Why the US can’t solve the homelessness crisis

“Dirty,” “drug addict,” “mentally ill.” Those are phrases that people commonly associate with people we see living on the streets. That’s probably why when an elderly homeless man fell onto the tracks of the San Antonio Caltrain station in July 2022, nobody tried to save him.

Due to a previous knee injury, he was unable to help himself out and called for help. But out of the whole crowd of people waiting at the station, not a single person volunteered to save his life. It wasn’t as if they didn’t have time to help; the man had been in the tracks for around two minutes before the train arrived. 

Nobody wanted to touch a “dirty” or “mentally ill” homeless man. His living situation made him undeserving of human compassion. There was only ever one news article written about the event, and it didn’t even include his name or any details about his life. And this isn’t just a one-time thing; it’s a recurring problem. The only way to solve this cycle of stereotypes and ignorance is through empathy and education.

The homelessness crisis in California almost feels incurable. According to CalMatters, around 174,000 people in the state don’t have a home. We frequently hear new bills and laws aiming to solve this problem, with a recent one being Governor Gavin Newsom’s budget to spend billions on reducing visible street homelessness.  

I applaud the Governor for recognizing the homelessness crisis and taking action to solve it. But this isn’t the only solution we need. 

The money’s great, but in no way does it reduce the stigma surrounding homelessness. 

So we need a different solution—a better one. Instead of throwing money at the problem and distancing ourselves from the issue, those more fortunate in our society should help homeless people and show compassion with no fear. However, this is the problem: people are scared to help out.

When I was growing up, the prevailing wisdom in my community was to always be cautious of the homeless. But this just goes back to stereotypes. Be honest, when you think about a homeless person, what do you imagine? Someone who sleeps in the streets and is smelly? A drug addict that spends every dollar they come by on more drugs? An unemployed person who’s lazy and dangerous? 

After working in a homeless resource center for the past year, I can tell you that these preconceptions are mostly untrue. The people I meet through my job are compassionate and responsible people who shouldn’t be judged because of their living situations. 

We can’t make assumptions about people based on these stereotypes, or take the actions of a subset of a group and make generalizations about all.

In addition, people don’t know just how hard it is to obtain housing, even if you work. With California’s current housing costs and inflation, even if you work 40 hours a week at minimum wage, you still can’t make enough to get housed. A minimum wage worker earns $29,120 annually, while the median yearly rent cost would amount to $​​37,884, leaving no money to care for other needs. 

“In a high housing cost area like we live in, it doesn’t take a lot to push people into homelessness,” Hope’s Corner lead chef and board member Leslie Carmichael said. “ It’s very difficult when there’s so little affordable housing for people who are low-wage workers, lost their job or they’re disabled and can’t work some jobs.”

Yes, there are some homeless people that are dangerous but then again, there are housed people that are similarly dangerous. The same goes for drug addicts.

By recognizing these stereotypes are false and showing compassion toward people dealing with homelessness, we will make advancements in solving an issue where money and bills fall short. 

Everyone deserves and feels good when they receive kindness, and homeless people are no different. One gesture that shows you don’t see them the way stereotypes portray them can help someone experiencing homelessness fight the hardship or embarrassment of their situation.

In addition, when we just use our money instead of our hearts, we distance ourselves from the issue and almost “other” the problem. We can only understand the hardships of homelessness deeply when we show compassion. 

This failure to have empathy is our country’s downfall and the reason we can’t solve an issue we have spent so much time and effort on. 

After all, we can’t solve this issue by being scared of the people who experience it.