Half-Truths, Cop-Outs, and How We’re Quick to Judge Our Homeless Brothers and Sisters

Part I

by Brandy Wallner

When something is true some of the time that doesn’t make it true all of the time. And when we believe a negative trait to be true of all of a “type” of people what we really do is stereotype. We adopt a prejudice that discounts what we could be doing to help.

In this two-part blog series, The Restoration Project will discuss the half-truths, cop-outs, and judgments made about the unhoused community.

Mental illness is the main cause of homelessness

Let’s start with a biggee. This is a common belief about the unhoused. The reality is that the question of whether mental illness plays as big of a role as we think it does when it comes to homelessness here in California — is complex.

According to The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), “326,000 people experienced homelessness in the United States on a single night in 2021.” And a staggering 46% of those people are on the streets right here in California. Read that again — out of the entire nation’s homeless population, 46% are here in California. That’s, “about one-fifth of the entire homeless population in the United States (endhomelessness.org).

With such a large population of unhoused people living right here in California it begs the question, is it also true that California has the highest incidence of mental illness?

World Population Review Mental Health Statistics by State 2022 revealed that California didn’t even break the top 10 when it comes to states with the highest incidence of serious mental illness. States like Virginia, Texas, and Alaska were in the top three with California falling nearly two full percentage points below them.

So what gives?

While mental illness is indeed a factor in our brothers and sisters finding themselves on the streets it’s by no means the only factor or even the most significant when it comes to the homeless community in California. In fact, US World and News Report said in a 2021 article, that “severe mental illness made up for 25%” of our unhoused population.

That 25% is significant. That 25% deserves to be served in every possible way they can be. But that also means that 75% of the unhoused community is either undiagnosed or not struggling with a mental illness.

Could it be that having a mental illness leads the man or woman struggling with homelessness to “stand out”? Advocate and film director, Gio Ferraro calls these men and women “highlighters,” pointing to their tendency to stand out amongst everyone else living in the same tough situation.

It’s possible that our pointing to mental illness as the biggest factor leading to homelessness, makes the problem of homelessness, someone else’s problem — not ours.

They’re just going to use the money I give them to buy alcohol

Perhaps you’ve given a few dollars to someone struggling and watched as they walked into the nearest liquor store. Or maybe you’ve offered to buy someone on the street a meal in order to specifically avoid that situation.

It’s true that 38% of people struggling with homelessness are alcohol dependent and 26% are dependent on other drugs (addictioncenter.com). However, using this as a reason not to help someone financially can be yet another cop-out. 

We all have coping mechanisms. For some of us it’s food, for some it’s TV, and for some, it’s popping open a beer or pouring a glass of wine at the end of a long day. 

Imagine, if you will, how intensely stressful living on the streets would be. Without any of the creature comforts that we enjoy in our homes: no cozy sheets, no security, no heat, not knowing when (or how) your next meal is coming. No TV in which to zone out in front of. No job to feel purposeful during the day and not a lot of hope for one on the following day either. 

Generally speaking, our lives are far less stressful, yet each of us has ways that we cope with our day-to-day challenges. Because, relatively speaking, our lives are hard. But when we see a homeless person do the same — we judge them. We believe they should make better use of the money, buy themselves a meal, or better yet save the money. Ultimately our prejudgement (also known as prejudice) can cause us to withhold financial help altogether. 

Another factor to consider is that addiction is not always what led to someone being homeless. Sometimes the opposite is true. Often, homelessness leads to addiction. Again, a coping mechanism for trauma and extremely difficult living situations. 

In the following installments of this series, we’ll discuss misconceptions like laziness, criminalization, and “not wanting help.” 

Have some thoughts you’d like to share with The Restoration Project community? We’d love to hear them! Share in the comments.

P.S. For monthly updates from The Restoration Project, sign up for our newsletter, Restored. And to find out how you can volunteer with us, contact us HERE.

P.P.S. Join us on April 8th, for a showing of our friend Gio’s movie – Lennon. This movie does an amazing job of illuminating the point of view of someone dealing with homelessness. There will be dinner and a Q&A to follow

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