Is Homelessness a Choice?

16 Days

There is an objective way to determine whether or not people “choose” to be homeless. Every odd year at the end of January, the federal government requires communities to conduct a “Point-in-Time” (PIT) census of people experiencing homelessness (i.e. people sleeping outside, in vehicles, in emergency shelters).

  1. The PIT methodology results in an under count. If volunteers can’t find people, they aren’t counted. Thus, the PIT does not include people in jail who would otherwise be homeless, people in hospitals who would otherwise be homeless, people sleeping on couches, people temporarily in motels, people double or tripled up in a unit, or simply people who are too hidden to be found the day of the count. If these additional people were counted, the PIT could be 500% higher.
  2. A point-in-time is not the same as a period-of-time. The PIT is like seeing your bank account balance without getting a statement. It tells you nothing about what’s coming in, what’s going out, or how the numbers are changing over time.

What Would You Do?

Is 16 days really that surprising? In our judgment of other people experiencing homelessness, we often forget to ask ourselves what we would do in a similar situation. That question is worth seriously considering. If YOU were the verge of homelessness, what would you do?

What about the “Stereotypical” Homeless Person?

These numbers are powerful, but they can’t erase the reality in parks, downtowns, and offramps all across our country. There are clearly people who are NOT self-resolving their homelessness. They are extremely physically vulnerable. They exhibit signs of serious mental illness and psychosis. Many are substance-dependent. How do we explain this group in light of so many others self-resolving?

Society’s Choices

As a Millennial, I have never known a United States without homelessness. It would therefore be easy to assume homelessness is inevitable and unsolvable, but it’s not. The modern homelessness crisis began in the early in 1980s. The causes are obvious and have absolutely nothing to do with vulnerable people choosing to be homeless.



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Andrew Hening

Andrew Hening

UC Berkeley MBA and Harvard-recognized culture change leader sharing tools, strategies, and frameworks for untangling complex and messy challenges.