Are People Really Homeless by Choice?

The belief that people are homeless because they brought their predicament on themselves, is one way to justify doing nothing to help. This rationalization allows society to consider the homeless person as a nuisance, one from whom we all need to be protected by law enforcement.

by Jack Bragen


Those who hate the poor are often good at using rationalizations to defend their attitudes. The belief that people are homeless because they have chosen it, and the conclusion that that they have brought their predicament on themselves, is one way to justify doing nothing to help.

In fact, this rationalization allows society to consider the homeless person as a nuisance, one from whom we all need to be protected by law enforcement. Those who deride persons who do not have a home may lack the facts to support their opinion. One way of obtaining the truth is to interact with those without a home.

Art by Christa Occhiogrosso

When I was 17, I was fired from one of my first jobs, and after I was let go, one of my coworkers also was fired. He was nearly of retirement age, and became homeless after losing his job.

Later, I spotted him in several places in Concord, and could see that his luck had changed for the worse. At the time, I was going through my own drama of being introduced to mental illness, so I didn’t have the wherewithal to try speaking to this man. But I remember thinking that he was a bit old to be forced to endure homelessness.

Once a person is homeless, and down on his or her luck — and is possibly experiencing symptoms of mental illness on top of that — who is going to hire them?

Those who scoff at the homeless may prescribe work, saying that they should pick themselves up by their own bootstraps. But, realistically, who is going to employ the destitute person living on the streets? When someone is hiring, they are naturally going to choose the best specimen out of those who apply, not the one who is down and out. That’s the reality.

As I grew older and began to interact with a wide variety of people, I met some who didn’t walk to the beat of the well-off and proper. I began to realize that many persons down on their luck were more interesting to talk to and sometimes had a kinder attitude toward me, compared to the wannabe business tycoons who supervised me in jobs where I disliked the work as well as the supervisors.

Many are not successful in the work world because they don’t fit in. They may not have been thick-skinned enough, or may have been more creative or more thoughtful than those who succeeded. I began to realize that success in society often hinged upon making oneself into a drone, and not upon being the most intelligent person.

Certain homeless people may have ended up living on the streets through a series of bad decisions. However, maybe they didn’t benefit from the same privileged upbringing as did the haughty people who judge them. Maybe they didn’t have the clarity that would have enabled them to anticipate the consequences of the bad decisions they were making.

It isn’t safe to say that a person is always to blame for where they end up in life. Many simply fall through the cracks. Not everyone has the capacity to hold down employment. Out of those who don’t, not all are able to get government benefits.

A person could argue these things until blue in the face. However, my point is that the rich aren’t necessarily better people, morally or in other terms, because things have worked out for them. Many of them began with social and economic advantages not available to those who have fallen behind in the rat race.

I was vulnerable to homelessness in one phase of my life, just after young adulthood. What prevented this plunge into homelessness was that I had family members who were there to help in my time of need. I had made a series of bad decisions, and also I couldn’t work at a job any more. With the help of family who were willing to provide material assistance, I got past that phase until I could figure out more lessons about properly handling my affairs.

Some become homeless because of losing their job, either due to becoming disabled or because fate has given them an unhappy surprise or a sudden  illness.

It is not safe to assume that anyone willing to work can get a job. Millions of jobs have been lost to outsourcing, while other jobs have disappeared entirely due to advances in technology.

Furthermore, if one’s background is not pristine, it can be very hard to get hired. Now companies are performing background checks on people who apply for a job flipping burgers, or sweeping floors.

The prospect of starvation may force many into illegal activities; and then people end up with long jail sentences. The jails have become repositories for millions who have done minor “crimes” and could not afford an expensive attorney.

If your environment is such that you are in constant danger, you are not able to slow down and think about things. Sometimes, clarity of thought comes after, not before, some recovery time from traumatic events. Hindsight is the fertilizer in which grows the flower of foresight.

People who must learn from the school of hard knocks are on a harder path than those who have been guided by parents or other role models. Those who start on a mistaken path do not always find their way back. It is not safe to assume that one is somehow a better person because of being a “success.” Those blessed with material success ought to be grateful for it, and should not cop an attitude that they are more worthwhile than those less fortunate.

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