According to the Department for Housing and Urban Development (HUD) there are over half a million homeless living in the US. Visit a country like, say, India, and that number rises comfortably into the millions. Even Japan, which has one of the lowest homeless rates on Earth, has over 20,000 citizens sleeping rough. We’re not exaggerating when we say homelessness is a problem that affects every society there is.
But what exactly does it mean to be homeless in 2017? Is it a non-stop horrorshow of misery, or an easy life of living it large at society’s expense? Dig beneath the headlines and the stereotypes, and it becomes plain that homelessness is bigger, crazier, and more-difficult to deal with than you could have possibly imagined.
10. Life Expectancy is Shockingly Low
If you’re reading this from a developed nation, chances are you have a reasonable shot at reaching 80 years of age. Between 77-89 is the life expectancy for nations as diverse as the USA, UK, Czech Republic, Albania, Costa Rica, Japan and Monaco. Even countries like Colombia, Morocco, and the West Bank have average life expectancies of over 75 years. Unless you happen to be homeless. In the UK, the average homeless life expectancy is a shocking 47 years.
That’s a shorter time on this Earth than you’d get living in Chad, Afghanistan or North Korea. Were homelessness a country, it’d have by far the lowest life expectancy on the planet. And here’s the thing, the UK isn’t an outlier. In parts of the US, homeless people die on average around the age of 42. In parts of Scotland, they can expect to die at 39.
The last time the US or UK had a life expectancy that low in their general population, Queen Victoria was still on the throne. That’s right. Homelessness is as bad for your health as living in a time before penicillin and mass-vaccinations. It certainly doesn’t help that…
9. Being Homeless Means Being Horribly Ill
Remember the last time you were caught outside in bad weather and came down with a stinking cold? Homelessness is that experience, 24/7. Only, instead of a few days in bed or feeling gross at work, you get months of feeling like your entire body is going haywire.
The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) has a list here of some of the health problems associated with homelessness. It makes for awful reading. Stuff like frostbite, disorders of the extremities, malnutrition and skin diseases are par for the course. Tooth and gum problems, degenerative illnesses and infected wounds are prevalent, as are things like alcohol poisoning and sexually-transmitted diseases. Terrifyingly, one of the most common health problems comes from trauma. A depressing number of people out there like nothing more than to attack the homeless and try and put them in the hospital.
Speaking of hospitals, mental problems and social stigma also make the homeless less likely to seek medical help, meaning treatable problems get worse. The NCBI page includes the tale of a woman whose swollen legs eventually gave way to maggot-infested open sores.
8. You Can be Homeless and Working
What’s your mental image of homelessness? We’re betting its some grizzled old dude with a weatherbeaten face, muttering on the subway about the government planting radios in his teeth. We’re not gonna deny those guys exist. But they’re far from the whole story. There exists a whole branch of homeless people out there who we never hear anything about. These are the people who are homeless while still holding down a job.
A December 2016 Guardian article interviewed people who worked at pubs, at McDonald’s, and even in an office making over minimum wage, but were still homeless. Some were in temporary accommodation, some slept at their place of employment, and some simply slept in parks. While the newspaper’s story was London-specific, this happens in the US, too. Al-Jazeera reported in 2013 that as many as 25% of American homeless may have jobs.
For the working homeless, life on the streets means pain and ill-heath and misery, but also keeping yourself clean and presentable enough to go to work every day. It’s a horribly depressing existence, and one that’s often ignored in articles like this one. ‘But how can someone possibly be holding down a long-term job and dealing with homelessness?’ we hear you cry. We’re glad you asked.
7. Being Homeless is Insanely Expensive
Most of us probably assume that there’s no cheaper lifestyle than homelessness. Most of us are wrong. For some people who find themselves out on the streets, homelessness isn’t just a depressing pain. It’s a financial black hole that sucks in all their available funds.
Things many of us take for granted are not available on the streets. Finding somewhere to shower costs money. Finding somewhere safe to leave your work clothes costs money. Staying in even the worst motel costs more than paying rent, and sleeping in your car means you’re still dealing with gas and maintenance. Then there are the homeless who wind up on the streets with their kids. If they’re working, most of their money is probably going into paying someone to look after their child for a few hours every day so they don’t wind up getting hurt or assaulted.
But what about shelters? Sadly, most shelters will move you on after a few months. It all adds up to a world where the money coming in can be just enough to sustain your homeless lifestyle, but not enough to escape it. Proper streets-and-sleeping-under-bridges homelessness is undoubtedly cheap. Homelessness when you’re desperately trying to cling onto your job and have a kid to take care of? Not so much.
6. You Can be Homeless and Studying
Being homeless and working is bad enough. But there’s another sub-section of the homeless that we hear even less about: those who are homeless and studying. In 2014, over 56,000 college students in America were classified as homeless. Rather than safe spaces and trigger warnings, these kids are dealing with a daily fight for survival.
The reasons are myriad and complex. Some come from poor families and went to college on a scholarship, only to lose funding. Others were working class students who suffered a sudden injury or layoff and now can’t bring money in. Yet others were homeless from the get-go, and are desperately trying to earn a college degree and escape into the middle class. Some sleep in the campus library. Some in their cars. Yet others sofa surf friends’ houses. Some are even stuck in shelters.
