Countering Myths About Homelessness: ‘Let’s Remember Peoples’ Humanness’

22December 2020

human services campus

Located just west of Downtown Phoenix, the Human Services Campus is a public-private collaborative offering emergency shelter, housing and a vast array of holistic services across a 13-acre campus. Tenants include Central Arizona Shelter Services (CASS), St. Vincent de Paul, the Lodestar Day Resource Center and numerous others. (Photo: Fara Illich)

When you see a person experiencing homelessness in Downtown Phoenix, what goes through your mind?

Do you say to yourself, “why doesn’t he just get a job?” Do you wonder why she chose to be homeless? Do you cross the street because you think all homeless people are dangerous, violent or mentally ill? Or do you simply ignore what you see?

Homelessness is a complex issue. On a typical night in Maricopa County, more than 7,400 people experience homelessness.  Nationwide, more than half a million people are living on the streets.

The common denominator: they don’t have stable housing. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough shelter beds for everyone who needs one, and the lack of affordable housing in the Phoenix-metro area makes it difficult to place everyone in a stable home.

To address the lack of shelter beds, the Human Services Campus (HSC) is in the midst of a rezoning application. If approved, the rezoning process through the City of Phoenix would add beds to Central Arizona Shelter Services (CASS), allow Andre House to build a 100-bed, low-barrier shelter, and enable HSC to put 200 emergency shelter beds in the St. Vincent de Paul dining room or Lodestar Day Resource Center during extreme weather

Assuming we’ll be successful in that effort, the outcome still leaves the city and the region with more individuals experiencing homelessness than there are beds. Which gets us back to the myths and facts about homelessness.

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Amy Schwabenlender became the executive director of the Human Services Campus in 2018. Prior to that, she spent 13 years as vice president of community impact for the Valley of the Sun United Way. (Photo: Elaine Kessler)

Let’s start with a question: Should people be treated differently based on how they look and because they don’t have a home?

Perhaps the best way to get to arrive at the answer “no” is to counter some of the myths with facts.

First, many people experiencing homelessness do have jobs — sometimes more than one. The National Coalition for the Homeless estimates as many as 40-60 percent of people experiencing homelessness nationwide are employed.

But a paycheck doesn’t necessarily solve their homelessness or other challenges. We see that every day at the Human Services Campus, where we work with thousands of men and women who are taking steps that will eventually move them from street to home.

Second, people experiencing homelessness are no more likely to be violent, dangerous or engage in criminal behavior than a person who is housed.

They are parents trying to find work while living in a car with their children. They are teens with no supportive adults in their lives, or senior citizens with poor health and a fixed income struggling to get by. They are all human beings in need of shelter.

Third, there is no evidence supporting the contention that people experiencing homelessness prefer to live on the streets. Quite the opposite. We know that men and women offered access to shelter beds and housing welcome the opportunity, often with tears.

What, then, is the solution? We’re working on it every day. We know it needs to be a regional strategy. And we also know there are many people in the Valley who are committed to the issue, and to continuing to make a difference. While we work to solve homelessness, let’s remember peoples’ humanness.

About the author: Executive director of the Human Services Campus in Downtown Phoenix, Amy Schwabenlender develops and leads strategic work to end homelessness through permanent, supportive housing.

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