Who are “the homeless”?

One of my Facebook friends asked me the other night, most sincerely:  “Ace, who are the homeless?”

The question struck a chord.  Because only rarely does someone ask the question so baldly.  Simply because most people think they already know who they are.  When in fact most people are wrong.

Who are “the homeless”?  Here are the basic categories:

1.)  Skid Row bums.  The traditional denizens of the streets who have been there before the term “homeless” was even invented.  The alkies and druggies and all the other stereotypical homeless.

2.)  People with mental or physical disabilities (including an ever-increasing number of old people).  They’re just not quite together enough to hold onto a home.

3.)  Orphans.  A huge disproportionate percentage of the homeless are from broken homes.  Or no homes.  They were raised as wards of the state.  Then, at age 18 or 21, they’re kicked out of their foster home.  They have no family or support group, they’re left to fend for themselves, and they sink like stones.

4,)  Adventurers.  Guys on a Jack Kerouac “On the Road” trip.  Artists, writers and bohemians looking for life-experiences, and utilizing the free time that the streets afford to work on their art.

5.)  “One paycheck from the streets.”  These are the newest, and largest growing, inhabitants to the streets.  And they make up a huge percentage of the new breed of homeless.  There is nothing particularly “street” about them.  They’re not druggies or nuts.  They’re mostly just youngsters who can’t figure out how to come up with a couple thousand bucks for first month-last month-and-deposit.

This is probably as good a thumbnail description of “the homeless” as you’re gonna find anywhere.  And its not because I’m so smart.  But because I’m kind of a fuck-up who’s spent 40 years either homeless, or directly connected to the street scene.  As somehow who has been homeless for at least part of every decade — from 1976 through 2013 — I’ve had a unique vantage point to see how the homeless scene has evolved (or is it devolved?) over the years.

As a disclaimer, most of my homeless experiences have been in California. But, due to the transient nature of the homeless population, I’ve also gained a bit of second-hand knowledge from talking to homeless from all across America.

Probably the biggest reason people have a distorted view of “the homeless” is because the only homeless that most of you notice are the obvious, stereotypical homeless.  The bums panhandling on the sidewalk;  the street lunatics pushing shoppingcarts and rummaging through garbage cans, etc. But these obvious types make up only a percentage (maybe much less than half) of the homeless population.  There are many, many others that I call “the secret homeless.”  The clean-cut guy who disguises his state of homelessness and sits across from you in a coffee shop and you’d never guess he was homeless.  Or the ever increasing number of homeless children.  Who you pass on the streets but would never recognize as homeless.

Further muddying the issue is the stereotypes and preconceptions that many people project onto the homeless.  Where they’re either “bums” or “victims.”  When, in fact, there are plenty of both, with lots of in between.

For awhile I kept reading in the papers that the homeless hanging out on Telegraph in Berkeley were mostly brats from nearby suburbs who were mostly just hanging on the streets for kicks.   I have no idea how people came up with this view. But it couldn’t have been more inaccurate.

Another curious thing is the estimates of the homeless population.  Any long-time homeless denizen will tell you that the number of homeless has grown alarmingly virtually every year.  Simply by the eyeball test. But this is rarely reflected in the homeless estimates, which remain pretty unchanging.  And you hear figures from 500,000 to 5 million.  They are guessing.  A few years back the Census Bureau came to Berkeley to try and get a head-count.  They mostly counted the people at the soup kitchens and homeless shelters.  A faulty m.o. considering that a large percentage of the homeless don’t go to soup kitchens or homeless shelters (and a lot of people at the soup kitchens aren’t homeless).

This position is considered heretical in some quarters, but I’ve always felt the number one cause of homelessness in California was simply our exploding population growth.  California’s population has doubled in just the 40 years I’ve been here — from 20 million to 40 million.  Quite simply, the population is growing faster than we can create new housing.

If there’s going to be any kind of solution to “the homeless problem,” the first thing we need to do, in my opinion, is to start building thousands and thousands of flophouses, basically.  Little rooms with a bed and a sink in them, and a bathroom down the hall.



3 thoughts on “Who are “the homeless”?

    1. I don’t know who any of the street kids in the photo are, personally. So I’m extrapolating and projecting my impression of who I think they are, culled from zillions of experiences dealing with similar homeless youth over the years. It’s quite likely that, to varying degrees, they fit into all four of the basic homeless categories I laid out in my blog. Though I stand by my initial opinion that the majority of today’s homeless youth are on the streets primarily because of the brutal economic realities they face. And only secondarily because of their behaviors. With a lot of exceptions, of course.

      If there’s one thing I hope people will take away from my blog, its the idea that, who the homeless are, and why they are homeless, is a lot more complex than the stereotypes people generally hold about them. Whether its the “bums” stereotype, or the “victims” stereotype.

  1. There used to be a lot more “flophouses” and simple places to live. They largely got torn down in the 1960’s and 70’s for something called “urban renewal”. In the town I grew up in (Reno NV) there was once a vast area of old Victorian rooming houses just off downtown. This area was completely leveled in the mid 70’s, to put in a “free”way and a bunch of parking lots. Immediately following this action we started seeing and hearing about our first “homeless” in Reno. Nobody made the connection, instead we heard about how “drugs” made people homeless.

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