Educated and homeless: From Ivy League to life on the streets



Homelessness is defined as a condition in which a person or family lacks a permanent nighttime residence and must instead rely on temporary housing arrangements, or places not regularly intended for human accommodations, like a car, park, or train station.

When homelessness is coupled with disability and becomes long-term, it is known as chronic homelessness.

Last year, the Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress (AHAR) found that on a single night in January, nearly 600,000 people in the United States were without homes. That same month, over 84,000 of these people were chronically homeless.

The Washington Post recently ran a story about Alfred Postell, a man with three degrees, who graduated from Harvard Law School in the same class as current U.S. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. In the 36 years that have passed since their graduation in 1979, Postell’s life has turned out quite differently than Roberts’s: he is homeless.

With degrees in economics, accounting, and law, Alfred Postell is a highly qualified man who now lives on the streets. And, he is not alone; in 2011, the Huffington Post shared a similar story, Maurice Johnson Is Homeless With 2 Master’s Degrees.

Postell and Johnson’s stories indicate an unexpected problem: how do highly educated individuals end up homeless?

According to The Washington Post, economic hardship is not all that uncommon for Americans. A recent article says that, “By age 60, nearly 80 percent of us will have gone through a rough stretch.”

This rough stretch means that many Americans will spend, or have spent, some time hovering near the line of poverty. The article continues, “By the time we’re 60, three in five Americans will have spent at least a year at the bottom.”

How Does a Person Become Homeless?

There are many life events that can contribute to homelessness, both temporary and chronic. Poverty, coupled with lack of affordable housing, is a major contributor to homelessness in the United States. Last year, 14.5 percent of the population was reported to be in poverty.

National Coalition for the Homeless explains that a lack of both affordable healthcare and employment opportunities forces many Americans out of their homes. “If you are poor, you are essentially an illness, an accident, or a paycheck away from living on the streets.”

In the case of Alfred Postell, and many others in situations similar to his, mental illness is a key factor. Roughly one-fifth of the country’s homeless population suffers from mental illnesses like schizophrenia, what plagues Postell, as well as bipolar disorder and depression.

Depression and unemployment often work in a cyclical manner, one worsened by the other. Inability to obtain affordable health care can cause mental illnesses to go untreated for long periods, leading them to become more severe over time.

Other circumstances outside of the economy that contribute to homelessness include domestic violence and addiction.

What Can Be Done

Due to the complexity of homelessness and its causes, the population across the country of people living on the streets is made up of individuals (with and without jobs), families, children, and veterans.

The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) hopes to combat homelessness by acting preventatively, and it cites “unemployment, a health crisis, or the breakup of a family,” as the most common causes.

The plan focuses primarily on five strategies, which include access to affordable housing, along with civic engagement to promote economic and health improvements.

Through these system-based initiatives, the USICH plans not only to help people out of homelessness, but prevent people from falling into it. Without changes on a systemwide level, even a master’s degree cannot guarantee job security and, ultimately, a stable home.