A lack of a support system.
Did my answer surprise you? I bet you were thinking it’d be something like “unemployment,” or “mental illness,” or “addiction.” While these issues certainly exacerbate someone’s homeless experience, the underlying cause is related to not having an adequate personal support system.
Think about it for a moment. If something tragic unexpectedly happened to you, I bet you could quickly think of ten people you could turn to for help. Maybe an extended family member? How about church friends? Co-workers? I’m not just talking about emotional support, though that’s very important. I mean tangible assistance – a place to stay for a week, help fixing a car, money for rent and groceries. For many of us our support system is strong. However, for those experiencing homelessness this support doesn’t exist or has eroded. Yes, sometimes people burn bridges through their choices and behavior. But sometimes the cards are stacked against them in the first place – for example, many youth age out of foster care with no support system at all. No wonder they often end up in homeless shelters or on the streets.
So, we have to help people experiencing homelessness address their immediate basic needs for shelter, clothing, and food. We also have to help them connect to programs and services that offer addiction recovery, medical care, and mental health treatment.
But to end homelessness we ultimately have to fix the root cause by helping people build their own personal support systems.