Why Are There Still So Many Unsheltered Homeless?

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All too often those in any nonprofit sector are questioned and that is understood because at some point, we also may have asked the same questions. One of the major questions asked of those serving the homeless population is, if you are helping the homeless why are there so many homeless people still on the street? There is a valid answer to this, actually several and blame should not really fall anywhere; it is simply reality.

Mental health issues are prevalent in the San Bernardino County, and probably even more so in the High Desert. There is no particular reason why, but some these people possibly migrated here since there is more space to set up camp. Mental health can be very minor, with a lot of “regular” working people with families falling into that category. These people often function well in society and run into few difficulties and when they do, most seek professional help. There are others who fall into the moderate to the major mental health condition category. Some of these people are aware of their mental condition but once their medication begins to work they stop taking it because they feel that they are “better”. These people fail to realize not all medication makes you better, mental health medication simply balances and maintains. Others simply can not think clearly enough to know that a mental health condition exists.

When someone is mentally ill and they do not know a problem exists they can act in several different ways. Some of these people are suspicious and show signs of paranoia, others appear angry or aggressive, some forget or never knew they are worth a ‘normal’ life, some are happy being ‘free’, while others may act impulsively. A large group of these people become desperate to feel stable and self medicate using illegal drugs or alcohol. There is help for all of these groups, but not all want the help [yet] , some fear the help, and some are not ready to attempt to stop using drugs or alcohol. There are also a few ready to accept the help but navigating through the system without a lot of support proves to be just too much for him/her. To assist any homeless person, they must be a willing participant ready and able to take the first steps. The law prevents anyone from pulling a mentally ill person off the street for forced help besides for a 5150 hold (72-hour hold), which must be done by family, a boarding facility, law enforcement, or a mental health professional. A 5150 hold is designed to be used only when a person appears to be a danger to him/herself or others and the person is only held until he/she is stabilized. Once stabilized this person is sent back out and usually without support they discontinue the mood-stabilizing medications.


A portion of the unsheltered homeless have a substance use disorder. This is not necessarily something we need to blame on anything in particular. To attempt to solve any issue, blame should be put aside. This is not to say understanding or becoming knowledgeable about why these things happen is not productive. We already talked about impulsivity, this can be a result of multiple mental disorders. This can simply mean when someone else would possibly say “no” when offered alcohol or a drug, this person may say, “yes!  Why not?”  This is not a “bad” person, this person simply has a different thought process than some of us. Another path to addiction could be someone who suffers from major depression or another mental disorder leaving the person more often than not, feeling helpless, sad, alone or simply unstable. This person may or have may not have sought mental health care or medication, but most medications take weeks to work and some may require a change in dose or a change in type. Without constant support, a large portion of these people will feel it is too difficult and give up. The remaining feelings of helplessness or isolation can lead to the desperate measure of trying a substance to feel better for at least a short time. Drug users and alcoholics contrary to the belief of some, are not “bad” or “weak” people.


Of the homeless people you see on the street, a large portion are 290 registrants, meaning they committed a sexual crime (rape, child molestation, etc.). These people are difficult to place even after they served their time. Be honest, would you be thrilled to have one of these people move in next door to your family? Most would not, and the truth is a portion do reoffend. The rate is not as high as one would think, a study conducted by the National Institutes of Health concluded that the rate of recidivism is 10%-15% after five years, 20% after 10 years, and 30%-40% after 20 years. Most homeless shelters, due to the risk to other clients do not accept any sex offenders. There are organizations who will shelter and provide services to this group.


There is a small group who does not seek assistance and sometimes hides from the public because they are afraid to lose their child/children. These families sometimes live out of a vehicle or on the street in temperatures that in the High Desert can be extreme, 100-plus degrees in the summer and as low as 30-degrees in the winter. Homelessness alone is not a reason for a child to be removed from the custody of his/her/their parents. If the parents seek shelter for their child in a safe environment, like a homeless shelter Children and Family Services (CFS) will not intervene unless there are other major concerns (abuse, neglect, and/or parental substance abuse). Few do in fact, qfear losing their children only because of homelessness, but there are some. The majority of those living on the streets with their children do unfortunately fall into one of the other categories and are often already hiding from CFS.

One of the saddest categories, and again, this is a small percentage is those who are homeless with pets. Most homeless shelters, because of size and funding do not have the capability to house pets. High Desert Homeless Services works closely with local rescues in order to provide off-site fostering for the pet of the homeless person. The reason why the homeless person often does not accept the help in this case, is because they feel that the pet is all that they have. They grew to love their pet like a child, their best friend and in many cases their only support while on the cold, harsh, and sometimes dangerous streets.


Homelessness is never a cut and dry subject and there is never the same story for each homeless person. When you talk to a homeless person on the street you probably, just like speaking with anyone else you do not know will not get the exact truth but rather their interpretation. Also, some being in a desperate situation and seeking money, food, etc. may purposely mislead the person listening. If offered resources, some will willingly accept them and thank you, while others will say something like “they all turned me down” or “they are full” when it may not be the case. The best advice is to leave them with a resource list, a simple meal/snack, water, weather appropriate clothing, socks, and other basic needs. Some are not ready quite yet, but with gentle reminders that there are people who would like to help they may one day be prepared to accept that help.