Column: Homelessness is a circumstance, not a trait


File Photo by Dylan Shen

The homeless population in Massachusetts increased by 14 percent, or over 2,000 people, in 2018.

Matt Hersey, columnist

Last night, snow illuminated the streets of Northeastern’s campus as I wandered home from a friend’s West Village apartment to my warm room overlooking the beaming city.

Yet, throughout Boston, forgotten residents fell asleep cold and wet. The snow is only beautiful if you have a retreat from it.

Despite ongoing efforts by Mayor Martin J. Walsh to quell the growing population of people experiencing homelessness in Massachusetts, that population rose 14 percent from 2017 to 2018.

The Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless estimated in January 2018 that 20,068 people in the state experience homelessness, the majority being families with children. In a state of almost 7 million, this figure may seem insignificant. But the shocking growth rate should spark alarm.

You would expect that in reaction to these stark numbers, the Massachusetts Legislature would prioritize funds to confront this growing problem. Most bills being currently proposed by the Legislature provide promises toward greater assistance for individuals experiencing homelessness. They fail to address the causes of the problem, namely rising rent costs and gentrification.

This is not to say that our elected officials don’t care about the homeless. But it seems most people would rather push the conversation past homelessness to the next topic.

Homelessness is often considered characteristic. We would rather believe people who live on the periphery of our society are deficient or disadvantaged in some way, mentally or physically. This could not be further from the truth.

Homelessness is most commonly transitional or situational, not chronic. In fact, of the 20,068 people in Massachusetts who experience homelessness, only 2,122 people experience chronic homelessness.

Chronic homelessness is a term used to describe individuals who experience homelessness for at least a year, or repeatedly throughout their lives. These individuals are not homeless due to lack of character or bad decision-making, but often because they live with a mental illness or addiction. Forgotten on the street is the last place they need to be.

Legislation seems to ignore homelessness for two reasons. First, lawmakers and the general public overlook homelessness because individuals who experience homelessness are too easily misconstrued as being lazy and undeserving people, rather than equals who need support and love.

Secondly, homelessness is largely overlooked due to economic or personal finances. People think with their wallets and tend to speak with them as well. Bills that fund community health or community housing raise taxes on individuals who, for the most part, have not experienced homelessness. It is understandable why someone would not want the money they earned taken from them, but if paying taxes means living in a better society, we shouldn’t be afraid of raising them.

No one deserves to sleep outside in the snow, especially not those who need care and attention. Shelters help people transition out of homelessness, but for those individuals who experience chronic homelessness, shelters are a Band-Aid.

We need to recognize homelessness. We need to recognize that people who experience homelessness are not “the homeless.” They are individuals with stories and lives of their own, each with something special to offer.

Wandering home, padding through snow back to a warm room is a privilege we should all experience. The joy of returning to a place you call home isn’t a privilege; it is something everyone deserves, not just those who can afford it.