One day, a young man of about 20 walked up to me on the street and asked me for some change. “I’ve got nothing I can spare,” I told him, “I’m homeless.”

Two homeless people in winter jackets.

The homeless look just like everyone else.

The kid was amazed. “Really?” he asked, tilting his head to the side and studying me carefully. “I would never have thought so. You look perfectly normal.”

“I am normal,” I assured him. “I have human DNA, just like you. But I am homeless. Looks have nothing to do with it.”

And they don’t. In fact, a great many homeless people, perhaps most of us, do not fit the stereotype. We are not alcoholics or drug addicts. We are not mentally ill. We have spent our lives working hard, raising families, paying bills―doing all the things responsible citizens do. Some of us are college educated, and a lot of us still have jobs. But we don’t have a roof over our heads―no place to live, keep our things, and go back to at the end of the day.

Homelessness is growing rapidly in America, and it’s on the rise in other industrialized countries, too. With fewer good jobs, rising costs, and a disappearing safety net, housing―something we used to take for granted– has become, for many people, unaffordable. A fortunate few can bunk in with relatives, at least for a while. But most of us must sleep in our cars, or pitch a tent, or go to a shelter, or hit the streets. Often, we try several of these options in succession, as our resources dwindle and run out. We keep hanging in there, looking for a real job, searching for solutions, and praying for a miracle. Sometimes things get better, but often they do not. With no roof above us, no walls around us, and no locked door between us and the wide world, we are vulnerable―to the weather, to illness, and to violence.

Numerous studies on the rise in homelessness have shown it to be an economic phenomenon. In each of the last ten years, the three leading causes of homelessness were the loss of a job, the high cost of housing, and family breakup. The study also found that each of these three reasons, individually, cause more people to become homeless than all other reasons, combined. What’s interesting here is that these three leading causes of homelessness are actually very mundane things. People have always dealt with the occasional job loss, though the word “occasional” might not fit anymore. Housing has been considered overpriced for decades, and getting divorced is certainly nothing unusual. These are common life events, and we don’t expect them to get us pitched out into the street. But they do.

Nobody knows how many Americans are homeless. Estimates are difficult, especially since many do not want to be counted. We are everywhere, and a lot of us have no trouble melting into the crowd.

After my brief chat with the confused kid on Colfax, my mind wandered back a couple of years, to a time when life had been a bit easier for me. On a radiant fall morning I had pulled into the parking lot of the suburban post office where I always picked up my mail, when a familiar face emerged through the door and came toward me, all smiles. I was delighted to see her―the vivacious, silver-haired lady whose company I enjoyed every morning at the gym, though she had been absent the past few days. She might have been anybody’s mother or grandmother.

“ Hi,” I called, trying not to gush, “ I heard you moved. How do you like your new place?”

“Oh, it should be OK,” she answered, doubtfully, “probably better than this,” she nodded toward her van, “at least for the winter, though I wish there weren’t so many other people there.” Her voice trailed off.

It took me a moment to process. Finally, I answered, “I know what you mean,” indicating my own car, parked next to hers.

She glanced at the evidence―bedding laid out on the shotgun seat, suitcases piled in the back–and a thoughtful look came over her face. “I wonder how many of us there are,” she mused. We laughed and chatted a bit more, before going our separate ways.

Until that day, I had not known that she too was homeless. I never saw her again.

Photo by Nathaniel Rosa released under a Creative Commons Share Alike license.