By Tess Sohngen, Columnist

Children raised in suburbia and wealthy neighborhoods are taught one lesson on how to interact with the inner-city homeless: don’t. Don’t look. Don’t stop and talk. Don’t buy anything from strangers. But the more dangerous lesson is the one deeply embedded in our culture: those experiencing homelessness are in that situation because of a mistake (or many mistakes) they made.

But when 3.5 million Americans experience homelessness each year — over 11,800 individuals in Cincinnati in 2015 (according to The Partnership Center) — with approximately 15 percent experiencing chronic homelessness, the problem of homelessness is not simply a personal problem but a larger public issue.

While issues of alcohol and drug addiction are most often associated with causes of homelessness, those who experience a drug or alcohol addiction make up only 26 percent of the national homeless population. Twenty-nine percent were severely mentally ill, 22 percent were physically disabled, 17 percent were victims of domestic violence, and 12 percent were veterans, according to a 2013 survey by the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ Task Force on Hunger and Homelessness.

However, the two largest trends responsible for the increase in homelessness over the past 20 years are the decrease in affordable housing and the increase in poverty. Those who experience poverty and those demographics most at risk of poverty are also most likely to be homeless at one point in their lives, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless.

Despite the trends that show public issues like poverty and lack of affordable housing, many still attribute the cause of homelessness to be the fault of the individual. In Julie Cronin’s thesis Perceptions and Misconceptions: The Relationship Between Education and Understandings of Individuals Experiencing Homelessness, she argues that people’s stereotypes and ignorance of homelessness are major impediments toward solving social issues like homelessness.

Perhaps the greater reason why people attribute homelessness as an individual problem is our culture of individualism. American culture insists that if an individual sets his mind and his efforts toward a goal, he can achieve that — the American Dream. But with the American Dream comes its sibling value: a personal failure or chronic struggle is due to a personal flaw, which the individual can fix.

Applying these beliefs to homelessness is a mistake when two public issues, poverty and lack of affordable housing, are the two most influential factors that lead to homelessness across the nation. These are not issues which the individual can fix; therefore, homelessness is not a condition which the individual can fix. When this stereotype of homeless individuals as well as other misconceptions of homelessness are overcome, then the community can address and reduce homelessness to what it really is: a public issue.

Researchers from multiple universities call for public policies to respond to homelessness after analyzing data from New York City’s homeless population that has steadily aged for the past 30 years, according to their 2013 article in The Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues. The Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition engages with communities to address the stereotypes of homelessness and the need for public policies to respond to homelessness through programs like Alternative Breaks: Cincinnati Urban Experience, Shanty-Towns, and Voices of the Homeless Speaker’s Bereau that educate young people through participation and storytelling.

Outside of GCHC and other organizations, individuals can break down the stereotypes associated with homelessness on their own. One important response is for people to increase their knowledge about homelessness and those who experience it, either through individual research or more advocacy and awareness campaigns. Another way to fight back against the stereotypes is to engage in positive interactions with those experiencing homelessness. Cronin and other researchers have found that those who have positive interactions with the homeless or those who are more educated on the issue “are much less likely to hold a stereotyped view,” according to Cronin’s thesis article.

The simple act of saying hello to someone on the sidewalk can impact someone’s day. Bonnie Neumeier, a long-time resident of Over-the-Rhine and organizer for The People’s Movement, has acquainted many new and long-time residents through her advocacy work and by greeting people on the streets.

“It’s a way of showing the person ‘you’re not invisible,’” said Neumeier. Going further, she said by showing an individual that he or she is seen and appreciated despite their homelessness, that individual feels that he or she matters and is a part of the community. It is a way of breaking down the stereotypes of homelessness as well as bringing individuals together within a community.

When more children are taught to greet passerby on the sidewalk rather than ignore what our culture has long tabooed, our communities will foster a better understanding and compassion for our homeless population.