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US Homeless May Choose Self-Esteem Over Services

Reuters Health (02/18/2002)

By Alan Mozes

NEW YORK — Even with shelters and soup kitchens available to them, many homeless men and women in the US regularly pass up free food, clothes and lodging. Now one researcher suggests that many of the homeless choose to fend for themselves to preserve a sense of integrity and self-esteem--often placing emotional needs ahead of practical ones.

“It’s not denial. They know those services are out there, and they know that some people need them. But they choose not to need them,” said Dr. Randall E. Osborne of Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos. “They say: ‘I don’t need them, because I’m taking care of myself.”’

Osborne studied the issue in interviews with 97 homeless men and women in Austin, Texas. The researcher assessed each individual’s sense of self-esteem; the words they used to describe their identity; how many times they had attempted to get off the street in the past year; how many homeless friends they had; and how many times they had used social services not related to food over the past year.

In the current issue of the journal Self and Identity, Osborne reports that many of the interviewees strongly identified themselves as “homeless”--a self-perception that he said prompts both negative and positive behaviors.

For example, those who most strongly identified themselves as “homeless” were less likely to use social services or to make any attempt to find permanent shelter. Individuals who most strongly embraced a “homeless identity” used social services fewer than three times a month, Osborne said, while those least willing to identify themselves as homeless used such services about 13 times per month.

Why might some homeless reject such services? According to Osborne, individuals who most strongly identify themselves as homeless tend to place emotional needs above more practical concerns--putting the need for independence and self-respect ahead of the need for clothing, food, medical care and shelter.

The researcher also points out that a strong sense of “homeless identity” was not always a function of how long the individual had been on the street. In fact, he often found a strong sense of homeless identity among individuals who had been on the streets for less than 16 months.

The findings may be a wake-up call for those running social programs, many of which have “paternalistic” attitudes toward the homeless, Osborne said. Programs must take into account the different approaches people have to life on the street, he said, so that their struggle to make ends meet can be aided without compromising their sense of dignity.

“Homeless individuals are human beings first,” Osborne told Reuters Health. “And all human beings will do almost anything to maintain a sense of integrity. And sometimes that means homeless persons will choose a harder life, in order to maintain a sense of integrity.”