Why Homelessness is the “That’s their problem” problem that everyone needs to start owning and how we can begin doing so.
(Written just before COVID hit. It was to be part of a series. But the situation has only gotten worse since. And now with GOP darling Caitlyn Jenner citing her neighbor “I’m moving to Sedona, Arizona, I can’t take it anymore. I can’t walk down the streets and see the homeless.” while conversing in her personal hanger. I’m not sitting on it longer. We need to get to work.)
Maybe we should start this conversation by admitting we are snobs. America especially is a nation of snobs.
National Compass’ Tony Wyman puts it this way, “In a country of mansions, peaceful suburbs and trendy, exciting urban centers, nearly 570,000 Americans were homeless in 2019 and hundreds of thousands more, if not millions more, will become homeless this year. “
The majority of people, at first glance of a homeless person, experiences a crawling suspicion: lazy, fake, sick, dangerous, weak, dirty, addict, irresponsible, or any number of other pejorative or uncompassionate, negative thoughts, bidden or not, enter their mind. Even if it’s just for a split second.
We, the lucky, must admit we lack empathy and compassion. Only then can we can learn how to wrap our heads around helping them with their situation. We need to want to understand.
Homelessness … Understanding why
Trying to point to one or even five reasons people become or chose to be homeless is like those small boxes of cheap crayons which only have a few primary colors and trying to use them to reproduce the Leonid Afremov collection.
For every reason we can see there are perhaps dozens of issues, choices, and circumstances that led to them walking out a door for the last time.
I want to touch on just a few of the most common reasons that, regardless of what came before, resulted in these people being on the street.
Profound Mental Illness or Diagnosis of Mental Illness
Mental illness is one of the biggest contributors to becoming homeless. 20-25% of the homeless populations are suffering from a “severe mental illness” and 45% have a history of being diagnosed with a mental illness
Even suffering from common depression makes holding down a job extremely difficult. Social anxieties, PTSD, Schizophrenia, can make maintaining a steady income impossible without support and medication.
There is often inadequate resources, education, and employer cooperation when someone is dealing with these restrictive illnesses which can lead to a person or an entire family losing their home with nowhere else to go.
That this nation’s treatment of and lack of treatment for those struggling with mental health issues is opprobrious and unarguable and would require an article(s) to itself.
Debt and Evictions
Numerous articles have been written in the last few years pointing out and warning us about the debt we carry. Most of us are living on the financial edge, one crisis away from losing everything. COVID was a great revealer of the reality of this.
Minimum wage has barely doubled in the last 40 years while every other expense we face has exploded, most especially housing (more on that later). When a person is living paycheck to paycheck there is nothing left for saving and investing.
Each day is just crossing your fingers that the car doesn’t break down or there are no accidents.
Break your leg – can’t work,
Can’t work – get fired,
Get fired – can’t pay rent,
Can’t pay rent – homeless
It doesn’t even take an injury or major expense. Perhaps your company will go out of business or “restructures” you right out of your position.
It’s not that hard to imagine it happening to us if we really stop and empathize for a moment. Too many people prefer to be judgmental. I had a man tell me once “I don’t understand the homeless. There is always someone who could take you in.” That would be a lovely world, but we live in this one. If that was true, there would be no children awaiting adoption. If people won’t take in a 13yr old or even a 5yr old, they aren’t going to take in a 45yr old.
And for those who would, there are reasons for not being able to such as “Most of us are living on the financial edge, one crisis away from losing everything.” Also, for anyone not owning their own home it would be nearly impossible to get permission from your landlord to have homeless long term “guests.”
Homelessness and the lack of Affordable Housing connection
Housing prices have skyrocketed, and wages have not kept up. On average the US Bureau of Labor Statistics Housing/price-inflation says a house that cost $100,000 in 2000 would cost nearly $160,00 today on average. Even more if you consider that most houses today are selling for tens of thousands above asking price.
Here in Colorado and many other markets, your purchasing power is far less and rental companies as well as private landlords are taking advantage of the fact that most people can’t afford to buy a home but need to live somewhere.
Apartments here average $1300 a month for 2 bedrooms, while in San Francisco, where there is a large homeless population, they run over $3000.
And while there are government programs subsidizing affordable housing, the wait lists are long, hard to qualify for, and there are never enough units.
Also should your income rise due to an increase in pay or a new job and the government feels you can now pay rent off the program regardless of many household expenses you might face (some things such as medical bills are deductible) you are now homeless again.
Some people’s addictions eat up both resources and relationships and land them on the street. Others become addicts once there which makes it incredibly more difficult to recover to a productive and healthy life.
Addiction can be tied to both physical disease (pain medication for instance) and to mental health issues.
Regardless of the cause it is debilitating and nearly devoid of sympathy from those who have never experienced it firsthand.
Nearly 50% of adolescents who are homeless were physically abused by a family member. Up to 70% of women who are homeless were victims of domestic violence.
