Is Homelessness a Choice?- The Social Stigma Myth


Just some rainy day musing…

As I was walking around the City in the rain today I was thinking… “How can people honestly believe homelessness is a choice?”

Every block I could see people trying to find shelter from the rain in doorways and under overhangs… just trying to stay dry. When you are homeless, getting wet is a big deal because it means you will be soaked for quite a while. It really sucks in the moment, but can also lead to illness too.

This is an extremely common social stigma in our culture… and one of the first things people mention when the subject of homelessness comes up. I don’t believe it’s done in a callous or conscious way really, rather people just accept the social stigma myths to be true. People will say… “Well, I hear some people choose to be homeless.” I hear it from almost everyone I discuss this with… even priests and social workers! So if you assumed this was the case, you are not alone.

The reality is that this just isn’t based on truth. Lets unpack this a bit. First, lets look at the definition of the word “choice”… act or instance of choosing; selection.
2. the right, power, or opportunity to choose; option.
3. the person or thing chosen or eligible to be chosen.
4. an alternative.
5. an abundance or variety from which to choose.
6. something that is preferred or preferable to others; the best part of something.
7. a carefully selected supply.

Now I have a question for you. Would you choose to be homeless? Would you choose to have no place to get out of the rain? Would you choose to not have a place or bed to sleep? And how about this one… would you choose to not have a place to charge your cell phone? Would you choose to put yourself in a situation where the people around you look away as if you don’t exist or look at you in disgust or fear… where people judge you and assume you are “lazy”, “scammer”, a “junkie”, “crazy”, etc.?

If your answer to these questions is yes, well, that’s a whole other subject to unpack.

But lets unpack this a little bit. Lets start with “lazy”. This is assuming being homeless is easy… which is not true. It’s a LOT of work! Just navigating social service providers is a full time job. Then you have things like eating, going to the bathroom, sleeping… let alone just trying to stay safe or not getting arrested for “quality of life” laws for things like sitting down.

Then we have another common myth… that people panhandling are scammers that are living it up off of asking strangers for change. We’ve all heard about the panhandler that ‘someone’ once saw drive off in a BMW or something. Yeah, that’s a facade, just like the welfare queen. It’s propaganda that makes people feel better about the government not caring for the poor… because it’s blames the ones suffering, not the politicians pushing through crappy legislation.

The “junkie” myth is another very common social stigma. It makes sense when you see someone drunk or nodding out on the street. And yet lets look at the definition of addiction… “the state of being enslaved to a habit or practice or to something that is psychologically or physically habit-forming, as narcotics, to such an extent that its cessation causes severe trauma.” Doesn’t sound like this is a choice. But then people will say, but using is a choice. Well, I would challenge that as well. It might be more debatable if we had adequate social services to provide rehabilitation, but we don’t so that reason isn’t valid.

The beloved “crazy” social stigma. I don’t think I really need to explain this one too much. But lets look at the definition just for kicks. “A mental disorder, also called a mental illness or psychiatric disorder, is a mental or behavioral pattern or anomaly that causes either suffering or an impaired ability to function in ordinary life (disability), and which is not a developmental or social norm.” Obviously this is not a choice.

I’m always up for a challenge, so if you think you can give me a legit reason to believe homelessness is a choice, give it a shot. But I would recommend thinking your reasoning through because I’m sure I will have a couple follow up questions to ask you.



2 thoughts on “Is Homelessness a Choice?- The Social Stigma Myth

  1. Jesus commanded to love others as He loved — He commanded His apostles and disciples to follow His pattern of sacrificial love. To love humbly — to be a slave — to take up His call to love others as He loved — which is to love to the end — to be willing to die for love of others. He then holds us accountable for what we do and what we fail to do. Matthew 25:31-46. James underscores this in James 2:14-25.

  2. Growing up, I thought some people just wanted to live outside. I always thought it was strange, because it seemed uncomfortable and scary, and it sounds like it was a misconception.

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