental illness, and other barriers that lead to homelessness are by identifying what parts of our misconceptions we can control.

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Stigmas have become markers for adverse experiences, including shame, social exclusion, discrimination and isolation. Many times, friends or family of an individual experiencing homelessness can feel embarrassed. Even passersby can feel the shame or guilt of walking past a person asking for change. This process of stigmatization leads to stereotyping that homeless persons are in general mentally ill or suffering from addiction. These negative attitudes are unjustly made generalizations that contribute to a cycle of stigmatization.

Many influencers of prejudice include appearance, behavior, living circumstances, or perceived danger. However, there are educational interventions that can begin to open the perspective and discussion about persons who are homeless. This includes discussions and reflection over our perspectives of homelessness, which we will include during the education day section of FYSOP.[4]

homeless-1Our goal as coordinators of the Homelessness and Housing issue area is to seek and address these stigmas associated with homelessness and to encourage and educate our volunteers so that they are able to learn more about homelessness and housing in the Boston area, and to equip them to make a difference in this community.


[1] McQuistion, Hunter L., MD. “Part 1, Chapter 1.” SAMHSA. [Rockville, Md.?]: Administration, 1996. N. pag. Print.

[2] “Basic Facts.” Basic Facts. Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, n.d. Web. 03 July 2013. <http://www.mahomeless.org/advocacy/basic-facts&gt;.

[3] “An Overview of Homeless Individuals in Massachusetts.” An Overview of Homeless Individuals in Massachusetts. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 July 2013. <http://www.mass.gov/eohhs/researcher/basic-needs/housing/an-overview-of-homeless-individuals-in-mass.html&gt;.

[4] Byrne, Peter. “Advances in Psychiatric Treatment.” Stigma of Mental Illness and Ways of Diminishing It. The Royal College of Psychiatrists, n.d. Web. 10 July 2013.

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