Every living creature has a few basic needs that sustain its life and its well-being: air to breathe, nutrition, shelter, etc. For us, humans, physiological needs come first and right after them come safety and security, physically and emotionally. An American psychologist named Abraham Maslow constructed a pyramid of human needs, hierarchically organized with the life sustaining essentials at the bottom and self-actualization at the top. If you study the pyramid closely you’ll realize that for a person to secure the higher needs, like love and morality, the lower more basic needs must be secured first. That brings us to the important question: if you don’t have a roof above your head, how many of your needs are guaranteed, and how is your life going to be like? In the following, we’ll get to examine how life is like for the homeless.
What is Homelessness?
Homelessness is the condition in which a person does not have or cannot maintain a regular place to live in. A home or a residence must be secure and accommodate human life. The incapability of acquiring a safe space to spend the night in might define homelessness, but the definition usually varies among different countries and regions. A homeless person could be residing in his car, truck, or tent or could also be living in a homeless shelter, an abandoned building, or a public property like a park or the street.
How Do People Become Homeless?
Housing, like any other industry, is majorly affected by the economic status of the country and on a wider scale the economic status of the world. Poverty is a main cause here. The continuous increase in the costs of housing can make it very difficult for an underemployed person to afford owning their own place. Healthcare can also be very pricy; sometimes people have to compromise their residence so that they can be able to pay for the expensive treatments of a sick member of the family.
Or, in different cases, the same expensive treatments might leave the family in debt that their houses end up compromised beyond their will. Another reason is drug use: because the abuse of drugs can mercilessly eat up on any young person’s savings, beside of course the social stigma of addiction and the lack of friends who are willing to associate with the trouble of living with an addict, these young people usually end up on the street. Natural disasters can also leave whole cities with nothing but the streets and tents to live in. But while those who are financially comfortable can survive natural catastrophes and rebuild their lives again, others are left with nothing but the debris of their own homes to live among. Sudden work disabilities or war injuries could also leave people incapable of work, thus losing their houses in the process. As one can see, there are various obstacles that can leave any one of us with no shelter. So the real question here is not how do people become homeless as much as it is what should we do to prevent it.
What would it be like to be a child living in the street? How much of the necessary ingredients of your childhood would be overlooked? According to the pyramid of needs we’ve shared up there, for a person to reach self-fulfillment their basic needs must first be realized. But how can a homeless family provide for their homeless children’s proper nutrition, proper education, or even protection from harm? That would prove to be a challenge. But worse yet, what if these homeless kids are left there with no family or guardian? Street children is the name the public usually gives to kids living with no home or adequate supervision.
The issue dates far back to the 19th century and the causes are also various. The answer to the question of how do people become homeless could suffice to explain why children as well become homeless, but we could add a few reasons to why kids choose to abandon their homes and reside in the streets. Children flee their abusive families to avoid physical punishments or sexual exploitation. Or female teenagers could run away from arranged marriages that their families are forcing them into. The possibility of the families throwing their kids into the streets because they can’t afford feeding them or are struggling with drug use or mental illness is also contributing to the issue.
- There are countries that report horrifyingly big numbers of street children in their major cities, like, for example, Bangladesh with an estimated number of 600,000 children living in the street.
- According to “Street Children as a Public Health Fiasco” 18 million children in India earn their living off the street, with an estimated percentage of 5-20% of them being homeless, spending their living also in the street.
- Street kids in the United States reached a number of 1.6 million in 2010, with an estimated 42% of them identifying as LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) according to “Street Kids: The Lives of Runaway and Thrownaway Teens.”
It is understandable that life is inarguably tough for homeless people, which makes it 3 times tougher for homeless kids, who most of the time have to suffer exploitation and sexual crimes and don’t really have any sort of opportunity to grow up to healthy educated adults that can turn over their lives and acquire a better more promising future than the unjust present they have to live through.
Life for Homeless People
Many sides of a homeless person’s life are seriously compromised. Mostly, it’s very difficult for homeless people to preserve a high level of hygiene since their access to bathrooms and generally water sources is limited. Basic everyday healthcare measures that are often taken for granted by most of us, like brushing our teeth and washing our hands, are overlooked as luxuries. Maintaining a clean space for sleep is also a difficult task, so as securing its safety from attacks, be them from other humans or street animals/bugs. The harassments from law enforcement or criminals are a constant threat to their security, and the lack of a regular residence prevents them from keeping a channel of communication with the outside world.
Besides the obvious deterioration of all aspects of life, homelessness also stigmatizes its people, making their chance of getting any decent job or social support much farther. Homeless people are viewed by the public as disgusting and disease ridden which only deepens the hole they’ve fallen into, leaving them with no education, jobs, social connections, or an opportunity at rebuilding. The vicious circle a homeless person would find himself into could very easily push him into criminal behavior to get back at the society who not only paid his misery no attention, but also actively contributed to his demise.
Maybe then how to help homeless people should be a personal concern of each one of us, whether empathy is our sole motivation or our own selfish need of keeping our society intact.
How to Help Homeless People Lead a Better Life
Now that we have recognized the gravity of the problem and how it could really affect any of us, the natural next step is to discuss the different ways with which society and individuals address the issue.
Because living in the street is never life-friendly, millions of homeless people across the world struggle against death every day. Often nature can be very cruel to the homeless, leaving elders and youth freezing to death or severely diseased. The need to provide a temporary shelter to these people is unquestionable, for once, to cover their basic physiological needs of food and warmth and safety and to also give them the chance to get back on their feet, join the workforce, and support themselves again. With these goals in mind, charitable institutions, churches, and governments started founding homeless shelters.
