Homelessness in America is a pressing issue affecting over 582,000 individuals as of the 2022 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report by HUD. It is a crisis that can affect anyone without a safety net or sufficient support system. As Back on My Feet Baltimore volunteer Derel put it, “One mistake, one miscalculation, one bad choice, and roles can be reversed instantly.” Beyond the visible signs of people living on the streets, homelessness in America has profound and often hidden impacts on those who experience it.
Loss of Stability and Security
One of the most immediate and apparent impacts of homelessness is the loss of stability and security. When individuals and families do not have a stable place to call home, they face constant uncertainty and instability. They often struggle to find safe and secure places to sleep, leading to sleep deprivation, which can have severe physical and mental health consequences. In addition, they often face the dangers of violence from living out on the streets. According to the UCSF Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative, “a study of women experiencing homelessness found that 48% had experienced physical violence without a weapon, 18% with a weapon, and 18% has experienced sexual violence within the past six months. The study followed participants for years and found that the violence continued; however, when people became housed, their risk of being attacked dropped by half.”
Back on My Feet alum Jean was a victim of assault and robbery after a relapse led him to lose his placement in a sober living facility. With a fractured skull and brain hemorrhage, he was facing potential blindness or paralysis. Jean was able to recover and receive the support needed to turn his life around, but many are not so lucky.
Physical and Mental Health Challenges
Homelessness in America is often accompanied by severe physical and mental health challenges. Living on the streets exposes individuals to extreme weather conditions, poor hygiene, and limited access to healthcare, leading to a higher risk of physical illnesses. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, “Homeless people are three to six times more likely to become ill than housed people.” Even more troubling, “The average life expectancy in the homeless population is estimated between 42 and 52 years, compared to 78 years in the general population.”
Back on My Feet alum and volunteer Kevin described feeling “Hopeless, lost, desperate, pessimistic about my future to say the least” when he was homeless. He says “Life had become hell. Life had become misery.” The stress and trauma of homelessness can exacerbate existing mental health issues or lead to the development of new ones. Depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are common among homeless individuals, making it even more challenging for them to break the cycle of homelessness.
For unhoused families with children, one of the most devastating consequences is the disruption of their education. Children experiencing homelessness often experience frequent school changes, lack access to necessary school supplies and resources, and face the stigma associated with their living situation. According to a 2020 report from the Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness, “nearly one in four homeless students missed school during the previous month because they felt unsafe on their way to or from school.” This educational instability can have long-lasting consequences, hindering their academic achievement and future opportunities.
Even after adulthood, limited access to educational resources can severely limit someone’s options for employment opportunities, training, and acquiring a living wage. Many Back on My Feet alumni, like Ricardo, had acquired debt due to missing payments or, in Ricardo’s case, defaulting on student loans. Without the support from Back on My Feet to settle his student debt, Ricardo may never have been able to go back to college or get into his chosen field of IT.
Social Isolation and Stigmatization
Homelessness in America can lead to social isolation and stigmatization, as individuals experiencing homelessness often face discrimination and prejudice from the public. Without healthy relationships to rely upon, individuals are more susceptible to substance abuse and other coping mechanisms to deal with the isolation and emotional pain. Back on My Feet alum CJ shared, “In the midst of my disease, I isolated and pushed away everyone I loved. My training [as a counselor] has since taught me that the opposite of addiction is connection.” Social isolation can lead to feelings of hopelessness and despair, compounding the challenges of homelessness.
Back on My Feet’s approach to supporting people experiencing homelessness has had success because it addresses the stigmatization directly. Volunteers Paige and Anthony shared that during Circle Ups, “You don’t know who’s a member or who’s a volunteer. There’s no distinguishing factor, and it’s not always obvious. Everyone’s just a person.”
Many of our members experience this loss of dignity, along with judgment, condemnation, and ostracism. Dexter says the hugs at the morning Circle Ups were the first time he ever “knew tolerance.” And Jaime says, “Just having someone from Back on My Feet talk to me like I’m a person in a one-on-one conversation has been so meaningful.”
Loss of Dignity and Self-Esteem
A less discussed but equally important impact of homelessness is the loss of dignity and self-esteem. When individuals are forced to rely on the goodwill of others for necessities, their sense of self-worth and independence can decline. As some Back on My Feet members have experienced, it can be embarrassing to lose everything to addiction. Back on My Feet alum Bobby stated, “As an IT software & network engineer, I was very prideful and skeptical of anyone offering help of any kind and I was embarrassed and ashamed to let anyone in that close to discuss the reasons behind those losses.”
The constant struggle to meet basic needs like food and shelter can leave people feeling powerless and defeated, making it difficult to regain stability and self-sufficiency. Social support is an invaluable tool in overcoming these losses. Back on My Feet alum and volunteer Kevin shares what he likes about volunteering, “I like seeing [the members] from one week to the next, being more human, being happier, and coming back to life a little bit.”
Barriers to Reintegration
Breaking free from the cycle of homelessness can be an uphill battle, especially when factors like substance abuse or incarceration are involved. All of the things above that negatively impact people during a period of homelessness also make it more challenging to gain sustainable employment and the resources needed to afford housing. In addition to these barriers, people experiencing homelessness are focusing on survival, so their priorities are not developing employment skills or seeking services. Back on My Feet alum Albert explains, “When you’re homeless, all the skills you’ve learned about resumes, careers, and goals go to the wayside. You’re too busy focusing on survival.”
Another common obstacle for people experiencing homelessness is the loss of access to documentation. Back on My Feet most frequently helps members obtain a copy of documents such as their social security number, birth certificate, and driver’s license. Aaron shared that Back on My Feet helped him recover his license and birth certificate. In his experience, “Coming from being homeless and having an addiction, you lose track of all those documents and all those things you need to be successful and get a job.”
Homelessness in America is not merely a statistic; it is a complex social issue with far-reaching consequences. It impacts the stability, health, education, and overall well-being of individuals and families. The human toll of homelessness cannot be overstated, and addressing this crisis requires a comprehensive and compassionate approach. Back on My Feet volunteer Nate thinks, “It is alarmingly easy to dehumanize people experiencing homelessness or addiction. It is also easy to think that there is nothing that you can do to make a difference as an individual.” However a memo from the USC Price Center for Social Innovation shares, “those who have access to financial and emotional support are more likely to successfully navigate the transition from homelessness to a permanent housing situation.”
Read about root causes in our blog Causes of Homelessness: What You Need to Know or learn how Back on My Feet addresses the needs of individuals to not simply find housing but a full recovery from homelessness or addiction to regain stability and self-sufficiency through fitness, community, and employment resources.