WRITTEN BY JESSICA PARADYSZ
David Pirtle, the speaker’s bureau coordinator for the National Coalition for the Homeless, spent two-and-a-half years experiencing homelessness because he had schizophrenia and depression.
Pirtle remembers the first night he was homeless, recalling that, “I walked [under] the lights of Manhattan, and it’s funny, the first time I ever saw the Statue of Liberty, was sort of my first night as a homeless person.”
A citizen, who had a job in the restaurant business, suddenly found himself homeless, staring at the Statue of Liberty, feeling abandoned in the Land of the Free.
Since then, Pirtle has focused on advocacy issues surrounding the criminalization of people experiencing homelessness.
According to a 2014 report from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, approximately 20 percent of the homeless population has a serious mental illness or substance abuse issues.
Health care issues and homelessness are part of a vicious cycle. Those who lack access to health care or resources to seek help can sink further into chronic homelessness.
“For one thing, I hadn’t seen a doctor in 15 years because I couldn’t afford health insurance,” Pirtle said.
The National Coalition for the Homeless reports that the homeless population is more susceptible to health-related issues due to increased “exposure to the elements, disease, violence, unsanitary conditions, malnutrition, stress and addictive substances.”
Pirtle needed programs to help him overcome his drug addiction, yet shelters were not equipped with the right resources.
“Anywhere, the summer is pretty deadly. Actually, I knew somebody who died in the shelter I was staying at in Washington, D.C. in 2006.” Pirtle explains that with many people crammed into a hot room, the shelter that was supposed to be a safe haven, “was literally a deathtrap.”
Although Pirtle stole to support his addiction, it is common for homeless people to steal to survive.
Many condemn people for breaking the law, but those who are sick need treatment and it’s either starve or survive.
According to a 2012 U.S. government report, indicators of both homelessness and the criminalization of homelessness have increased steadily in recent years.
For example, 40 percent of the 234 cities surveyed for a 2011 report cited by the U.S. government had an anti-camping ban in at least some public areas, and 16 percent had a citywide ban, effectively making these cities partial or total “no homeless” zones.
“I don’t shy away from telling people that I had to do things that were against the law to survive. I stole food from a convenience store. Whenever I hear about someone who’s homeless and they make the news and they are arrested like, 30 times, it makes him sound like he’s some sort of monster,” Pirtle said.
The reality is the offenses are minor. These people are not monsters.
According to Pirtle, most people experiencing homelessness are fined for jaywalking, public urination or shoplifting food.
In order to survive on the streets, many people experiencing homelessness must resort to petty crimes or breaking the laws of states that criminalize homelessness.
As Pirtle said, “We put people in this position then we judge them for what they’ve done.”
Criminalization and mental abuse can prolong homelessness, yet at the heart of the matter is money and access to services.
Pirtle stated, “The number one cause of homelessness is not mental illness, it’s not drugs, it’s not domestic violence. Those are all up there, but…the reason people become homeless is they simply cannot afford a place to live.”
The minimum wage in America, during the first quarter of 2016, was $7.25 an hour. According to Pew Research Center, approximately 20.6 million Americans are “near-minimum-wage” workers.
According to Decade to Doorways Administrator Lauren Hutzel, ”We have about 615 people experiencing homelessness on any given night in Chester County and they’re not the people you think of when you think of maybe or when you see maybe in NYC or Philadelphia. Chester County is an affluent county, that doesn’t mean that we don’t have homelessness. Maybe that person who, the single mom who moved in with her grandma because her husband left her and she doesn’t have income, but then maybe her grandma passes away and she’s not on the lease so she’s evicted.”
Therefore, the difference between being a homeowner and living on the streets is not as distinct as many might think.
Without sufficient monetary resources to afford a house or monetary support of family members, individuals can fall on difficult times.
“Tens of millions of households are living paycheck to paycheck. If anything happens to stop that flow of money, they end up on the streets. And so it’s easier to pretend that homelessness is a character flaw rather than an economic one. And that way they say I’m not like those people, so it can’t happen to me. Right up until it does happen,” Pirtle said.
According Hutzel, experiencing homelessness can happen to anyone and all Americans should empathize with those in their community instead of shunning them.