Our Unhoused Neighbors: Myths About Homelessness

"Tent City 3?" on a bright gold background

As shared in recent articles, representatives of three UUC social justice groups – the Social Justice Steering Committee, Teen Feed, and our collaboration with Lake City Partners – are exploring the possibility of UUC hosting SHARE’s Tent City 3 in the next year. This week we address some of the common misconceptions about homelessness.

Between 2012 and 2018, Seattle Pacific University hosted Tent City 3 three times. During those stays two researchers “conducted interviews with over 60 residents.” Their conclusion: “The data challenges what we think we know about the causes of homelessness and the character of the people who experience it.” They identified four myths about homelessness.

“Myth 1: People who are homeless have greater pathologies . . .” The researchers observed that “In the case of those very visible homeless suffering from mental illness or addiction, these health problems often begin after losing their homes, due to the stress of living on the streets. Alcohol and drugs often come after the fact, used to numb the pain, loneliness, and depression of homelessness.

Myth 2: Homeless people do not want regular work”

“Yet our research shows that many people who are homeless continue to work. Some 25% of Tent City 3 residents were working full or part-time, another 30% were actively seeking employment and 20% were retired or unable to work due to disability or other health issues. Rather than being lazy, a lack of jobs, limited skills or education, and low wages kept them homeless.  

“Myth 3: People choose to be homeless”

“Stories from Tent City 3 residents are full of economic travails, family disruptions, and health crises as precipitating causes of homelessness. In fact, in a 2018 survey in Seattle, 98% said that they would move into safe and affordable housing if available. There are rare cases of personal choice favouring a homeless lifestyle – evading work and responsibility – but this is not the norm. For some, childhoods riddled with strife and instability – from living in the foster care system to living in abusive families – led directly to homelessness.

“Myth 4: Social services are handling the problem”

Since the SPU researchers’ performed their interviews between 2012 and 2018, the scope of Seattle’s homelessness challenge has become increasingly visible, and as a result this 4th myth may be less widely held. Increasingly it is recognized that the primary causes of homelessness are our country’s underinvestment in affordable housing for decades, along with Seattle’s sky high rents, problems that, as the authors noted, social services cannot address. 

As the SPU authors conclude “Public perceptions about homelessness matter. They can both broaden our understanding or serve to reinforce our biases. While residents of Tent City 3 may not be typical of the entire homeless population (they are more likely to be white, exhibit less serious mental illness and fewer suffer from drug and alcohol dependency issues), they shed light on an increasing population of the working poor, who cannot afford housing. 

Stories from tent cities reinforce much of what scholars of homelessness have long reported – that broader social systems (economic inequality, weakened social safety net, weak labour market, and rising housing costs) are the primary causes of homelessness.”

Questions about our possible hosting of Tent City 3? Please contact Dave Mentz or Sallie Dacey.

Why I Volunteered for the Tent City 3 Hosting Discernment Team

The opportunity to host Tent City 3 connects our 1st Principle — the inherent worth and dignity of each person — with my 8 years of volunteer experience with UUC’s Teen Feed Meal Team. While joining with other congregants to serve meals I often had casual conversations with the homeless teens. They shared everyday aspects of their lives — both challenges and simple joys. I might hear from a teen that this meal was the only real meal he could count on each day. Another teen shared concern that her dog was not allowed at most shelters, so she often found shelter in a doorway.

UUC youth who volunteer with Teen Feed seem to recognize that, without the love and support they’ve received from family and friends, they might have been recipients rather than servers of the meals.  They truly “see” the individuals, understand their own privilege, and seem to look beyond the myths about who and why someone may be unhoused – what a simple beautiful take on our 1st Principle!  Our city has been so challenged to make meaningful progress to provide more affordable housing. Tent City 3 isn’t a long-term solution, but one of many short-term solutions that contribute toward building beloved community.

Pam Smith Mentz

Why I Volunteered for the Tent City 3 Hosting Discernment Team

Homelessness intersects with racial, economic, and immigrant justice — and, because climate change is a strong driver of immigration, with the need for action to address climate change.  It’s an issue that needs attention on multiple levels:  direct service to those experiencing homelessness, community efforts to build more housing, policy advocacy around both homelessness and housing generally.  I learned in my early career as a civil legal aid lawyer representing low-income folks that it’s important to see what’s happening on the “ground level” in order to advocate effectively in the halls of power.  Hosting Tent City 3 offers us a great opportunity to take that first step of “getting proximate” to homelessness. I hope it will also help us develop a robust effort advocating for systemic change.

Debbie Maranville