News Stories

A Tough Time to be Homeless

Will the time come when there are no more homeless people shivering in the snow? Anne Strieber has written about her friendship with a homeless lucky lady and about how she feels homeless herself, but some people REALLY ARE homeless. A sociologist wanted to find out why so many of these people refuse to go to shelters but actually seem to prefer living on the street.

More than four years ago, sociologists Jeffrey Michael Clair and Jason Wasserman set out to find the answer to a simple question: Why do many homeless individuals prefer living on the street to living in shelters? So the two ventured into the streets of Birmingham, Alabama to interview homeless people, learning in the process that many programs and policies designed to help the homeless succeed only in alienating them.

For days at a time during a four-year period, the two slept under bridges and in makeshift camps set up by homeless individuals they befriended. They also spent a night in a shelter and visited other shelters in Birmingham for their research.

Wasserman says, "The shelters often were dirty and unsafe. We experienced cramped quarters and some violence. We spent only one night in a shelter, but we ate at the shelters many times and participated in activities offered there. It was often a chaotic experience and even threatening, and we really felt more comfortable on the street than in the shelters."

Clair and Wasserman say common misconceptions about the homeless have resulted in an overabundance of social services that target the homeless who are drug-addicted or mentally ill. But too few services are available for those who are homeless due to the loss of a home or job because of misfortune or the bad economy. The authors found that the few shelters that did offer job training required people to participate in substance-abuse-treatment programs in order to access the training. This is generally the case nationwide.

Clair says, "Most of the homeless that we met were creative and resourceful people. Most work and are not panhandlers. That's the stereotype. Many are well-read. We met many people who were religious. Most people would be surprised at just how so-called normal many of the homeless are.

"Public policy should be oriented more toward enabling people to work and to secure a dwelling, but current policy in our American culture tends to approach homelessness with rigidity fueled by fear of difference and uncertainty."

When Wasserman asked why many stayed away from shelters, what he found uncovered one of the biggest problems with how social assistance programs deal with the problem across the country. It turns out that the biggest reason why many homeless people avoid shelter services is because submitting to a drug-treatment program is a prerequisite for admission. The vast majority of the street homeless population he interviewed said they didn't have a drug problem and wouldn

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