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Mark Anthony DiBello, as told to Charlotte Hilton Andersen, Yahoo! News:

When people think of a homeless person they don’t necessarily think of the guy who not only was a star high school athlete but also has a college degree—yet that’s exactly what I am. I have a Bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of Miami. And I wasn’t the only one out there with similar credentials. There are plenty of extremely intelligent people who, for various life circumstances, end up homeless. And even the ones who may not have a formal education have to get smart in a different way if they want to survive.

It might make you feel better to think that you can pinpoint the reason someone ended up homeless—say, drug abuse, mental illness, or criminal activities—because then you think that by avoiding those things you’re safe. In some respects that isn’t wrong and there are many homeless people who struggle with exactly those things. But the truth is that everyone makes bad decisions sometimes and whether or not your bad decisions end in homelessness has a lot to do with privilege and luck.

Hollywood and TV shows give the homeless a bad rap, making them look like murderers and rapists, but the majority are simply trying to find food and shelter—just like you. You don’t need to be afraid of the average homeless person, you’re far more likely to be hurt by someone you know.

When you have no safety net, the tiniest issue—an unexpected medical bill, an illness or injury, a lost wallet—quickly balloons into an emergency that can make you homeless, or if you’re already homeless, make your life infinitely worse. An example I like to share is when I was living in my car. One day it got towed for a parking violation and once you’re towed, you’re done. There are towing fees, impound fees, parking fees… before long you owe $2,000 on a $600 car. So now you don’t have a car or any of your stuff that was in it and you’re stuck sleeping out in the elements. Sleeping outside makes you get sick which leads to other problems… One tiny mistake can spiral into a life-ending problem.

I can’t tell you how many people I saw die from a lack of simple medical care. A cut, a broken bone, or an illness left untreated can become infected and deadly very quickly. Once, when I was being mugged, my attacker broke my jaw. I tried to manage but the pain was so immense I couldn’t eat or sleep. The ER did set my jaw, thankfully, or else I probably would have died from it. While you may think that hospitals are required to treat everyone, they discourage you from coming in for little things; when they do help, they don’t always do a complete job. They just want to help you enough to get you out of there, not to help you get better.

When you think of everything you need to be healthy, a dentist isn’t usually the first thing you think of. But your teeth are an essential part of survival. Unfortunately, when you’re homeless, simply taking good care of your teeth is tough, much less getting dental care like root canals or crowns. Between a steady diet of junk food and a lack of access to toothbrushes and floss, many homeless people have to deal constantly with rotting, painful teeth. And when your teeth hurt, everything is harder.

Escaping homelessness, once you’re trapped in the cycle, is incredibly difficult, and resources to help the homeless are terribly underfunded and under-served.

When someone has so little, it doesn’t take much to help. You can start by not judging the homeless. Don’t say that they deserve to be in that situation—no human being deserves that. After that, donate to causes that support the homeless in your community, like local churches, job outreach programs, or other charities.

Paul Ciano

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