In the United States we have many housing insecure individuals. We have many people who are chronically homeless, and are unlikely to ever get off the streets. We have many people who experience homelessness only transiently, possibly during an unexpected layoff or economic downturn. And we also have many people who find themselves in and out of homelessness. For each group of housing insecure individuals, their needs and desires of people differ. However, when we think about homelessness in America, we typically only think about one version of homelessness: the visibly homeless man or woman living in the streets.
In his book Tell Them Who I Am Elliot Liebow writes, “an important fact about these dramatically visible homeless persons on the street is that, their visibility notwithstanding, they are at best a small minority, tragic caricatures of homelessness rather than representatives of it.” When we think about the homeless we think about men and women who don’t work, who are smelly and dirty, and who appear to have mental disorders or drug addictions. This means that public policy geared toward homelessness is a reaction to this visible minority, not policy geared to help the many people who may experience homelessness in a less visible way.
People do not like the visibly homeless who live on the street. They feel ashamed to see them begging, feel frustrated by their panhandling, and are often frightened of them. The visibly homeless are not a sympathetic group, and are not likely to be the targets of public policy that supports them.
The less visibly homeless, however, are a population we are less afraid of and less likely to strongly dislike. But because we don’t see them, we don’t think of them when we consider policies and programs designed to assist the homeless. Their needs, their concerns, and the things that could help them find more stable housing are forgotten or simply unknown to the general public and the policymakers they elect. We are often unaware of the individuals who are homeless but still managing to work a job. We don’t think about those who experience temporary homelessness, sleeping in a car for a couple of weeks at a time between gig work. We don’t consider those who live in shelters until a friend or family member can take them in and support them until they can find work. Without acknowledging this less visible side of poverty, we don’t take steps to improve public policy and public support for those working to maintain a place to live. We allow the most visible elements of homelessness to be all we know about homelessness, and as a result our policy and attitudes toward the homeless fail to reflect the reality that the majority of the homeless experience.