Opinion: What homeless people fear most

David Heitz

Photo byBen Hershey/Unsplash

Homelessness elicits fear in most people. Living on the street is dangerous in myriad ways.

I experienced homelessness in 2019. I frequently worried about my safety and with good reason. I was beaten up randomly by other homeless people several times.

For the past several weeks I have been asking people experiencing homelessness or formerly homeless what the scariest part about being unhoused is. Almost everyone responded that other homeless people pose the greatest threat.

Mental illness or drug abuse afflict many people experiencing homelessness. As a result, many behave aggressively and unpredictably. Many suffer from psychosis and hear voices or experience visual hallucinations.

Other homeless people, homeless haters pose threat

Homeless people steeped in psychosis sometimes will approach other people experiencing homelessness and try to pick a fight. Often, someone will be so out of their mind they mistake a person for someone else. A person experiencing homelessness may think you hurt them in some way even though you never have seen them before. Sometimes they seek revenge. These cases of mistaken identity can result in an innocent person being beaten. This happened to me several times during homelessness.

Then there are those who hate homeless people and set out to hurt them. “(Last July) three homeless people in New York were stabbed while sleeping, one fatally,” according to a blog post for the Benioff Homeless and Housing Initiative at the University of California, San Francisco. “These attacks follow a spate of similar events across the country, including one assailant shooting five people sleeping outdoors in New York and Washington, DC…. In Los Angeles in 2021, 85 people experiencing homelessness were murdered, the highest number ever recorded. Violence against people without homes is a longstanding, if under-recognized, crisis.”

Police second-scariest thing about homelessness

Next to other homeless people and homeless haters, the police proved to be the second-most feared thing about homelessness, according to the people I talked to. Police encounter people experiencing homelessness regularly. They rile the unhoused from sleep when they doze off in public places. Many police have not been properly trained in dealing with people experiencing homelessness. Many Denver police officers are mean and even combative. Police sometimes will arrest people experiencing homelessness for just about anything. Run-ins with police can mean physical abuse, loss of belongings and incarceration.

Photo byColin Lloyd/Unsplash

Homeless people do have a higher risk of incarceration compared to other populations, according to a blog post for the Baylor College of Medicine.

Sharing bed with critters can be creepy

Another fear people experiencing homelessness face is critters. Those who live outside frequently share spaces with snakes, rats, raccoons, and insects. I even saw a porcupine sauntering down the Platte River trail early one morning. Another time I fell asleep on a hill of red ants. Sleeping down by the Platte River I frequently worried a critter might bite me. Still, to avoid other homeless people it seemed worth the risk.

Photo byNicolas Savignat/Unsplash

People who stay in shelters, meanwhile, face bed bugs night after night.

Why homeless people turn down food

I frequently see people post on social media that they offered a homeless person food, and the unhoused neighbor turned it down. There is good reason for this – it’s not that people experiencing homelessness are ungrateful. Sometimes people will spit in food they offer homeless people or otherwise taint it. I once was given a marijuana joint (marijuana is legal in Colorado) that made my heart beat so fast I thought I might die. I ended up lying down on a median near Speer and Arapahoe, sweating profusely. I noticed the joint had a red stripe running down it. I am certain someone tampered with the joint for it to make me so sick.

Some people detest those experiencing homelessness and will go out of their way to hurt them. A San Andreas, Calif. man made headlines when he served tainted food to his unhoused neighbors.

“Prosecutors allege William Robert Cable, 38, of San Andreas provided the unsheltered individuals in Huntington Beach with food laced with oleoresin capsicum, a chemical that is twice as strong as pepper spray used by police, and then filmed their reactions,” according to the Los Angeles Times. “After eating the food, the individuals suffered a variety of ailments, including seizure-like symptoms, difficulty breathing, vomiting and intense mouth and stomach pain. Several were hospitalized.”

Loss of teeth feared

People experiencing homelessness notice early on that being unhoused is terrible for your teeth. During Denver windstorms, pieces of gravel used to get in my mouth and chip my teeth. Brushing every day proved difficult as I could not always find a toothbrush, toothpaste or running water during homelessness. People experiencing homelessness fear losing their teeth, and with good reason.

Photo byReece van der Werme/Unsplash

Dentistry Today reports on a London study of people experiencing homelessness. According to the study of more than 260 people:

  • 90% had an issue with oral health since becoming homeless, such as bleeding gums (56%), holes in their teeth (46%), and abscesses (26%)
  • 60% experienced dental pain since becoming homeless, with 30% of participants currently experiencing dental pain
  • 70% lost teeth since becoming homeless, with 15% pulling out their own teeth, and 7% having no teeth at all
  • 27% used alcohol to deal with dental pain, and 28% have used drugs

Sexual assault threatens homeless women

While this pertains more to women than men, sexual assault occurs regularly among the homeless community. “Levels of victimization that women endure before, during, and after episodes of homelessness remain enormously high, often occurring in multiple settings at the hands of multiple perpetrators,” according to VAWNET, a service of the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence. “For example, 92% of a large, racially diverse sample of homeless mothers had experienced severe physical and/or sexual violence at some point in their lives (Browne & Bassuk, 1997). Thirteen percent of another sample of homeless women reported having been raped in the past 12 months, and half of these women were raped at least twice (Wenzel, et al., 2000).”

Being homeless forever a scary thought

It can be easy to dwell on being homeless and miserable. People experiencing homelessness commonly fear that they’re going to be homeless forever. This mindset leads to a spiral of hopelessness.

Dying alone a depressing reality

Living such a dangerous life, people experiencing homelessness often think about their mortality. A common fear is dying alone. Many people experiencing homelessness have no friends or family to list as next of kin. I don’t. It’s a depressing thought that you could die without anyone even knowing about it.

Soiling your pants while looking for a restroom

Trying to find a restroom when experiencing homelessness can feel impossible. Often times, people experiencing homelessness are forced to hold their urges to “go.” Sometimes they don’t make it to a restroom on time and end up soiling their clothes. This fear rears its ugly head regularly.

Some fear never seeing their children again

Photo byChayene Rafaela/Unsplash

Many people experiencing homelessness have lost custody of their children for one reason or another. Many fear they will never see their children again. Invisible People reported “Nothing can break a parent like losing their children. What’s worse is statistics show when homeless people lose their kids, they are often gone forever, or at the very least, for many years down the line.”

AI’s song about living in fear

I asked Google Bard to create a song about homeless people who live in fear. Here’s what it came up with:

(Verse 1) “I'm living on the streets, I'm cold and I'm hungry. I'm scared of the police, And I'm scared of the people.

(Chorus) I'm just trying to survive, But it's hard when you're homeless. I live in fear every day, And I don't know what the future holds.

(Verse 2) I've been through a lot, And I've lost a lot. I've lost my home, I've lost my job, And I've lost my hope.

(Chorus) I'm just trying to survive, But it's hard when you're homeless. I live in fear every day, And I don't know what the future holds.

(Bridge) I know I'm not alone, There are millions of people who are homeless. We're all struggling, And we're all scared.

(Chorus) We're just trying to survive, But it's hard when you're homeless. We live in fear every day, And we don't know what the future holds.

(Outro) But we won't give up, We'll keep fighting, And we'll never give up hope.”

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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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