When you’ve worked in and around unhoused folks — or if you’ve ever experienced a precarious financial situation yourself — you hear a lot of myths. Not like Greek mythology about the heavens. These are more like tall tales — except people believe them to be absolutely factual.
Here are just a handful of things I’ve heard stated as the gospel truth:
If you provide cash assistance, people will just spend it on drugs.
If you put people into transitional housing, they’ll never get into stable housing.
If you provide too many services, people will come from far and wide to get those freebies.
A lot of people believe these ideas as surely as they believe the sky is blue and grass is green. Or, perhaps more appropriately, they believe like children believe in Santa Claus: with all their hearts and exactly no actual evidence.
Because the statistical, objective, evidence-based truth is that cash assistance is usually used to pay for basic needs and can in fact prevent homelessness. This has been evidenced for decades. And the least effective way to get people out of homelessness is to put them in an equally unstable revolving door of shelters. And very, very few people actually travel for services, because the services that most states provide aren’t really worth traveling for.
But it’s easy to believe these myths because, if these myths are true, you’re absolved. You can take a “tough love” approach (which looks suspiciously like “just not giving a hoot if people live or die”). People like these myths because these myths turn homeless people into a separate class of people — people who need scorn rather than support.
Here’s another example that is, I think, a metaphor for our oh-so-comforting myths.
Many people believe that providing public toilets will end in the toilets being abused. That’s an easy belief to maintain, because it means you never need to figure out how to provide public toilets. Unfortunately, another statistical, objective fact is that, as a great poet once said, everybody poops. And simply failing to provide toilets doesn’t do anything to reduce the need. You can’t make people poop less by providing fewer places to poop: You can only create more unsanctioned lavatories.
Similarly, just because you believe something to be true about homeless people doesn’t make it true and doesn’t make your reasoning any less, well, crappy.
Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer living in Portland.
Read more of the Apr. 5-11, 2023 issue.