by Christine Shanes / Huffington Post / Originally posted Jan. 10, 2011
In my opinion, the popular myth that homeless people “flock” to any particular city to take advantage of its services is cruel. This myth is espoused by some housed people, including some people in positions of political power in certain municipalities. They argue that their city should not offer humanitarian services or add further services to what they are already providing to homeless people, because, if they do, more homeless people will be attracted to their city.
In essence, they rationalize that homeless people will “flock” to their city for its services. As a result, this myth is often perpetuated as the reason to avoid creating or increasing services for people in need.
First, people don’t “flock.” When using the word, “flock,” as a verb, we can say, “birds flock.” Or we can say the phrase, “a flock of birds.” People move.
Usually people who are housed or unhoused move individually or in family units. They move when it is convenient for them, often during vacation time so that their children avoid missing school. Or they move to accept a new job. Or to “start a new life” for whatever reason in a new locale.
Only the impact of a major natural disaster, such as Hurricane Katrina, forces numbers of people to leave their homes and move en mass because their homes have became uninhabitable.
Second, statistics show that when a person is housed and then becomes homeless, they generally stay in their own location.
For example, in 2005, the Los Angeles County Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) held “the single largest homeless enumeration effort ever conducted…using HUD-recommended practices for counting homeless persons” that was published in its 2005 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count, “Executive Summary,” p. 3. LAHSA also reported in this same “Executive Summary,” page 8, that among the 88,000 plus homeless people residing in Los Angeles County, 78 percent of them were housed in Los Angeles County when they became homeless.
Obviously, these homeless people didn’t “flock” from another jurisdiction to become homeless in Los Angeles County. In The Daily News of January 13, 2006, LAHSA Commission Chairman Owen Newcomer acknowledged, “We do not have a situation where hordes are coming in from outside the county.”
In its 2007 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count, LAHSA found that there were nearly 74,000 homeless people residing within the County of Los Angeles. At that time, LAHSA also found, but did not publish, that the percentage of homeless people who were housed in Los Angeles County when they became homeless increased to 84 percent. (Source within LAHSA)
Third, some people also say that homeless people “flock” to jurisdictions where there are services to help them. However, in its 2009 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count, LAHSA reported that there were just over 48,000 people who were homeless in Los Angeles County. This number represented a decrease of 38 percent of the number of homeless people in Los Angeles County from 2007.
To what does the County of Los Angeles attribute this decline in the number of homeless people residing in the County? On November 13, 2009, I asked that question of a LAHSA employee who told me that the decrease in the number of homeless people was due to the cooperation between the City and County of Los Angeles and their programs that have been helping homeless people become housed. It would appear that providing effective housing programs does lead to a decrease in the number of homeless residents.
I asked several homeless people what they felt about this myth. I thank them for their responses that follow.
Jon, 47 years old: “I left East County because it was not making me happy and I have to be happy. Homeless people come to certain areas for the people. People are attracted by people. The services come after that. I didn’t know about the services when I came here. I only heard about them after I was here.”
Cosmic, 48 years old: “I wanted to come to Ocean Beach (OB). Someone told me about OB and I looked it up on the Internet. I didn’t come here for the City services. I am an OBcian.’
Cameron, 32 years old: “They try to keep services out of the beach communities because they don’t want to attract more people. But [homeless] people don’t come here for the services because there’re not many services or shelters.”
In conclusion, it is human nature that people move from one location to another seeking better opportunities for themselves or their families. Housed people move, why shouldn’t homeless people? However, if we are all kind to our neighbors, housed and unhoused, and provide housing programs for those people in need, there would be less homeless people in every city. What a wonderful way to put a myth to rest!
I look forward to your comments. Thank you.
Christine Shanes is a consultant and public educator on issues of homelessness and has recently joined the OB Rag staff.