As I’m gearing up for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month for those of you who may not know), I have been reading about homelessness and schizophrenia. The more I read about the people affected by one or both, the more I realized there was a whole lot I didn’t know. There was an entire world, in fact, on which I had hung a lot of stereotypes and never bothered to correct them. I would like to share here a quick look at some statistics which have changed my view. (Please note: These statistics are for my city, Albuquerque.)
One of the most startling things I discovered was the fact that of the homeless shelters we have in Albuquerque, only one, Joy Junction, allows men and women to stay together. I truly had no idea that if you were a married couple – homeless and looking for shelter – that your options were so limited. In one interview conducted by Joy Junction’s CEO Jeremy Reynalds, the couple being interviewed talked about having to choose whether one slept in a shelter while the other remained outside. In fact, according to the Albuquerque Homeless Needs Assessment, only 30% of homeless families were actually being sheltered in 2012 because of the lack of family-oriented shelter.1 Albuquerque is apparently not alone in this, as many cities segregate men and women, even those who are married.
Veterans are actually a smaller portion of the homeless population, representing only about 5%, opposed to victims of domestic abuse which represent 40%.1 (Of that 40%, 60% are adults with children.1) It is not to say that our servicemen and women don’t deserve to be cared for – far from it. I cite this statistic because I had the tendency to see homelessness as a veteran dominated group – men and women who went to war and came home with PTSD. While mental illness is a large percentage of the population, it is not veterans who make up the majority of that number.
Mentally ill people make up 53% of the homeless population1… leaving 47% that are down on hard times or suffering from addiction. I can’t tell you what a reality check that figure was for me. And as much as people look at homelessness as a situation that could never happen to them, the fact of the matter is, anyone can fall on hard times. With the “right” set of circumstances, anyone could become homeless.
When looking at the percent of homeless that actually are mentally ill, it brings up one of society’s greatest stigmas – that a person is able to work and function because they have a fit body; that homeless people are lazy. Mental illness, of many kinds, is a hidden disease, and one that prevents otherwise healthy people from engaging in and being productive members of society. Without adequate treatment, affordable treatment, these people suffer just as much as those with other physical disabilities. Mental illness is not a choice any more than being wheelchair bound because of scoliosis.
I also thought homeless people were older, but the statistics once again worked to prove my assumptions incorrect. The ages of 18-54 make up the bulk of people, 60% as a matter of fact.1 And with those mothers and fathers on the streets, nearly 15% of the homeless population is under five years old.1 That percentage of the population is one of the most invisible of all, the ones you rarely see, the ones that make it easy for us to ignore.
One of the final facts I want to discuss has to do with the female population. Homelessness is devastating for anyone, but it seems to affect women even harder than men. Women are at risk for rape and abuse on the streets, a sad truth. In 2006, the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness did a survey of Albuquerque homeless women, and the results they found were utterly sobering. Domestic abuse and drugs are the top reasons for a woman to be homeless.2 Most are on food stamps, and 88% have children, most of those under 18.2 Many are unable to work at all due to mental and physical problems, and those that can are unable to find jobs.2
So what does this mean?
First, that homelessness isn’t what you expect. These are not simply lazy people who have decided to give up their homes. They are not all mentally ill and drugged out. They are people who are in need of a helping hand and compassion; people who have fallen on hard times and couldn’t make ends meet. They are families, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters, uncles, aunts, cousins, and friends.
Second and most important, homeless people need our support. Here in Albuquerque, the summers are hot – give that bottle of water. The homeless are hungry – give a gift card for McDonalds or Burger King or somewhere else of your choice. The homeless have hygiene needs – donate to shelters by giving toothbrushes, hair brushes, sun screen, Chapstick, lotion, and soap. Don’t forget that your time is a crucial donation! Call your local shelters and find out what they need help with and offer to give it!
Last, don’t judge. You never know why or how someone ended up in the place they’re in, but if we as a society take the time to learn, we can grow so much.
For more information on how you can help the homeless in your area, please visit:
Homeless Shelter Directory – http://www.homelessshelterdirectory.org/
Nicole has written three novels, a feature-length script, and many short stories and short film scripts. Her debut novel, “Carla’s Rivet” is scheduled for release on March 1st, 2014. Please visit http://nicoleagramlich.com for more information.
- The New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness, The Albuquerque Strategic Collaborative to End Homelessness, City of Albuquerque. (2012). Homeless Needs Assessment. Retrieved from http://www.cabq.gov/family/documents/albuquerque-homeless-needs-assessment-final.pdf
- The New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness. (2007). Albuquerque Homeless Women Survey. Retrieved from http://www.nmceh.org/pages/reports/Albuquerque_Homeless_Women_Survey-Final.pdf