What do you think is the root cause of homelessness?

Homelessness – The Root Causes – Part I

fauxreel / the unaddressed

fauxreel / the unaddressed

Several nights a week I travel the the downtown streets of Toronto with groups of volunteers delivering bag lunch meals to the homeless. We call it a Sandwich Run – each bag lunch contains a sandwich, an apple, a snack like a granola bar or rice crispy square and a juice box – but it’s not about the sandwiches. It’s about being out on the street with our homeless friends seeing if they are OK – do they need anything? are they in distress? do they need someone friendly to talk to? We host more than two thousand volunteers a year, rain or shine, ice or snow.  If we could get more volunteers we’d go out every night. You can read more about the Project417 Sandwich Runs here.

I’ve been doing this full-time for six years now and it was ten years ago that I first began volunteering out on the streets with the homeless. This post is not about me or the sandwich runs.  It is about homelessness. What is the root cause? How do we put an end to it? How do we solve the problem of homelessness? We need to be asking these questions and seeking solutions because homelessness is a problem right across Canada, the United States and the world. It takes on different characteristics in different cities and cultures, but it is a disaster in the midst of our prosperity. It affects the overall health of our communities and neighborhoods no matter where we live.

The cost of alleviating homelessness takes a huge toll on our economies. In Toronto and across Canada, hundreds of millions and even billions of dollars are being spent on homeless initiatives by cities, municipalities, non-profits, charities, provincial governments and federal departments. That being the case, you would assume that the root cause of homelessness has already been determined and programs address this cause in an aggressive manner – that the enormous amount of funding is directed at solving the major issues that cause people to become (and remain) homeless. That assumption would be wrong. Many organizations and groups are calling for increased funding to address homelessness for the simple reason that the homeless continue to be in our midst with no end in sight. More money is not necessarily the answer, because if the right questions have not been asked, if the core issues are not being addressed, if we are not targeting the root cause of the problem, then homelessness will only worsen. It’s like finding a cure for a disease. Homelessness is a plague on our society.  Instead of just treating symptoms we need to find a cure for those who are already homeless and we need to protect the entire population from the risk of being exposed to homelessness.

At the end of every evening
after a sandwich run we hold a debrief session with the volunteers. They have just witnessed a disaster scene and for their own mental well being we need to share common experiences, put those experiences in perspective, examine questions that arise and learn from each other. I ask them to share the conversations and encounters they have had with our homeless friends. I ask them what did they expect to see and compare it to what they saw. I challenge the stereotypical perception of the homeless street person:  disturbed, agressive, reclusive, drunk, dangerous, drugged out, sick, tired, dirty, lazy. From a media standpoint it is as if there is open season on discriminating against the homeless because they can no longer overtly discriminate on the basis of race, color, origins or beliefs, but anyone can put down what they call a bum or hobo.   I ask every group, “What do you think is the root cause of homelessness?

Over the years, we have asked this question of well over twenty thousand volunteers. They are adults and youth, professionals and family groups, business people and church groups, students and teachers – even front line workers and management involved in poverty programs and servicing the homeless. The volunteers are a cross section of North American society. Although we are a Christian charity, our volunteers originate from many faith persuasions.  About one third of our volunteers are from the United States, perhaps one quarter from regions of Ontario other than the GTA and the majority from the suburban ring surounding Toronto.  The only thing they really have in common is that they wanted to do something about homelessness and took the step of volunteering. The answers have not really changed over the time we have been posing the question. Perceptions remain the same. This is not statistically accurate, I don’t record these answers and these results are anecdotal at best – but they represent how a cross section of our society feels.

Here are the top causes of homelessness that we most often hear in order of popularity –

Alcohol and drug abuse, addictions
Loss of a job, the economy, bankruptcy
Family problems and break-ups
Lack of education – not being qualified for well paying job
Poor judgement, making bad choices and laziness
Choice – some people just choose to be homeless
Mental illness
Physical disability
Abuse in the home
– youth runaways
Violence against women

I show a delimiter after “Choice…” because the final four reasons usually only come out after a little prompting about homeless people the volunteers may have encountered that night. I then ask every group to choose from that list they have just offered, the single, most important, or root cause of homelessness. I explain to them that to reduce homelessness we need to prioritize our efforts and direct funding and tax dollars towards the issue that will have the greatest impact. Most groups just narrow the list down to these two or three top causes:

Alcohol and drug addictions
Family break-ups including abusive behavior
Physical and mental disabilities

The groups are reluctant to be more specific, but if I ask them to narrow in on a single cause there is almost an even split between addictions and family dysfunctions.