They flee one form of violence for another as both groups are preyed upon by sex traffickers. Abuse victims are not in the right mind to make good choices.
Fight or flight and the notion that “it’s got to be better than this” while sometimes true – more often just lands them in a different Hell than they were in because the resources to help them just are not in great enough supply.
Often these young people and women are turned into addicts in order to keep them under control, or become addicts to find some temporary relief, further exacerbating the dangers of their situations.
Nearly 40% of America’s homeless are under 18, but a more disgraceful population of homeless is our elderly.
The number of homeless elderly has doubled since 2011 and is expected to more than double again over the next decade .
The ability to find work over the age of 65, the costs of aged care facilities, the inadequate conditions and lack of care in the facilities that run on Medicaid and other government funds leave some to choose the streets over those “homes.”
Having no one to help seniors navigate the services and aide available to them can leave many, especially men who are less likely to ask for help, with nowhere to go.
Neither group is well able to support themselves through employment. Kids cannot obtain private housing and seniors can’t afford it.
How do we fix it?
‘Get thee to a shelter!’ In other words, out of sight, out of mind, is all too often the “cure.”
Communities are taking hard line approaches to herd people without homes to government and charitable resources both in an effort to help them and to “clean up their streets.”
Las Vegas just followed the lead of several other cities to pass legislation making it illegal to sleep on the street. Some take it so far as to make it illegal to even lie down in a public space.
These homeless, the poorest of us, get fined money they don’t have just for sleeping. They can be arrested for lying down. But often there are no open shelters to which they can go. Some shelters only open for over night sleeping in the coldest of weather. Others clear everyone out after breakfast and remain closed all day. There are never enough beds. People don’t stop sleeping just because they lose their home.
Certain members of the government, especially in DC, love to complain about the homeless defecating on streets. But there are no public restrooms. Even churches refuse to allow them inside to use the bathrooms. Anatomy doesn’t change when the locks do.
We hear “don’t give them money” they will buy alcohol or drugs and “don’t buy them food” – they need to go through channels. But the channels are clogged and can be unsafe/unclean/infested.
David Pirtle from Faces of Homelessness Speakers’ Bureau provides a first hand look at life on the streets and in shelters.
So if “shelters” aren’t the answer then what?
Housing First programs are having amazing success both in America and abroad.
“The Finns have turned the traditional approach to homelessness on its head. There can be a number of reasons as to why someone ends up homeless, including sudden job loss or family breakdown, severe substance abuse or mental health problems. But most homelessness policies work on the premise that the homeless person has to sort those problems out first before they can get permanent accommodation. Finland does the opposite – it gives them a home first.”
Housing the homeless not only gives them stability to heal, train, and get employed it saves communities money. It can cost less than half as much to house a person, especially older individuals, than to support them while homeless.
A study in Albuquerque found “For every dollar spent on the program, there’s a cost savings return of about $1.78″
California found that housing individuals could benefit in the areas of reducing communicable diseases, State medical expenses, sanitation, etc. and estimated that a homeless persons use of public services could be cut from over $60,000 a year to $20,000 a year
Too often employers throw up barriers, perhaps not with the homeless in mind, but that work against these individuals. Requiring a permanent address and overly “professional” dress codes can severely hamper their chances of getting hired.
A lack of entry level positions and on the job training also limit opportunities for many. As more communities and individuals decide to implement employment programs this need is beginning to be met and successful programs are being innovated around the world.
In Barcelona, Spain, the city hires homeless individuals as tour guides. Having a steady income allows them to find a place to live and maintain a skill set in the tourism industry.
In America many small businesses hire the homeless for a variety of positions from barista to day labor. Some cities have begun hiring them to clean the streets.
Vancouver, British Columbia, has a program that teaches homeless ages 15-30 construction skills which make them highly employable and most remain in the industry many even moving up to own their own businesses.
Getting these people on their feet, healthy or under treatment, and feeling in control again should be the number one goal. By giving people a roof, a home, and enabling them to be productive you give them back their sense of self-worth and security, and the entire community benefits.
You may still think it’s not your problem. Consider that communities are run on their economies. Getting people to work means getting them to spend money. It means growth and economic benefits for all.
It’s not just less of your taxes being spent on the homeless but means the formerly homeless are contributing to the pot. Communities need to take more in than they put out.
Cities should no more live “paycheck to paycheck” or in debt than households should. It may sound mercenary but if that’s what it takes for some people to care then it’s a fact that can certainly be used.
Understanding homelessness is everyone’s concern. Solving homelessness is everyone’s problem. If you know people who don’t have the heart, or mind to care – then appeal to their wallet.
If they complain about handouts or “why should I have to ‘yada yada’ but they…” then tell them they are free to quit and take advantage of the programs you propose as they wish.
These are people first and foremost. They have inherent value and deserve to be treated accordingly. They need help not judgement.
There but for the grace of God, go I