Opinion: Coalition deflates myths about homelessness

David Heitz

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One of my biggest goals while writing for NewsBreak is to dispel myths about homelessness. I’m glad to use 35 years in the journalism business to better explain homelessness, which I experienced myself in 2019 followed by a year in jail and a year in the state mental institution.

Now Colorado Coalition for the Homeless has published a fact sheet about homelessness myths. They did an excellent job highlighting the biggest misconceptions about homelessness, many of which I experienced myself. With Denver’s race for mayor in full swing, rhetoric about homelessness has filled the airwaves, and much of it is false.

Here are the biggest myths listed by the Coalition on its fact sheet.

“People choose to be homeless. They aren’t interested in finding a stable living situation.”

“In a survey conducted of unhoused people in Colorado in 2023, only eight out of 825 (less than 1 percent) of respondents said that they would be uninterested in housing were it provided to them. Some people do sleep outside, rather than in a shelter for many reasons, such as policies that prohibit pets or split up couples. Generally, they don’t like sharing space with hundreds of other people. The assumption that people ‘choose’ to be homeless is often used to shift the blame from what we know has the biggest impact on homelessness: Affordable housing.”

The author adds: Never for one second during homelessness did I stop praying for a roof over my head. The idea that anyone wants to be homeless is insane. Homelessness is a terror in real life, every day. I’m not sure it gets much worse.

“Most unhoused people are addicted to drugs.”

“In Denver, people experiencing homelessness due to substance use disorders only account for 27 percent of the unhoused population. The leading cause of homelessness is a lack of affordable housing, unemployment, poverty, and low wages.”

The author adds: Many people do become addicted to drugs during homelessness and it follows them into housing. But often, a person is completely sober upon entering homelessness with no prior history of substance abuse. The substances come as a result of homelessness.

“Police enforcement and incarceration are the best way to end homelessness. It can even help people to get them into jails for services.”

“When police criminalize homelessness, they create mistrust in the unhoused community and disconnect people from services. Fewer than 4 % of those who are part of ‘sweeps’ are offered services. And going to jail perpetuates the cycle of homelessness—people who have been to prison experience homelessness at a rate seven times greater than the general
population. In addition, courts across the country have found it is unconstitutional to criminalize behaviors that are unavoidable conditions of being human such as sleeping, sitting, standing, etc.”

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The author adds: I felt intimidated and harassed by police at every turn, culminating in several officers assaulting me behind Salvation Army Crossroads homeless shelter in 2019. I had fallen asleep covered with a blanket on the Platte River trail at noon. I thought it was legal to sleep in a park during park hours. I was charged with assault on a peace officer but not convicted of the alleged crime. It was the three police officers who assaulted me. I was taken to Denver Health after the beating where doctors worked on my face for three hours. There also were occasions where the police helped me in Denver.

“Offering people free housing is too costly for taxpayers to support.”

“The Coalition has found that we can provide supportive housing and services for approximately $13,400 per person annually, compared to the $21,000-$40,000 spent by taxpayers for medical care, incarceration, detox treatment, and shelter services for each person living on the streets. Not providing services and assistance to people experiencing homelessness is not only a moral failure, it costs taxpayers more money than providing housing.”

“Building more housing will solve the housing crisis. It doesn't matter what kind of housing it is, just build more!”

“According to a Denverite article in June of 2022, there were 21,134 empty apartments in metro Denver; more than enough to assist the estimated 6,000 - 10,000 people experiencing homelessness in the city. Unfortunately, these are not affordable housing units. Without targeted strategic investments in affordable housing for people at the lowest income, units available in Denver will continue to remain empty and fail to serve our unhoused population. If operators of vacant market rate housing refuse to lower their rents to accommodate those that need housing most, we will never be able to resolve homelessness.”

“People without homes are not working or looking for employment.”

“Fifty-three percent of adults experiencing sheltered homelessness have earned wages in the year they were unhoused. This number is about 40 percent for unsheltered people experiencing homelessness. It is incredibly difficult to become employed and maintain a job without an address, access to a shower, or other necessities.”

The author adds: I absolutely resented every insinuation that I had become homeless because I was too lazy to work. Nothing could be further from the truth, but you can’t work when you don’t have a place to sleep at night. The body shuts down. I was working within weeks of being housed after my time in the state mental institution. Most homeless people want to work.

Other myths

I’d like to add a few more myths about homelessness to the list.

Homeless people don’t have any friends or family left. This is true.

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Many people believe that people experiencing homelessness have been scorned by their families and friends for terrible behavior. Often, that “terrible behavior” is mental illness.

As a society, we like to think that we are compassionate toward people with mental illness, but the opposite is true. As a result, when someone suffers a psychotic episode like I did in 2018-2019 they have nowhere to turn. The stigma surrounding their condition is too great. Nobody seems to want to help those who are “crazy.” But they sure are fun to talk about, it seems.

Other people experiencing homelessness remove themselves from families and friends because they grew into toxic, painful relationships. The idea of being alone on the street does have a fleeting sense of peace attached to it when you’re trying to escape painful places and people.

Homeless people aren’t grateful for what they receive. Myth.

I spent an entire column apologizing for my bad behavior during homelessness and thanking all of those who helped me become housed today, including the taxpayers. I am so grateful to live in Denver on so many levels. That’s another column in and of itself. I like to think that with the help of lifesaving organizations like Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, I bust myths about homelessness all the time. I am so grateful to be given this purpose.

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I've been in the news business 35 years, spending much of my career in editing roles at community newspapers in Southern California and the Quad-Cities of Illinois and Iowa. Upon moving to Denver in 2018, I began experiencing severe mental illness due to several traumatic experiences. I became homeless on the street for about a year before spending time in the state mental hospital. I am proof that people can rebound from even severe mental illness with proper treatment. I consider myself a lucky guy to live in a great place like Denver. I hope my writing reflects the passion I have for living in the Mile High City. You can email me news releases and story ideas at NewsBreakDave@gmail.com

Denver, CO
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