What would you say is the root cause of homelessness?
Would you add to the list or change the order? Would you select a different criteria for the single most important cause of homelessness? I have an insight that I share with every volunteer. I try to encourage a broader perspective and I’ll go into that in more detail in the next post here on the blog, but I encourage you to leave a comment here on this post right now. This is an issue that needs to be addressed without any further delay.  Share it with your friends.  Re-post it on another blog or website (credit me and link them back here: permalink –  https://missionlog.wordpress.com/2009/07/07/what-do-you-think-is-the-root-cause-of-homelessness/

Share this with your Facebook friends.  Email it.  Share it on StumbleUpon and Google Plus or other favorite social networking site.  Post this question on Twitter –   and let’s track it with a new Twitter hashtag #whyhomeless – cut and paste this now for your Twitter update:

What do you think is the root cause of homelessness? #whyhomeless.

Re-tweet (RT) new answers, comments and links. Make sure I see them by including me with @canayjun in the tweet. I’ll post results and trending answers and share my own insights on the next post right here on the Missionlog.



Andy Coats.

UPDATE – Sept. 23, 2011: The discussion continues. Visit me the new Facebook page and add your comments, and give it a “Like”

You can read the next post here – What do you think is the root cause of homelessness? Part II

18 Responses

  1. Good article and project. Agree with all the reasons listed – there are many causes of homelessness. In most people who are homeless, the causes are layered. I have been director of a homeless shelter for 4.5 years and have contemplated this question. I have heard from various volunteers and others the phrase “but for the grace of God go I” and have thought about that. Anyone, especially in the current economy, could become homeless and many are for the first time in their lives. We see this at the shelter. I’ve seen with many a lack of a safety net. No family or friends to go to for support for various reasons (and usually that has already been exhausted). But you asked for the root cause – perhaps identifying the one or top root cause of homelessness. A couple of ideas to throw into the mix – the one thing everyone has in common who is experiencing homelessness is they lack a house (to state the obvious). There is a great great lack in affordable housing and many barriers for many of our people to access housing (credit, criminal records, rental history, and of course an adequate income).Currently the wait for government subsidized housing in our community is 5 years (recently increased from 3 years to 5)! And most of our people qualify for this. Housing is framed within our society’s values as well – our priorities have been misaligned for a long long time. I’ve also thought about people who are chronically homeless as compared to people who are economically homeless. In the former group, I have seen loss of hope, a lack of belonging within the community or larger society, low self-esteem/self-worth….as major factors that keep people stuck. There seems to come a time of surrender and giving up. Will be interested to hear other input on this topic. It’s something I think about everyday.

  2. Interesting, this is a question I’m asked a lot when I do talks, or at strategic planning meetings.

    Have you ever asked people who are homeless for their views on the subject? It’d be interesting to know if they think the same as the volunteers, is the particpant’s perspective different to the onlooker’s?

    I think there are also a couple of hidden factors going on here. One is foetal alcohol syndrome – the damage sustained in the brain (judgement, anger, susceptibility to addiction) by the unborn baby of an alcohol-dependent mother. Another is the handicap of family background – if the family only model unhelpful and self-destructive patterns of behaviour, and responses to stressors, then it is hard for the individual to break out of the pattern and do differently.

    I personally would put mental ill health much higher up the list. Here in the UK it is hard to get services unless you tick the right boxes. The cynic in me says that the basic attitude is: You get better with medication, you mentally ill – You not helped by meds, you not mentally ill – however disturbed your behaviour and / or thinking. All about their outcomes monitoring…

    Anyway, thank you for your thought-provoking research.

  3. Thanks Jayne for your comment. It is a many layered issue and that’s why I decided to post it in two parts, to get more feedback before I offer my own opinions. I particularly like your comment about the “lack of a safety net”, yes – there isn’t one, or the holes in the net a larger than life. And stating the nobvious about lack of housing is closer to the truth than any other reason. Thanks again. < Andy

  4. Thanks for your views Jackie, very astute. And yes I have asked my homeless friends many times what they think is the root cause of their own homelessness. And I wish more people would ask the homeless for their own opinion, many people weighing in with solutions have not taken that simple step. It should not just be asking their views either, but offering the homeless, as chief stakeholders in the process, a real method of being part of the solution. Ticking the right boxes you said, yes – it’s that indeed. There is an organization here that runs seminars called the Homelessness Maze to educate social service providers on how hard it is to navigate the system of assistance. Thanks and come back for the next post. < Andy

  5. A disproportionate number of homeless youth (some soft numbers are 25-30%) are LGBT, who have been kicked out or run away from home because of their sexual orientation.

