What makes chronic homelessness such a complex problem to unravel and to solve for social workers and public policy makers?
To understand the situation in which the chronically homeless find themselves, we need to understand what the term itself means. The word “chronic” refers to an ongoing, and in certain cases, incurable condition. So the chronically homeless are those people who are always, or at least very frequently, homeless. They are not people who find themselves suddenly and unexpectedly homeless due to losing a house or a job.
The federal definition of a chronically homeless actually gets even more specific than that:
a chronically homeless individual is someone who has experienced homelessness for a year or longer, or who has experienced at least four episodes of homelessness in the last three years and has a disability.
It is the “disability” that makes this particular kind of homelessness so challenging to eradicate. Many of these chronically homeless people have some form of mental illness that makes living a normal life very difficult. If one cannot hold down a job and does not have access to some other kind of benefit, it is easy for them to end up in a homeless situation.
Many of the chronically homeless suffer from a drug addiction of some sort. Addiction can often destroy a person’s desire to live a normal life, as they may become so dependent on a drug that they value nothing else to the same degree, including a job, a family, or a home.
In some cases, although certainly not all, some people choose to drop out of mainstream life for one reason or another. It is unlikely that they desire homelessness, but it is possible that they do not desire to continue to live the life they have been living—they would rather opt out of the “rat race.” The way modern society is constructed, dropping out of the rat race often means giving up the normal way of life that most of us accept with little question.
So here we have three reasons that can make it difficult to help the chronically homeless: they may have mental illness, a debilitating addiction, or simply a lack of desire for a “normal life.” As much as we would like to help those that we see suffering, it is sometimes the case that someone does not want to be helped. It is almost impossible to help someone against their will.
Most of the homeless, of course, do not fit this description. For one reason or another they have been forced to the street, sometimes through no fault of their own and often with the rest of their family in tow, and would welcome any help to get their lives back on track.