The City Space

Cultivating Urban Understanding

4 Truths You Need to Know About Homelessness Now

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Nearly every city in America is faced with an entrenched problem of homelessness. Whether you see homeless people on your streets or on our televisions, their plight exists at an appalling rate. And yet, our country has also made strides in addressing this issue. Here are 4 truths you should know about homelessness right now, gleaned from my own experiences working in the field, as well as relevant research.

1.  Homelessness affects people in all demographics. The stereotypical picture of a homeless person is an old, scruffy-looking, alcoholic man begging for change by the side of the road. This is simply not the whole picture. The U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) most recent Point in Time Count estimates that across the nation, 1/4 of all homeless people are under the age of 18, and 10% are between the ages of 18-24. In addition, families make up nearly 40% of all homeless people in the United States. People of any race, gender, sexual orientation, religion and age can and have been homeless in our country.

2.  Homelessness impacts every aspect of a person’s life. Homelessness is not just a problem because it means that individuals and families are without a place to go at night. It is also a problem because it prevents people from thriving in numerous areas of their lives: professional, mental, relational, people. When you’re homeless, your ability to apply for and find jobs is severely diminished because you lack access to showers, reliable transportation, nice clothing, a computer (unless you go to the library)–all these building blocks that are important to making a good impression on a potential employer. That’s an automatic setback as a homeless person tries to gain economic stability.

Homeless people also suffer mental health issues at a higher rate than the rest of the population. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 20-25% of homeless people have at least one mental health problem, as compared with 7% of the general population. Mental health issues can be both a cause and an effect of homelessness. These can also lead to relational conflicts with family members and friends.  In addition, homeless people often encounter relational conflicts due to their need to rely on family members for support in tough situations. On the flip side, homelessness can also result in transience–meaning that close friends and family may be cut off from the homeless individual. And tragically, many homeless men, women and children are fleeing domestic violence. These are all ways in which homelessness accompanies family break up and relational conflict. Finally, homelessness affects the physical wellbeing of a person making it challenging to find doctors and access medical services, while also taking a physical toll on a person’s body due to the need to wander and even sleep outside. Overall, it’s clear that homelessness does not just mean “without a home,” but rather, it brings with it a slew of other concerns.

3.  Homelessness is getting better in some places, but worse in others. The next truth you should know about homelessness is that there is hope. New Orleans recently announced its accomplishment of one of the nation’s major homelessness goals: ending veteran homelessness by 2015. They are part of a large pool of cities and states who have made enormous strides in the direction of this goal.  Some other recent successes include an overall decrease in homelessness nationally from 2012 to 2013 (the most recent data available). Family homelessness is down 7% and 31 states saw a decrease in homelessness. However, 20 states saw an increase. Emergency shelters across the nation have consistently been at almost 100% capacity from 2007 to 2013.  I urge you to read up on your own state to see where it fits into this picture, and what policies it has implemented to help end homelessness.

4.  Different solutions work for different people. I wrote last year about how shelters are not a long-term solution to homelessness, yet they are often used as such, with individuals and families bouncing from shelter to shelter for months. Indeed, emergency shelters are really only suited for people who have exhausted all other options and need a temporary place to stay while they figure out their next move. Many individuals who are homeless, particularly those who are chronically homeless (meaning they have been without a home for 1 year or more, or have had several episodes of homelessness) need affordable housing more than they need emergency shelter. They need a permanent solution to a persistent problem. For individuals like this with addiction issues, disabilities or mental health programs, permanent supportive housing is the best option. Supportive housing usually entails affordable apartment-style living with counselors, doctors, and/or case managers readily available to help people work through their challenges.

On the other hand, for a homeless family who is merely low-income and doesn’t have as many health issues, independent affordable housing is the best solution to homelessness. This housing can be provided by a public housing authority, a local nonprofit or for-profit company committed to providing affordable units, or through vouchers that subsidize living in normal market-rate apartments. Affordable housing can also be accessed through rapid rehousing programs like the one I work with, which gives homeless families a rental subsidy and case management for up to a year. Rapid rehousing is a temporary solution to homelessness, and rapid rehousing programs aim to have their clients paying for their own housing within a period of months or years. I detailed some other affordable housing options in this post on Strong Towns.

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The best way to learn about homeless people is by speaking with them, working or volunteering with agencies that support them, and reading relevant research from organizations like the National Alliance to End Homelessness and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. I urge you to explore the stakeholders in your community who are working to end homelessness and familiarize yourself with their tactics to understand what works and what doesn’t. Finally, you can also check out previous posts I’ve written on the topic here.

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