    This is an important detail to include in “family dysfunction”.

  6. Thanks NotAwesome, I think you are right. I see this among our young homeless friends out on the street. I’d like to get a better handle on the the “soft numbers” of 25 to 30%. Do you know of any sources or websites that have more information?

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  9. I saw this on Twitter recently, a friend had sent out the question with the #whyhomeless tag. Anyway I think the main reason so many are homeless is because they just give up on a support system that is too complex and uncaring…

  10. Here’s the upstart of an idea I posted on the Project417 Facebook site
    What if we tilted the question…a lot….and worked backwards in order to move forward? As in:

    What’s the root cause of being adequately housed?


  11. Thanks April for your comment.
    And it is an astute view of the issue. I’ve often heard it said in logic, argument and debate that you can’t posit a negative.

    For example, if we were debating the merits of something mundane like “How do you find the pot-of-gold at the end of a rainbow?” You could respond with “There is no pot-of-gold”. That’s positing a negative. Your thesis negates the subject of investigation. It would be more useful to say – “rainbows are an optical illusion”, then expand on what that means to people who are searching for the answer.

    I feel similarly when we say the root cause of homelessness is the lack of affordable housing, that we are focusing on the negative – the LACK of housing. However, if we use your approach, we are forced to focus on the positive – what is it about our society that causes most people to be adequately housed? Things like: income, employment, job skills, experience, education, infrastructure, savings, budgetting, planning, family support systems, health, wellness, and that’s just a quick start. Many people will say (of their successful/comfortable position in life) – ” I did it on my own”. when, in fact, there is a whole range of factors which have been assisting them reach their goal of “self” sufficiency.

    What obstacles do the homeless face? Is our approach to housing reactive, rather than a positive plan to ensure equal access to a range of housing choices?

  12. From a volunteer who helps out on the streets with the homeless several times a week:
    ” I’ve been thinking a lot about this, but I didn’t come up with the great “lightbulb” answer I was hoping for.

    “During our debriefs, they say that the root cause of homelessness is the lack of affordable housing, which totally makes sense.

    “And I initially agreed with this, but upon further investigation, I think that providing affordable housing is only part of the solution. For example, even though you provide a homeless, substance addicted person with affordable housing – chances are that he/she may unintentionally spend rental funds on drugs or booze. As well, if they are mentally ill and depressed, a person’s way of thinking is so distorted that in some cases he/she may think that they’re better off on the street than under a roof. I think you have to solve the drug/mental health problem at the same time that you solve the affordable housing issue. On our Project417 sandwich runs, I’ve met some homeless people who were given housing, but they couldn’t get used to sleeping indoors and they ended up sleeping on the streets anyway. These people were either drunk or high.

    “So although I still agree that lack of affordable housing is a major cause of homelessness, that is only part of the answer. In essence, the answer is a trinity: a) lack of affordable housing, b) lack of adequate mental health services, and c) lack of affordable and much needed substance abuse services. And you can’t have one or two without the other.

    “I searched online and found that Sweden has the lowest number of homeless people in the world. Not sure if this is entirely accurate, but it’s interesting to note that Sweden is a socialist country.

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  14. Late reply, sorry. One place where you can find more information on LGBT youth and homelessness is this report from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force:


    I should clarify, my partner is the one whose work has intersected with these issues, and he’s the one who’s talked to directors of homeless shelters about this issue. So I’m pretty much parroting him. :-)

  15. Thanks for the link NotAwesome! Some thoughtful research.

  16. I was homeless for 10 years, and have finally worked by way out of it. The root cause of homelessness is that you don’t believe you have a home. What you fear you bring toward you.

    Anyone can become homeless. It is the ultimate conclusion of your belief structures. It works like anorexia. The homeless person cannot tolerate too much and pushes it away. You have to reach the point of “nothingness” and then slowly instate more and more until you have too much, and then pull back to the point of “just right” and being in a state of balance.

  17. Psychological abuse is another factor that contributes to homelessness in conjunction with not enough education. Thereafter it can perpetuate into adulthood. One thing leads to another, it can become a vicious cycle. I know I’ve been there.

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