Opinion: Stigma creates unfair perception of homeless students

By Marina Gutierrez

Students on campus can be judgmental when it comes to homeless people on school grounds. 

They should not be judgmental because they might be surprised that their classmates fall under that same status.

A young man walks around campus wearing tattered clothing and worn out shoes,  and no one notices. An old man with stained clothes, torn up sandals and body odor gets judged and accused of making others uncomfortable. 

In reality, both are homeless: one is a student who lives in a car and the other, who for a variety of reasons, lives on the streets. 

Do people fear homeless individuals because they perceive them as dangerous and unstable, or is this fear a result of societal biases and our tendency to judge others based on their appearance? 

According to the Public Policy Institute of California website, 4.1% of students in the state experienced homelessness at some point within the last school year. That’s a total of 246,480 people. 

In partnership with the non-profit Shower of Hope, ELAC  offers the Housing Hope program to students in need through the Student Health Center. 

There are multiple requirements needed to receive assistance in housing. 

Students must: 

  • be between the ages of 18-26 
  • enrolled in 9 units or more 
  • minimum GPA of 2.0 must be maintained  
  • have a minimum of nine units
  • commit to a minimum of 15 hours of volunteer work per week if unemployed
  • must apply for financial aid.

Student Juan Rodas said he was accepted into the program. 

“I don’t openly tell other students I’m in the program. I know people are quick to judge, and I just feel really lucky to have gotten accepted. 

“I know other students here who didn’t meet the requirements. They are living in their car or have nowhere to go,” Rodas said.

The truth of the matter is not everyone gets similar opportunities. 

A young man that does not get housing can easily turn into an old man on the streets.

More often than not, society uses the rhetoric that being homeless is a choice. 

There are numerous factors that lead to being homeless. 

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, 31% of the homeless population report having a chronic mental illness. 

“A lot of people on the streets suffer from severe mental health issues that causes them to not be able to work. This often leads them to a life of poverty and eventually the streets,” psychology professor Bryant Horowitz said. 

Learned helplessness is a psychological term that refers to when an individual continuously faces a negative, uncontrollable situation and stops trying to change their circumstances, even when they have the ability to do so. 

“It could be that mental illness leads to poverty or living a poor lifestyle leads to mental illness,” Horowitz said. 

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, 24% of these mental health conditions are related to chronic substance abuse.

Horowitz then spoke on the direct connection between mental health issues and substance abuse.

“Addiction literally changes the chemistry of our brain—and our brain is saying we can’t live without this substance which leads to mental health issues. 

“On the other hand, many who are already diagnosed with a mental illness turn to substances to self-medicate. This could then make their mental illness worse,” Horowitz said.  

Veterans often fall into substance abuse after returning from war or from injuries sustained in war. 

According to the results of the Housing and Urban Development’s 2023 Point-in-Time count, the number of veterans who experienced homelessness in 2023 rose by 7.4% from the previous year to 35,754.

Student-veteran Joe Godales said he thinks some veterans end up on the streets due to lack of outreach from available resources. 

“I know a lot of people who come back and aren’t able to adapt to life outside of the military. The Department of Veterans Affairs does help, but the problem is a lot of people are not aware of the resources. 

“There needs to be more outreach. Overall, I think the homeless veteran population is accredited to the trauma they endure, self-medicating, and lack of support,” Goadles said.  

We have been taught to fear drug addicts and those who are mentally ill rather than offer help and resources. 

Yes, homeless people can be violent. In fact, there has been numerous attacks or inappropriate acts made by them on multiple college campuses. 

Crimes involving homeless people tend to make up a larger share of violent crime.

According to the article, “What is really going on with homeless crime? We crunched the numbers” written by ABC7 data analyst Sophie Flag and Grace Manthey, about 11% of violent crime in the city of Los Angeles involves a homeless person. 

However, there’s a difference between committing a crime and walking onto a campus to get a drink of water or to wash your hands. 

When a homeless person is on campus, panic tends to arise. 

Students should not judge others by their appearance; they could be sitting beside such homeless people every day. 

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