How do people end up homeless and where can they turn for help? (by Justin Overton)


Justin1I served at Potluck at the Park in downtown Portland and was blown away to see the number of people who were homeless and in need. My previous experience serving food was with St. Vincent DePaul and we saw more families that were struggling rather than people who were homeless. I spent time talking to different people and heard there stories of how they got to where they are now. The stories were diverse. Some people had their lives go off the rails while others seemed to be headed for a life on the streets from a young age. The question I kept asking myself was what would I do if I were in their shoes. What could I do? I didn’t know the answers and I’m sure there are many people who are already on the streets who still don’t know how to get help. That was how I came up with my initial research question. After finishing the rough draft of my blog I felt it wasn’t exactly what I had in mind. I wanted to dig a little deeper so I changed my question to allow myself some room to elaborate. That is how I came up with my final question. This is completely different than I had assumed my question would be at the beginning of the term when I looked ahead at this project but it organically changed into what it ended up as.

There is a common belief in the American public about how people become homeless. They either have mental issues which make it impossible to maintain a job and stable life or they come from a poor family dynamic which leads them to drug abuse. The drugs become the center of their life and they lose everything and end up on the streets. That isn’t even close to the whole story. In reading several articles and checking many websites I was able to find data that shows that many different backgrounds and stories can lead to homelessness.

One of the resources I looked at was the report entitled The State of Homelessness in America. This 80 page report gives enormous amounts of data about homeless populations from 2013-2014. The focus of this document is to give raw data as opposed to opinion or suggestions for improvement. Federal funding to address homelessness in 2015 is $4.5 billion. Estimates of homeless subsets are: total 578000, families 67000, veterans 49000, solo youth 45000. This was written and dispersed by the National Alliance to End Homelessness which was founded in 1983. They are a nonprofit group dedicated to ending homelessness by improving policies and educating the public. This report shows that the homeless population consists of many different groups. It also shows that resources have been allocated to help if you know where to look.

I also read a dissertation by Kay McChesney where she delves into how family units become homeless and attempts to find solutions to get them off of the streets or out of shelters. This chips away at the familiar single story that many have of homeless people. This paper focuses on the Los Angeles area but the number should extrapolate throughout the entire homeless population across the country. Most interesting in this paper was the fact that many of these families had other family that might be able to provide help or a place to stay but lived too far away for immediate help. Dr. McChesney has a bachelor’s degree in psychology, a master’s degree in therapy and a Ph.D. in sociology. She has spent the majority of her career focusing on the factors of poverty around the world.

Perhaps the most insightful piece that I read was an article in New York magazine. This article details the efforts of New York City to reduce the homeless population. They focus on 6 individuals that are homeless and chronicle how they get by with their day to day lives. It again showcases the diversity of the homeless population. They each have their own story and reasons for being homeless. They common thread between all six is that they are aware of available help but choose not to use it for various reasons. This shows that not all homeless people are looking for help but I still believe that we need to do all we can to educate those who do want help. Robert Kolker is a contributing editor of New York magazine and a New York Times bestselling author but the authority of the article comes from the real stories of the interviewees. They are giving their stories of daily life for a homeless community.

I would suggest that anyone who wants to gain a further understanding of how people end up homeless and what it is truly like to be homeless spend some time researching. These were only a few of the resources I looked at and found to be most helpful.

“The State of Homelessness in America 2015.” (n.d.): n. pag. Apr. 2015. Web. 10 Nov. 2015.

McChesney, Kay Young. “Absence of a Family Safety Net for Homeless Families.” Diss. Western Michigan U, 2015. Absence of a Family Safety Net for Homeless Families. Web. 22 Nov. 2015.

Kolker, Robert. “A Night on the Streets.” N.p., 16 Mar. 2008. Web. 22 Nov. 2015.

The problem of homelessness seems daunting. You could easily think there is nothing that you could do to make a difference in such a huge problem but there is. Most organizations that are dedicated to helping the homeless population are run on a volunteer basis and would love to have your help. Whether that is every day, every month or even just once your time and help is greatly appreciated. In the Portland area I would suggest checking the website There you can check for volunteer opportunities and sign up.

I have met some great people with some of the most fascinating life stories while volunteering with the homeless community. I listen to their stories and I am always struck by the many paths that lead to being homeless. I have seen plenty that had what we would call a normal life. A job, a home, maybe a family and a pet but through some circumstance it slipped away. I hear over and over how despair and helplessness set in and they just didn’t know where to turn. The federal government has budgeted $4.5 billion dollars towards homelessness so there are programs if you know where to look. The first step would be to determine what kind of help is needed. These are just some of the resources available to help people in danger of becoming homeless.

If you or someone you know are being overwhelmed with bills you can look to these organizations for bill payment help:

If you or someone you know are in danger of losing your housing these programs can help:


If you or someone you know needs assistance finding housing or healthcare these programs can help:





One comment

  1. DMiller

    This is a very informative piece. You are right, when thinking about the homeless problem and how to solve it, it is a very daunting thought. I had some rough times after my divorce, I often thought if I didn’t have the financial support of my parents, I would be very close to living in my car. I have an education that gave me the skills and experience to maintain a job that paid well and life was still a struggle being on my own with 3 kids. It all can happens so fast. You can really tell that your heart is in this.

    I feel like you struggled with the same issue I did. Your blog reads more like a paper, a beautifully written paper. My first draft read the same way. I spent time reading blogs to understand how to make that transition from essay to blog. I learned it has a lot to do with the first paragraph and how you start it off like you are having a conversation with a friend.Through my process of revising I learned this is not something that comes easy for me. I would of included a hyperlinks to the report and dissertation you mention in the 3rd and 4th paragraph. Other than that, it’s great. I only noticed one grammatical error with ‘there’, one even the best of us make. You list an ample amount of resources for those that need help.

    Thanks for a great, educational read!

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