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Why do people become homeless?

If you have driven any streets in Nashville, it’s likely you’ve seen someone experiencing homelessness. For those of us who are fortunate enough to have housing security, the idea of becoming homeless can be difficult to understand. You might think, “how does someone let it get to that point?” You might assume there is a form of addiction or mental illness present, and while that may be true in many cases, the truth is there are a variety of circumstances that lead to someone becoming homeless.

According to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, the three main causes of homelessness are lack of affordable housing, unemployment, and poverty. It doesn’t take a law expert to see that those three things are extremely closely linked.



It’s no secret that housing prices in Nashville have skyrocketed, making it almost impossible to survive on a minimum wage salary. For those who experience an unexpected expense, what little they may have had in savings is depleted, and eviction is a very real possibility. Where do you go when you can’t find affordable housing?

Catrina’s story is an example of this reality. Catrina and her daughter, Jamarya, found themselves in need of a place to stay after eviction. Catrina has a full-time job and works while Jamarya is in school, but they needed shelter until she could get back on her feet by saving money and furthering her education. Sadly, her story is not uncommon.



With so many “NOW HIRING“ signs around town, you might wonder how unemployment could be an issue for anyone in 2022. There are certainly jobs for the taking, but how many of them can pay a livable wage with the cost of living increasing at an exponential rate in Nashville? The issue is complex and creates a Catch 22 for many: you need a job to secure shelter; but you can’t afford shelter with the pay rates offered for entry-level positions. What if you don’t have reliable transportation? What if you don’t have childcare? What if you lose that job? Most Americans don’t have months of expenses saved away and when someone loses their job (like in a pandemic) it doesn’t take long to go through the money they do have. Even if someone doesn’t lose their job, a new monthly expense, such as a medical bill or rising gas prices, can create a situation where they simply aren’t making enough money to meet their basic needs.

Unfortunately, there are many misconceptions around homelessness and employment, which can influence how those experiencing homelessness are treated.

Paul’s story is one example of how someone could go from employed businessman to someone without a home. When plants started moving overseas, Paul’s work changed. He went through a difficult divorce and saw the job market dry up at the same time. He came to Nashville to start over and began working day labor jobs while searching for his next career opportunity. Time and time again Paul kept hearing he was overqualified for the jobs he applied for, and that next career opportunity never came. In no time at all, Paul was unable to pay rent and found himself at the doors of Nashville Rescue Mission.



It is probably fair to say every person reading this article has some connection to addiction or mental illness, whether that is through a friend, a family member, a loved one, or personal experience. At the Mission we often say addiction does not discriminate, and for so many families, that is true; no one is immune to battling the disease of addiction.

But, we would be remiss if we did not say addiction goes hand in hand with a cycle of poverty, as does mental illness. And while there is not definitive causation between poverty, addiction, and mental illness, there is a correlation: the stress that poverty causes. Living in poverty is hard—it is stressful; it creates feelings of low self-esteem and hopelessness, and drugs or alcohol help numb those feelings. Homelessness itself is real trauma.

And if you know anything about drug or alcohol usage, you know addiction often perpetuates financial instability, and makes it difficult to rise out of poverty, sometimes forcing addicts into homelessness and a vicious cycle of deprivation and mental and physical decline—all of which makes it even more difficult to manage a job, a household, or a relationship.

Joshua’s story is an example of how poverty and addiction can go hand in hand. He grew up with alcoholic parents, and he eventually began using alcohol to cope with the many struggles of his childhood. Diagnosed with depression at a young age, Joshua found he couldn’t continue to escape his sadness with alcohol and began using meth. With no family to go to, Joshua came to Nashville Rescue Mission.


Of course, everyone’s story is different. Some people become homeless because they escape domestic abuse, others fall into depression after a trauma, some struggle with mental illness, and yes, some people succumb to addiction. But taking the time to understand how someone came to be in the situation they are in helps us see them as human and not just another homeless person sleeping on the street.

“Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself’.”
Matthew 22:36-39

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