This article was translated into Chinese and published on WeChat through a collaboration with Chinese for Affirmative Action
Authors: Henry Hsieh with Dihua
I was raised in a household that educated me from a young age on staying safe around homeless people. Like many other Chinese immigrant parents, mine told me to stay far from the homeless. “They’re violent people who do drugs,” I was warned. I was to keep my distance in order to stay safe and not be influenced by their addictions. My dad explained to me that these were moral failings. Homeless people were lazy, he said, and didn’t work hard as we did. They couldn’t hold down real jobs and spent all of their money on drugs, so they stole from and threatened legitimate residents like us. They made our communities unsafe and didn’t deserve our sympathy or help. After all, they were responsible for their own situations.
As I got older, I began to pay closer attention to the homeless people I passed on the street, and what I saw contradicted my dad’s characterizations. The people I saw weren’t violent or threatening. I began to wonder: exactly how are these people different from the rest of us? Did they really deserve our ire?
I understand my parents’ concerns, and I too want to make sure we live in safe, healthy communities. I have watched my parents and many other Chinese immigrants work day and night to surmount high barriers in order to succeed in the US. But homeless people are not the enemy. They are human, too, and many Chinese immigrants’ ideas about homelessness are deeply flawed and exacerbate the problem. In this essay, I will use statistical data to prove that some of the biggest conceptions Chinese immigrants have about homeless people are untrue.
The notion that all homeless people are drug addicts is objectively false. As of 2020, approximately 17 percent of homeless people deal with substance abuse. It’s certainly not a low number and should be addressed, but it is important to recognize that the vast majority of homeless people—83 percent—are not drug addicts.
It is also important to recognize that those who do suffer from addiction are not moral failures. Addiction is a widespread problem that does not only affect the homeless; 20 million people dealt with substance abuse problems in the US in 2017 alone. The causes of addiction are likewise complex and irreducible to individual weakness. A famous hypothesis by the Harvard psychiatrist Edward J. Khantzian describes how addiction can function as a form of self-medication: people turn to drugs to cope with intractable, untreated, or otherwise ignored mental, physical, and/or societal distress. Blaming homeless people for addiction, just like calling all homeless people drug addicts, is not only factually incorrect but brings us no closer to resolving the problem of homelessness.
Similarly untrue is the notion that homeless people are violent and make communities unsafe. A 2018 study by three University of Texas researchers followed 255 homeless people over a period of three years. The researchers found that the “crime” with which these individuals were most frequently charged was not theft, assault, or even drug possession. It was simply being homeless. The Los Angeles mayor, for example, signed a city ordinance in July making it illegal to “sit, lie, sleep” in public. If you are homeless, how are you supposed to react to laws like this? Laws that criminalize homelessness do nothing to make it possible for you to stop sitting, lying, or sleeping in public. They don’t create shelter for you or help you find a job; all they do is make your existence illegal. Unsurprisingly, then, among those subjects of the study who were granted housing, “crime” rates dropped dramatically.
In fact, homeless people are much more often in need of protection from violent crime than they are its perpetrators. According to one report, over three-quarters of homeless women have been raped, physically assaulted, and/or stalked while unhoused. Forty-two homeless people were murdered in just Los Angeles in 2019, a number that is likely low due to under-reporting; one study estimates that 13,000 homeless people are killed in the US every year. While seeing homeless people may make us feel uncomfortable, they are not the ones committing violence against us: we are far more frequently the ones who are hurting them.
If homeless people aren’t violent addicts who have lavishly spent all their money on drugs, why are they homeless? Again contrary to popular belief, it isn’t because they are lazy or undeserving. The leading cause of homelessness is a severe shortage of affordable housing. In 2019, 10.8 million people were classified as having “extremely low incomes,” meaning they made less than 30 percent of their local median income. Fewer than 6.8 million rental units were deemed affordable to people at that income level. You may argue that this is no excuse because these people should have simply worked harder to get better-paying jobs. But employment status is affected by a wide range of circumstances, many of which are out of the control of any single person, such as illness or disability, need to care for family members, and systemic racism (which also inhibits access to education). A Harvard study found that, in 2012, 27 percent of African American households, 24 percent of Hispanic households, and 21 percent of Asian households paid over 50 percent of their incomes in rent, compared to only 14 percent of white households. These numbers demonstrate how drastically race can affect one’s income level and, consequently, one’s ability to afford housing.
People also become homeless due to unforeseen emergencies, natural disasters, and other problems beyond their own control. The 2008 financial crisis, for example, caused the number of homeless to skyrocket from approximately 3 million to 7.4 million by 2012. Unemployment and eviction due to the coronavirus pandemic have likewise caused homelessness to worsen across the US. Thanks to the convoluted and expensive US healthcare system, one medical emergency can cause someone to lose their savings and their home; 57 percent of personal bankruptcies in the US are due to medical bills. Equally horrifying is the fact that, in 50 percent of US cities, domestic violence is a primary cause of homelessness. People who are in abusive relationships often have only two options: stay in a dangerous household or leave and become homeless. In a study conducted in San Diego, the report found that, in a conservative estimate, nearly 50 percent of women are victims of domestic violence.
Worst of all, homelessness is a self-perpetuating cycle. Employment is often contingent on having a home address, which homeless people obviously do not have; it is also difficult to look presentable and dress in clean clothes for job interviews when you are denied access to restrooms. Moreover, a 2017 report estimated that nearly 50 percent of homeless people actually have jobs; they just don’t make enough to be able to pay for a place to live. Even if you think that homeless people should simply try harder to find employment, you have to admit that some of these problems are out of their control and that declaring homelessness illegal instead of supporting policies that offer homeless people housing or other forms of support makes the problem worse, not better.
I sympathize with the fear that homeless people provoke among Chinese immigrants. An objective, data-based understanding of homelessness disproves three central beliefs to which many immigrants cling in order to keep going in spite of enormous hardship: that hard work begets success, that success is something you have to earn, and that success is possible for everyone. More often than not, as these statistics demonstrate, homeless people are neither lazy nor undeserving. They are victims of circumstance and of systemic issues. But caring and advocating for homeless people does not mean denying your own hard work or exposing your children to bad habits. Indeed, if it isn’t enough to want to help homeless people simply because they are people in need of help, homelessness is a problem that increasingly affects Asian Americans: between 2016 and 2017, the number of homeless Asian Americans jumped 44 percent.
It’s painful hearing these statistics, but it’s also vitally important in order to help solve homelessness in America. There are many factors that contribute to the homelessness crisis, and each factor must be addressed thoroughly as though they were individual crises. Drug rehabilitation must be destigmatized and accessible to everyone. Wages and income must rise to compete with increased housing prices. Affordable housing must be made more widely available. Counseling for married couples should be normalized, and financial security should be strengthened for everyone, especially victims of domestic abuse. Homelessness is not a moral failing; it is a systemic issue that can be resolved. So next time you see a homeless person in the streets, remember this: “Be ruthless with systems; be kind to people.”
This article is part of a series out of the Sunrise Arcadia and Xīn Shēng Project (formerly “WeChat Project”) partnership.
Sunrise Arcadia is the Arcadia, CA hub of the national Sunrise Movement, a youth-led movement to stop climate change and create millions of good-paying jobs in the process. While their organization is environmentally focused, they recognize that climate change is inextricably linked to other issues such as housing which is why they have focused efforts on housing policy and mutual aid distribution to unhoused folks in Arcadia.
Recently, we worked together to translate facts about homelessness for Chinese speakers to dispel some of the myths being circulated. In this series, we will be further demystifying the homelessness crisis through empirical data and lived experiences as well as introducing tangible ways to get involved.