Is Homelessness a Choice?

During the 10 years I have worked on homelessness and affordable housing, I have repeatedly heard the following refrain, “Society is wasting its time / energy / money trying to solve homelessness. Homelessness is a choice.” Homelessness is a choice, just not in the way this statement often implies.

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).

While the PIT is a helpful benchmark, it’s important to remember:

  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.

Despite these drawbacks, having a “snapshot” is critical to determining whether or not homelessness is a choice. As an example, according to the PIT, in January of 2016 there were 36,000 unaccompanied homeless youth (aged 13 to 25) in the United States, which means the real number could have been as high as 180,000. However, over the course of the entire year, a study from the University of Chicago found that 4.2 million unaccompanied youth experienced homelessness at some point during 2016 (this study was able to count youth who were couch surfing, doubled up in units, in the hospital, etc.)

Taken together, these studies suggest a surprising conclusion: if there were only 180,000 homeless youth at any given point-in-time in 2016 but 4.2 million youth experienced homelessness over the course of the entire year, then that means there would have needed to be 23 unique “cohorts” of homeless youth. For this to have happened, the average cohort could have only been homeless for 16 days.

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?

If you’re struggling to answer that question, homelessness thought leader Iain De Jong has a great analogy. If you were an astronaut traveling through space and you encountered a black hole, what would you do? The strategy for both situations is the same — you would avoid it at all costs.

Even if we’ve never personally experienced homelessness, we can imagine the consequences. My rent might be really expensive now, but if I’m on the street, I’ll probably lose my job, and then I’ll be really screwed. If I get caught on the street with my family, the government is probably going to take my kids. If I end up on the street, my mental health and substance abuse issues are going to further deteriorate. Potentially worst of all, if I end up on the street, what are people going to think of me?

In the face of these possibilities, people do in fact make very difficult choices. They cash out 401Ks, retirement accounts, and savings to continue to cover rent payments or mortgages. They find ways to make more money. They call family, friends, or anyone else that might be able to provide a few days inside. They might even stick it out with an abusive or unhealthy partner.

Looking beyond homeless youth to poverty more generally, a 2011 study from the Census Bureau found that over a three year period, a staggering 29% of the nation’s population (~ 100 million people) lived in poverty for at least two months. At the same time, only 3% of these people stayed below the poverty line for the entire period. Despite the enormity of the challenges, the overwhelming majority of people remain phenomenally resilient and figure out a way to exit homelessness and poverty.

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?

100 years ago an Italian economist named Vilfredo Pareto made an interesting observation in his garden. 20% of his pea pods were responsible for 80% of all the peas he harvested. Intrigued, he tried to see if he could observe this phenomenon in other contexts. To his surprise, his research revealed that 20% of Italians owned 80% of the land in Italy.

As he continued to make observations like this, he eventually developed the “Pareto Principle,” or as it’s more commonly known today, the 80/20 rule. It states that 80% of outputs tend to come from 20% of inputs. In business, 80% of sales come from 20% of clients. 20% of criminals commit 80% of crimes. 20% of drivers cause 80% of all traffic accidents.

To be clear, it doesn’t have to be a perfect 80/20 to see the relationship. When we look at statistics on wealth and income inequality, we find that 10% of Americans own 84% of all stocks. 25% of workers in this country earn 68% of the total income. The top 20% of Americans own 86% of all wealth.

The 80/20 rule applies to homelessness too. The vast majority of people who become homeless are able to quickly resolve their situation with minimal public assistance. On the other hand, a small minority, people who experience chronic homelessness, are not able to self-resolve their situation and, in the process, end up having a hugely disproportionate impact on the community.

Even in a “progressive” city like San Francisco, frustration over homelessness (i.e. chronic homelessness) has ranged from creating apps that map incidents of human poop to Facebook rants lamenting that “the degenerates gather like hyenas, spit, urinate, taunt you … there is nothing positive gained from having [homeless people] so close to us. It’s a burden and a liability.”

We might laugh or wince at the creation of a poop app, but there is a critically important insight here. The following question is going to sound fairly absurd, but it’s the crux of the issue. What would it take for YOU personally to defecate on a public sidewalk? 9 out of 10 times when I ask community members this question, the light bulb immediately goes off. No sane, sober, fully coherent person would ever engage in that type of behavior.

This insight has now been backed up by reams of data from all across the country. In any given city or town, a small minority — roughly 10 to 30% — of the overall homeless community, the chronically homeless, are responsible for the overwhelming majority of the negative, societal impacts we attribute to the homeless community overall. I know that might sound harsh, but it’s not meant to demonize, far from it. People who experience chronic homelessness are some of the sickest, most vulnerable people in the community.

· It costs approximately $60,000 a year for someone to remain chronically homelessness. This is due to involvement with the criminal justice system, using emergency rooms as primary care physicians, and the deployment of other emergency, short-term interventions.

· In San Rafael, CA, where I have worked the last 6 years, approximately 89% of visibly homeless people had ZERO interaction with our fire department, and approximately 64% had ZERO interaction with the police department.

· Chronic homelessness is a death sentence. People experiencing long-term homelessness die on average 25 years earlier than their housed peers from preventable and treatable chronic illnesses.

In a twisted irony, even as this small group causes the largest societal impact, it is the very manifestations of their vulnerability — public intoxication, strange and aggressive behavior, poor hygiene, anti-social behavior — that make us think they are the least deserving of help. As a consequence, for the past 40 years, our systems of care have been designed to help those who are already most likely to self-resolve, while the people who need the most help spend decades slowly deteriorating before our eyes.

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.

When neighbors say no to housing, they are saying yes to homelessness. When employers say no to a living wage, they are saying yes to homelessness. When we allow our elected leaders to defund affordable housing and mental health services, we are saying yes to homelessness. When white Americans refuse to remedy the economic theft that occurred during slavery and segregation, that is saying yes to homelessness. And when local communities and nonprofits neglect to do the hard work of focusing on those people who have an extremely difficult time helping themselves, that is choosing to perpetuate chronic homelessness.

The next time we see someone experiencing homelessness, before judging their choices, we should all take a look in the mirror and consider our own.

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