Homelessness is a Disability Issue
September 13th, 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

“Nearly all of the long-term homeless have tenuous family ties and some kind of disability, whether it is a drug or alcohol addiction, a mental illness, or a physical handicap.” — Dennis Culhane, 2010

I spend a fair amount of time these days talking with people who live on the street. I distribute bag lunches three times a week in San Lorenzo Park and on Pacific Avenue in Santa Cruz. I stop and chat with people, and I listen to their stories. People are getting to know me now, and they say hello to me at the drugstore and at the bus station and on the street. Some of them I consider friends; others are just folks I exchange a few words with; still others say very little at all.

The number of disabled people living on the street in Santa Cruz is staggering. Most of the people I talk to are disabled. Either I see their disabilities at first glance or I hear about them when people talk about their lives. The most obvious are the people with visible disabilities: people who use wheelchairs but can only move them by shuffling their feet, people who need wheelchairs but can’t afford them, people who use walkers and push chairs on which all of their belongings are piled, people who are blind but have no cane and no guide dog. Then there are the people who are mentally ill: the ones who talk to the voices they hear, the vets with PTSD, the men and women laboring under severe depression. And then there are the ones with invisible disabilities: the middle-aged man who stims and rocks and self-talks at the bus stop, the older fellow with leg and back injuries, the young man who understands everything but has trouble speaking in words. And of course, there are the alcoholics and the drug addicts, including the ones who line up at the methadone clinic.

When we talk about homelessness, we don’t often talk about the sheer numbers of disabled people living without shelter. And when we talk about disability, we don’t often talk about how many disabled people end up on the street. We don’t talk enough about the ways in which disability puts people at risk of homelessness and about the ways in which homelessness puts people at risk of disability. But think about the level of physical vulnerability involved — the lack of medical care, the lack of decent food, the sexual and physical assaults, the constant vigilance — and it’s not difficult to see how people become disabled on the street. If you didn’t have PTSD before homelessness, you’ll probably have it once you’ve become homeless. If you didn’t have an alcohol problem before you became homeless, you might acquire one just to be able to sleep. If you weren’t physically disabled before you became homeless, you might become so through assault or untended injury. And if you weren’t ill before you became homeless, you might easily become so through chronic lack of sleep.

In Santa Cruz, it is illegal to sleep outdoors between 11 pm and 8:30 am, and in the library at any time. How are people supposed to find their way out of homelessness if they can’t even sleep? It boggles the mind.

And how can anyone can say that all people need to do is to quit being so lazy and get a job? Fine. You want people to quit sleeping outdoors? Find people a job that accommodates their disabilities. Locate accessible housing. Get people the assistive devices they need. Help people hire a support staff. I’m sure that any one of the people I’ve spoken to would be only too happy to sign right up.

The need out there is so great. Our disabled brothers and sisters are crying out for justice.


Culhane, Dennis. “Five Myths About America’s Homeless.” The Washington Post, July 11, 2010. Accessed September 12, 2013.

© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

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