Most homeless people tend to live in groups outside of any shelter system. They create camp like communities where up to hundreds of homeless live, so long as the city allows it. Even those homeless who don’t “camp” are often found traveling in groups with other homeless people. Even in some shelters the homeless are required (forced really) to live in what is called community with other homeless people – they do so under threat of losing their shelter bed for not participating in the community.
As part of the design of some rehabilitation programs, the homeless live in close proximity with each other. Many in the homelessness industry believe that part of homeless people’s problem is that they’ve rejected society, or have not learned how to get along with others in a community setting. (actually it is their community that rejected them, making them homeless, but thats a post for another day).
Seeing homeless people living in these large camps is misleading because the homeless don’t create such community because they want to live that way, but only because it is necessary for survival. There is safety in numbers. There is also the benefit of networking with other homeless people to keep apprised of services for the homeless, for knowing where the next feeding will be, for learning that some shelter has closed down for the weekend, without having to trek the 3 miles to find out it’s doors are closed, etc.
For addicts, living and traveling with people with similar addictions increases their ability to get a drug fix when they need it, drunks are more likely to share a drink with a fellow drunk knowing that the offer might be reciprocated. That’s important because suddenly being without a drink can cause an alcoholic to sober up too quickly, giving him the DTs, or suffering other dangerous ailments.
The myth part is that, outside the confines of homelessness, very few of these people would ever consider being in community with other people who are or were homeless. There is nothing quaint or endearing about a homeless camp. Often times people living in the same camp will actually despise each other, and will avoid each other at all costs. There are several people who pitch camp where I do, but we never talk to each other unless it’s to discuss what to do with a disruptive neighbor. That’s more reflective of the benefits of living in a homeless camp. Other benefits include less thievery and fighting, if only because of the many eyes and ears near by.
Still, there are no happy campers in a homeless camp. If given the choice, the homeless would not camp near other homeless people.
From time to time you’ll witness homeless people looking out for each other, or even in documentaries about homelessness, they often highlight that particular aspect, as it comes across as endearing. But it’s still not what people really want, because it’s still the result of being excluded from the rest of society.
What is really best for the homeless, and what is right morally, is for all of society to remain open to, and accepting of, all homeless people. Doing so would certainly make transitioning back into mainstream society easier and quicker, and less damage would be done to the homeless, physically and emotionally.