Homeless shelters aim at helping the large populations with no homes survive the difficult cold nights in the street. Mostly, these shelters only provide residence at night, expecting their guests to spend their daytimes elsewhere and come back at the end of the day for a warm meal and a warm place to sleep. In a sense, they do offer minimum services only sufficient to sustain life, which could be a result of the lack of resources and the huge numbers of people in need of their service.
Some homeless shelters could also provide workshops for job training or rehab for drug addicts, thus taking their help a productive step further. A few other shelters go the extra mile to provide fulltime assistance for their homeless residents to acquire a job and pay their debts. One of the activities homeless shelters also usually contribute with is soup kitchens, mostly for those who don’t reside in the shelters but visit regularly for a meal or two. Homeless people can rely on these shelters for a local address, facilitating their correspondence and job hunt and making it possible for them to subscribe to social services and libraries as well.
Emergency housing is the father concept of homeless shelters. Since the umbrella of emergency shelters is much broader, they tend to cover far more diverse homeless situations and they do it more effectively. Emergency housing is non-profitable and is supported by either the government or charitable organizations. They can be an assistance program for victims of natural disasters, in which case they offer tents or customize government buildings to be suitable for human temporary living until the city or area is reconstructed. Or they could also specialize in hosting victims of domestic abuse or sexual crimes. Because emergency housing serves different sectors of the population, it does not close its doors to its guests in daytime like most homeless shelters do. With fulltime, temporary, residency, emergency shelters can provide support groups and rehabilitate their residents.
Where Does It Go Wrong?
Despite the collective public intention of helping homeless people, sometimes the community can stand in the way of building a new shelter for the needy. Why? Family neighborhoods can be very much against homeless shelters for the bad element it can bring to their houses. Families worry about stealth and street begging, in addition to the spread of drugs and alcohol. There are naturally also concerns about the safety of their children. Communities have unjustified fears of the homeless being a fertile environment for spreading diseases, but this is not a valid concern because in most cases the two sectors are separated and the homeless are rarely, if ever, in physical contact with the neighborhood inhabitants. In some cases, incidences of misuse of volunteered money, food, or life equipment have been witnessed or reported in homeless shelters, which also caused certain skepticism among the public in regards to supporting these institutions.
Finally, homeless shelters can affect businesses badly, because the area is not family friendly or due to the frequency of occurrences where beggars harass the clients. The previous reasons might all be external, but homeless shelters have inside problems as well: abuse of money and residents, to name a few. Shelters often also fail at achieving their primary target of helping the homeless get back on their feet, overcome unemployment and debt, and afford their own housing. Offering the homeless a place to sleep does not suffice. Of course then, we are left with the problem, as big as we first tried to solve it, with hardly any positive results. Putting off the demise of the homeless is not saving their lives; it’s merely an attempt on our part to clear our conscience of the burden of their guilt. And this is not enough.
Can I Be One of the People Assisting the Homeless?
There are a few ways in which one can personally contribute to solving the issue. First, ask yourself what do homeless people need? Shelter? Can you offer that? Are you in any way affiliated with an organization that can host him? Do you know any institution nearby that offers nighttime residence? Can you guide him to a warming center if the weather is too cold? If you don’t, can you give him a blanket? Can you guide him to people who distribute blankets to the poor? Can you guide him to a soup kitchen?
What do homeless people need if a shelter is not a valid option? Nutrition? Do you own a small restaurant or café business? Can you offer a free meal to the homeless guy on the other side of the street? Can you organize a charitable activity where customers donate money to pay for the free meals that later go to the homeless? Can you volunteer in soup kitchens or homeless shelters to make sure yourself that the volunteered food and money go exactly where they should? If you have a stable income, can you devote a small amount of money to feed one homeless person per day? If you have a stable bigger income, can you feed some more?
And if you’d like to see the bigger picture, ask yourself what do homeless people need to get back on their feet. A job? Training? An opportunity? Do you own or are you affiliated with an organization that offers workshops to teach handicrafts? Can you guide him to it? Do you own a business that can make use of workforce and simultaneously offers a place to stay? Do you have the energy and the skills to volunteer to training the homeless to acquire their own jobs and make their own money? Can you give this complete stranger in need a chance to live properly again?
People assisting the homeless are not any different from you. If you can empathize with the cause, complaining about the gravity of the issue and the lack of governmental efforts to solve it in your country is not enough. Do it yourself. Help them yourself. Make sure it doesn’t go wrong yourself.
Talk to the Homeless
It’s important to establish a connection between the public and the homeless. It’s important that they don’t feel isolated and alone in their hardship. For them to overcome this huge obstacle, they must trust that there’s a hand they can rely on to pull them from the hole of drug addiction and beggary. So if there’s anything that you can do to help, do it. And if there’s nothing you can do, then talk to them. Talking to a homeless person with the usual respect and friendliness you show with other people can do his self-esteem a great deal. He will get to understand that he’s human, he’s not forgotten, and there’s still a way for him out of his misery. You might be fascinated at what you hear, and you might realize that there’s something you can do to help him. Be open to hiring a homeless person who is skilled enough.
Be open to tutoring a homeless child who is committed enough. Be open, generally, to hear their story. And if you can’t be of the people assisting the homeless, don’t be of the people alienating them. Don’t be the reason a good person in distress is left with no choice. Be the change you want to see in the world.