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Homelessness Mythbusters

Social Justice Superheroes the Mythbusters Tackle the "Lazy Homeless" Stereotype
by Rich Lombino & Elizabeth Lombino · August 25, 2010

We're on the train on our way home. We strike up a conversation with someone sitting next to us. He's wearing a suit and has a Bluetooth in his ear, an iPhone in his hand and a laptop on his lap. He works for an insurance company in New York City. He asks what we do, and after we describe our careers, the conversation takes an interesting turn.

He tells us about his younger sister, who is living in North Carolina and has six children. One has developmental delays. Last year her husband lost his job and hasn't been able to find work. He started drinking heavily six months ago. Three months ago he said he was going to Texas to find work because that's where the jobs are. She never heard from him again.

This sister has only ever been a stay-at-home mom and only has a high school diploma. She's been looking for a job, but so far hasn't found one since she doesn't have many marketable skills. Even her eldest son, who is 19, has been trying to work but also can't find a job. She's depleted her savings, maxed out her credit cards, and the landlord has begun eviction proceedings. She gets multiple calls from creditors each day. She's depressed and anxious.

Our train companion then asks us what she should do. We put on our social work hats and proceed to give him a public benefits 101 overview and discuss the mental health services available, and he appreciates it greatly. Then he says: "It must be hard helping people in your line of work because most of them are just looking for a handout and trying to game the system. Then we pay higher taxes to pay for them." We both looked at him in disbelief. He had just told us a story about how anyone can become homeless —even his own sister — yet he was holding onto one of the many damaging myths regarding those who are homeless and living in poverty.

It took a lot of effort not to say "Are you kidding me?" ...

But really, the point is that here is someone who has a sister facing many of the issues our clients do, and yet the power of the "lazy homeless" myth is so strong that he feels compelled to bring it up during the same discussion when he's seeking help?