Education Homelessness Observations Reflection Systems

Do People Choose to be Homeless?

One of the things we talked about during dinner was whether people choose to be homeless.

“Yeah, it seems like some people want to be homeless,” he said.

“No… I don’t think so,” his friend replied.

They looked at me.

I cannot speak for all people who have ever been homeless. However, I have several years of experience working with people who were homeless and refused housing again and again[1. When working within a housing first model, the goal is to give people housing without any expectations that people will participate in mental health or substance abuse treatment. The goal is really just to get them inside.], as well as people who left their housing and returned to the streets.[2. In my experience, people who leave housing usually return to street homelessness. Most do not return to the shelter system.]

Thus, I believe that people who are homeless do not want to be homeless. They usually have concerns about the housing offered to them.

Here are some reasons people have shared with me when I have asked them why they don’t want housing:

I can’t move in anywhere. I have to stay outside. The aliens say that if I move in anywhere, they will exterminate me. I’ve already been exterminated three times. I don’t want to get exterminated again.

I don’t want to live inside. It never feels safe. Bad things happened to me when I’ve been inside. It’s too hard to get away.

But I don’t need your housing. One day my boss will hire me again–I was really good at my job–and when I start working again I can pay for my own apartment. (This man, for years, sat on the sidewalk across the street from the building where he said he previously worked.)

There’s too many rules: Curfew at 10pm? No guests? What if I want to bring a lady friend over? Nope. Don’t want to deal with all that.

I know that place. There’re too many people using dope. I know what’s gonna happen if I am around that crowd. I’m trying to stay away from all that.

That place? Isn’t that where all the crazy people live? No, thank you–I don’t want crazy neighbors.

If I could move in without giving my name or social security number, then, yes, I’ll move in. But people keep asking me for personal information and I don’t know what the government will do with that.

So, the reasons people give generally fall into three categories:

  1. People want freedom and don’t appreciate the constraints of rules.
  2. People are concerned about their safety within the building. These reasons may or may not have any basis in reality.
  3. People may feel some guilt or shame related to the housing (whether they deserve it, what it would mean if they moved in, etc.).

It’s hard for those of us who have a stable place to live[3. One consequence of working with people who are homeless is that you never stop giving thanks that you have a place to live. You don’t have to worry about where you’re going to sleep that night. You don’t have to worry that someone might try to rob you or set you on fire. You don’t have to worry about the police picking you up simply because you have nowhere else to go. These are the things we all take for granted.] to understand why some people seem to “choose” to live outside. Sometimes people point to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and ask, “But isn’t housing a physiological need? People need water, food, and shelter. Why would someone ignore this basic need?”

Yes, shelter is a basic need. However, people who live outside can and do meet their basic needs, including shelter. They sleep in abandoned buildings, underneath bridges, in tents, in covered doorways, in wooded groves, in bus shelters, etc. These are not ideal places to live, but they’re sufficient.

No one wants to be homeless. What they want is psychological safety. For those individuals who decline housing, sometimes the need for psychological safety will override what seems like the “logical” choice of accepting housing.

People continue to astound me with their resilience. When people resist housing for years, though, it makes me wonder what happened to them that resulted in this resilience.

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