My usual gig on this blog is to comment on some of the things that get said on the access-unrestricted internet; however, sometimes what I comment upon has come from a more private social media exchange, like my poor abused friend Dex can tell you after I took him to task on large-capacity magazines. Today's offering is based on a Facebook exchange started by a friend of mine, based on the incident described over the last few days in the news media - including this Salt Lake Tribunes article: http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/news/57199090-78/bishop-lamoreaux-homeless-musselman.html.csp (accessed 03 Dec 2013).

There's been a lot of commentary on this incident where an LDS bishop who played the part of a homeless man at his ward's Sunday service. I'm sure he mortified some of his congregation. There's one thing I can state with some certainty, and that is having a homeless man drop in on anyone's place of worship in a middle class neighborhood would be outside of most people's comfort zone. I know it would be outside of mine. In fact, you don't even have to be homeless to cause a congregation discomfort. All that's required is any public display of non-standard behavior, as Howard Storm described so aptly in his 2005 book, My Descent Into Death (ISBN 978-0385513760).

I've been reading the comments of my friend's Facebook exchange with great interest. Many of the comments have addressed concerns about wisdom and safety of women and children in the presence of a homeless male stranger. As someone who has served a lot of "soup kitchen" meals to the homeless and has been separated from them by the huge distance of one plate or bowl, I know firsthand that those concerns are justified. You don't have to be a white-bread-and-mayo middle class churchgoer to be apprehensive over homeless men. At one homeless ministry I worked at, we had a women and children-only seating for lunch a half hour before men were allowed into the dining room because of those very concerns on the part of those homeless women and children.

Oop! Did I just say "homeless children?" Why, I do believe I did! If this were a piece of fiction, that would be called a plot hook.

Now I am not going to fault anyone for having concerns over the unexpected and frightful presence of a homeless man at a Sunday church service. For most people, one's place of worship is a sanctuary and a place of comfort and it's hard when that expectation is violated. I will only note in passing that the original concept of sanctuary was inclusive and included the pursued, the persecuted, and the downtrodden; and that the maintenance of faith is sometimes quite dangerous to the believer.

The reason for today's post is not to condemn or approve of what this LDS bishop did. It's because I spotted several of the common myths concerning the homeless cropping up in my friend's Facebook discussion and thought perhaps that people could profit from having those myths exposed to some facts.

The comment on the Facebook discussion that got me going is as follows:

"The thing about caring for the homeless, is that you DO have to be careful. As any shelter or police officer can tell you, most of the homeless have untreated mental illnesses than can often be dangerous."

While I share the same apprehension toward homeless men - and some homeless women too - the bit about the prevalence of mental illness among the homeless is not correct. Most homeless are not mentally ill.

But before I go any further, let me convey that most of the information I'm about to post is from the National Coalition for the Homeless and I would encourage everyone to sample the website references that I will append to this blog post.

So here are some real numbers. Surveys of the homeless have found that between 13% to 26% of the homeless have some kind of mental illness (1,2). That may look like a lot, especially when compared to the proportion of the general US population with diagnosed mental illness, which is 6%. What's scary, at least to me, is that these numbers are less than the number of children under 18 who are homeless, with estimates varying between 22% and 39% (3, 1). An estimated 23% to 38% of the homeless are members of a homeless family (1,4). If you're reading between the lines like I do, then yes, this does mean there is a non-trivial homeless population made up of children who are on their own.

Some of the demographics of homelessness surprise a lot of people. For example, in any given month, around 45% of the homeless have worked for pay. Approximately half of all homeless have been homeless for less than a year and most of those will be homeless for less than a month and are not likely to be homeless ever again (4). Those numbers change a bit for homeless families: the average shelter stay for homeless families is 5 to 6 months (1). A disproportionate number of homeless families are comprised of a single mother and children.

Real long-term homelessness is actually uncommon. The number of the "chronically homeless" is about 5% of the total homeless population, using the criteria of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (2). Most of the chronically homeless do fit the stereotype of a single person, usually male, with some kind of disability and burdened with an addiction of some type (4); this small group uses a disproportionate portion of homeless aid, with one estimate being as high as 60% of all homeless funds (2).

Homelessness correlates strongly with both poverty and the declining availability of affordable housing (1,4); however, a major cause of homelessness is domestic violence (4) and nearly one half of all homeless women and children are in flight from an abusive situation, the ones brave enough or scared enough (or both) to choose homelessness over physical abuse.

I hope the next time you spare some thoughts for the homeless, you will look beyond the myth of the addicted street bum and the mentally-ill Foul Ole Ron, and include in your gaze the families of the working poor who are almost always an accident or illness away from losing their home as well as the mother and children in flight from domestic violence.

Post Script

If you care to stretch your brain some, an excellent in depth look at the current state of homelessness is the book The State of Homelessness in America 2013, put out by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, available in pdf format at http://www.endhomelessness.org/library/entry/the-state-of-homelessness-2013 (accessed 2 Dec 2013).

References All websites were accessed on 3 Dec 2013.

  1. http://www.nationalhomeless.org/factsheets/who.html
  2. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/07/09/AR2010070902357.html
  3. http://www.frontsteps.org/how-to-help/advocate/facts-us-homelessness
  4. http://nationalhomeless.org/about-homelessness/