As an added kick to the groin, many find the pressures of homelessness so stressful that they perform poorly in class, endangering their chances of escaping from poverty. Graduating with a debt of around $30,000 doesn’t help, either.
5. Dealing With Homelessness Costs the State Crazy Money
We mentioned a moment ago that homelessness is expensive. We didn’t just mean for the homeless themselves. Rough sleeping costs society crazy amounts of money. At the end of the last decade, it cost the mayor’s office $36,000 per year to shelter a single family in New York City. It was such a drain on the city’s coffers that the Bloomberg administration began buying one way airline tickets to anywhere in the world for homeless people, paying over $6,000 in one instance to fly a homeless person to Paris.
Do even the tiniest bit of research and the numbers quickly become mind-boggling. When HUD calculated the cost of homelessness, including increased use of public services due to health problems, they found a single homeless person in the US can cost the taxpayer $40,000 a year. For those with mental health issues living in expensive parts of the country, that cost could rise as high as $150,000. Given the half-a-million American homeless we mentioned earlier, you can see how those figures quickly add up.
4. Middle Class Homelessness
The Great Recession has been over for a while now, and the media is reporting on it less and less. Unemployment is down. Growth is (kinda) back. But the effects of the devastating ’08 crash are still lingering. While the rich have rebounded, many in middle class have been forced into desperate situations they’re still trying to escape. Some of them have even wound up becoming homeless.
In November 2015, homeless advocates estimated that there were more homeless living in cars than at any time since the Great Depression. While the US government doesn’t keep precise data on these mobile homeless, it is assumed that a great many of them are middle class. The American middle class rarely does full-on, on-the-streets homelessness. Those who were in decent, white collar jobs tend to wind up in cheap motels, or sleeping in the houses of friends and relatives, or just living out of their cars. In effect, they’re the invisible homeless. And you better believe that life is still tough for them.
Part of this is due to the general decline of the American middle class. For the first time in decades, the middle class, as a group, has seen their combined wealth dip below that of the combined upper class. Being middle class just doesn’t pay anymore.
3. Non-Homeless Peoples’ Brains See the Homeless as Objects
We’ve all heard people – friends, relatives, colleagues – complaining about homeless people before, often in language that suggests they don’t see the poor as even human. It’s not a nice thing to hear, but there’s a good chance it’s not even their fault. Our brains respond in different ways to different groups, depending on our prejudices. Where the homeless are concerned, neuroimaging studies suggest we see them as literally no different to objects.
When we see images of other humans, our medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) typically activates. Functional magnetic resonance imaging shows it has activity even when viewing groups we typically see as undesirable (hate preachers, say). On the other hand, there is no mPFC activity when we’re looking at objects. When a Princeton study measured our brains’ responses to homeless people, it found there was no mPFC activation. In other words, most non-homeless brains process rough sleepers in the exact same way we process objects.
This is consistent with how extreme ‘out groups’ are often seen in society. An analogy might be how the Tutsi were seen by the Hutu ethnic group prior to the Rwandan genocide. While we doubt we’re about to see a mass-killing of homeless people, these same mechanisms do mean we care much less when we hear about the homeless being harassed or begging for help than we would if they came from another social group.
2. Elderly Homeless Numbers are Rising
We mentioned earlier that the homeless tend to die younger. That’s because living on the streets is really, really not something the elderly are well-equipped to deal with. Nonetheless, old homeless people do exist, and always have. The difference is that now their numbers are rising. In 2016, nearly a third of America’s homeless population was over the age of 51.
This is a relatively new phenomenon. Prior to 2007, the fraction was closer to a fifth. Then the Great Recession came, and older homeless numbers spiked by 10 percentage points. Plenty of them are the same people who got caught when the Recession killed the US middle class. They’re former entrepreneurs, writers, artists, stay-at-home moms and business consultants who thought they’d put enough away for the future in the heady credit-fueled days of the early 21st century. Then the banks nearly collapsed, work dried up, money ran out and they found out they were wrong.
Now they’re scraping by, at the bottom of society, trying to survive in a world that’s tough enough when you’re young and fit. Ignored by the government, with no hope for the future.
1. Homelessness and Murder
Just being homeless puts you at an increased risk of being assaulted or murdered. Go looking, and you’ll find plenty of stories like that of the homeless woman who had her head stamped on 7 times because a local man couldn’t stand her “smell.” Or the homeless man who nearly burned to death when violent thugs set his tent on fire. While these crimes are serious enough in America, in other parts of the world they’re truly shocking.
Take Colombia. In Bogota, the army operated death squads that would execute the homeless, dress them up as fighters for the FARC rebel group, and claim a bounty on them. Over a thousand were murdered this way, in a scandal now known as the ‘false positives’. Or take India, where homeless shelters are so thin on the ground that 33,000 died from exposure in Delhi alone in a single decade. Or North Korea, where homeless children are interred in camps and left to die of malnutrition.
These are all extreme cases, but they’re also a sad reality of life for many millions of homeless across the world. Being homeless in America, Britain, or Europe is undoubtedly better. But that doesn’t mean it’s a walk in the park.